11 June 2018 | Steven Hyden | Pitchfork
Harvest was also considered, as the record was conceived as a concept album about the South that begins with the promise of spring and ends with the make-or-break finality of the fall, when a farmer pleads for deliverance from financial ruin in “King Harvest (Has Surely Come).” As it turned out, the Band left Harvest behind for friend Neil Young, who used it for his commercial breakthrough nearly three years later.
The Band surely is a record obsessed with America, made by a mostly Canadian quintet who explored this country’s roots right as the U.S. became politically and culturally unmoored in the late 1960s.
Harvest would have worked as well, given Robertson’s burgeoning literary pretensions. But ultimately, this record needed to be called The Band because it’s about the Band—how these men worked together, the way their personalities intersected and completed each other, the very architecture of their friendship.
The album dispels all of the assumptions we carry about how bands are supposed to work—the songwriter is all-powerful, the rhythm section is the supporting cast, hierarchies are inevitable. The Band instead operates on a paradigm in which the power comes from the bottom up and authority is dispersed evenly among compatriots.
Maybe all of the players in a band can be on equal footing, and not merely back up the resident genius. Perhaps the singers, who inspire the songwriter and transform his lyrics into colloquial truths with salt-of-the-earth nonchalance, are paramount.
And what if that “resident genius” archetype is a myth anyway, compared with the reality of musicians who work together in obscurity for years until their collective telepathy makes them stars? The Band was once treasured as a communal hippie fantasy, the epitome of the era’s anti-consumerist back-to-the-land proselytizing. Except, for a while, the members of the Band truly excelled in a utopian, all-for-one, one-for-all setting. Their signature album is the closest that classic rock comes to pure socialism.
This selflessness doesn’t come at the expense of each member’s individuality. On the contrary, the five figures staring out from The Band’s brown and sepia album cover are as recognizable as the cast members of your favorite movie or TV show. From left to right, there’s Richard Manuel, the broken-hearted piano player; Helm, the indomitable drummer; Rick Danko, the affable bassist; Garth Hudson, organist and mad-scientist multi-instrumentalist; and Robertson, the guitarist, songwriter, and self-appointed orchestrator.
That album cover is arguably just as influential as the music on The Band. For years afterward, wannabes would don mustaches and bowler hats inside countless bars and juke joints as an attempt to replicate what the original articles came by honestly, back when nobody cared and all these five guys had was each other.
The idea was to rent a house in the Hollywood Hills and find a happy medium between the homespun naturalism of the unreleased “basement tapes” recorded in upstate New York with Bob Dylan in 1967, and the austere slickness of the Band’s 1968 debut, Music From Big Pink, which was made at top-flight studios in Manhattan and Los Angeles.
The guys wanted to get back to the informality of the Dylan sessions, so they looked for a place to create their own world free of industry professionals and “engineers and union people,” Danko later told Band biographer Barney Hoskyns. “We’d be thinking Harveyburgers, and they’d be thinking caviar.”
The Band chose a scenic mansion that had once been owned by Sammy Davis Jr., and spent a month setting up a recording studio in the pool house in the backyard. (It was a far cry from the backwoods fantasia the album evokes, the guys really wanted to get out of New York for the winter.) Meanwhile, they lived together in the main house, drawing straws to see who would get which room—egalitarianism pervaded every aspect of the Band. After an 8-track console and other equipment Capitol Records shipped over were installed, they crammed two months of work into the remaining four weeks.
Each day started at around 7 p.m. when the musicians assembled to rehearse and work on getting the sounds right. Then they would eat a good meal, after which they finally began recording at around midnight, working until dawn. At Manuel’s request, producer John Simon procured amphetamines from a neurosurgeon pal up in San Francisco to keep the band’s energy up.
A photo in the album’s liner notes shows how the Band was set up in their makeshift studio—Hudson and Manuel sit at their keyboards on the perimeter while Robertson, Danko, and Helm hold the middle. The guys stare up at the camera like it’s a stranger who has suddenly intruded on a private moment.
They were children hanging out in the world’s coolest treehouse, best pals who spent weeks trading jokes and shooting pool, and then imbuing their freewheeling spirit into the ultimate “hang out” album that they happened to make in the process. That sense of togetherness, and the possibility of a counter-culture in which each person is crucial and valued as such, is what makes The Band so seductive. You want to crawl up inside of this record and bathe in the warmth of the enviable bond at its core.
It’s not always clear who’s singing or playing what. Take “Rag Mama Rag”: The drummer sings and plays mandolin, the pianist is on drums, the bassist plays fiddle, the organist plays piano, and the album’s producer is on tuba, supplying the song’s de facto bassline. There’s “Rockin’ Chair,” in which the Band’s three singers—Manuel, Helm, and Danko—weave their voices in and out of conventional harmony, typical of a conversational vocal style referencing the call-and-response cadence of gospel as well as back-porch mountain music and countless barroom sing-alongs.
