The Band hit the ground running when they started their independent recording career in 1968. They had already played for years as a backup band for Canadian rocker Ronnie Hawkins, and had performed for a while on their own, as Levon and the Hawks. Among musicians, they were considered at the time to be the best live band around. It was this reputation that earned them the invitation to play behind Bob Dylan on his first tour featuring electric guitars and full rock instrumentation.
When they began recording as an independent group they were on retainer to serve as Dylan’s backup band whenever he wanted them. This arrangement gave them the freedom, for the first time in their lives, to relax and write music of their own.
The music they began producing was like no other. Their standard instrumental line-up included two keyboards — piano and organ — in addition to the usual electric guitar, electric bass and drums. Garth Hudson was a wizard on the organ, coaxing sounds from his instrument that had never been heard before. Robbie Robertson was an acknowledged master of electric guitar, but after playing loud solos for years, his approach on The Band’s recorded work was more subtle and refined. Except for Robertson, all of the Band’s members played multiple instruments, so accordion, saxophone, trumpet, tuba, mouth-harp, violin and mandolin all graced their recordings, in addition to their usual instruments.
The Band’s lyrics were also unusual. Levon Helm grew up in Arkansas, while the other Band members were all Canadian, so they lacked the American big city perspectives of New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco. Their words were devoid of rebellion against an older generation, protest about any facet of current affairs, or any suggestions of drug use. Instead, their songs were about characters from the country, and often from the past. Their lyrics were obviously influenced by their work with Bob Dylan, but Robertson acknowledges other influences as well, from other narrative forms.
… I was just as much influenced by Luis Buñuel or John Ford or [Akira] Kurosawa. I got this hunger for education and knowledge because I hadn’t gone to school [since] I started with Ronnie Hawkins when I was sixteen. So I started to read a whole lot and I started to see these kinds of films. I got into all kinds of mythologies, European, Nordic…it influenced me in a style of story telling. (Bowman 1989)
Also of note was their singing. Three of the five sang, and they often sang together, and traded off on lead vocals, sometimes on a single song. While all three — Levon Helm, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko — had distinctive voices, they also seemed to come from the same mold: rough-hewn, with country accents. Their vocals combined the natural, speaking/shouting feel of the blues with the harmonies of old country music.
All of these various talents were carefully balanced to produce their recordings. Rather than having a single characteristic sound, they chose the best instruments, voices and styles for each song, crafting a unique gem with each track. Robbie Robertson