The brotherhood vibe carried over to subsequent recording sessions in New York City. “Jemima Surrender,” a rare co-write for Robertson and Helm, rides a loose and swinging groove supplied by Manuel, once again subbing on drums. Compare the driving yet carefree “Jemima” to the absolutely lethal “Up on Cripple Creek,” recorded at the same session, in which Helm’s lascivious vocal—and Hudson’s pre-”Superstition” clavinet riff—plays against Helm’s relentlessly funky half-time backbeat, later sampled in the early ’90s by Gang Starr. And yet, no matter where each person happened to fall in a particular song, The Band always performed as a family unit, with everyone pitching in to accomplish the task at hand, often in subtle ways that wouldn’t be apparent to anyone else.
Unlike virtually every other major rock act of its time, the Band did not live and die by guitar heroics, even though Robertson had proven on Dylan’s 1966 world tour with the Hawks that he was more than capable of quicksilver blues leads, like B.B. King having early premonitions of Eddie Van Halen. But on record, he aspired to the velvety restraint of Curtis Mayfield, always laying back, allowing only occasional solos, like on “The Unfaithful Servant,” when he felt compelled to pick some acoustic lines after being so moved by Danko’s stunning first-take vocal.
Years later, when Helm publicly feuded with Robertson over songwriting royalties, the irascible drummer couldn’t dispute that his estranged guitar player had, in most instances, indeed set pen to paper by himself while his bandmates were likely off carousing somewhere. Helm’s argument was more nuanced, positing the relative value of writing versus execution. Robertson might have done the former, but Helm was responsible for the latter. He took Robertson’s songs and turned them into living history.
This complementary dynamic is on display in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” about a Confederate soldier named Virgil Cane who’s resigned to a downtrodden life as a poor farmer after the Civil War. It is one of the songs on which Robertson based his reputation as a budding Serious Rock Songwriter—he aped ancient American folk forms like his mentor Dylan, and successfully composed a new tune that felt like it was already 100 years old, while also commenting obliquely on the class and regional divides that are seemingly eternal in this country.
Today, “Dixie” and the empathy it has for defenders of Southern slavery makes it a thorny listen. But the tenderness and pain in Helm’s voice stand apart from Robertson’s words as an eloquent expression of profound sorrow, the type of immutable loss that’s passed down from generation to generation, as both birthright and original sin. It’s possible to both question whether a song like this needs to exist, and appreciate how Helm’s naked hurt transcends it.
Robertson is less the mastermind of The Band than a director and screenwriter, tailoring roles that play to the strengths of his of three leading men. For the sweet, humble Danko, Robertson (with an assist from Manuel) wrote the album’s most charming song, “When You Awake,” a romantic callback to the Big Pink days, which makes Danko’s wised-up turn in “The Unfaithful Servant” later in the album all the more affecting.
Manuel was the most versatile singer in the Band. On “Across the Great Divide” and “Jawbone,” he plays the captivating rogue. (Manuel’s yelping delivery of the chorus of “Jawbone”—“I’m a thief, and I dig it!”—is the album’s single best line reading, both hilarious and heroic.) But Manuel was more often typecast in the Band as the forsaken wanderer. On “Whispering Pines,” the emotional black hole at the center of The Band, which Robertson co-wrote with Manuel, his quivering tenor captured the sound of utter, near-hopeless desolation.
“If you find me in a gloom, or catch me in a dream/Inside my lonely room, there is no in-between,” Manuel sings. Hudson’s organ trails him like a concerned friend, and Helm calls out desperately during the chorus. But Manuel’s sense of isolation is impenetrable. That he expresses such extreme alienation from within the confines of this perfectly balanced ensemble, rounded out by some of his oldest and dearest confidants, makes “Whispering Pines” almost unbearably melancholy.
Manuel later died, by himself, inside of a hotel room, giving “Whispering Pines” a thoroughly dispiriting subtext. And the Band eventually devolved into acrimony, addiction, petty jealousies, low-rent one-night stands in nowhere-towns, and more premature deaths. Now, when people think about the Band, the most common reference point is The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s iconic concert film about the group’s would-be farewell show in 1976, in which Robertson is placed at the center and Manuel is barely visible. Hierarchy had finally been imposed.
And yet the power of the Band’s second record is such that it can make you forget all of that for about 40 minutes. If all things must pass, even iconic bands and intractable friendships, that just makes those brief, glorious moments long ago when five singular spirits became one all the more precious.
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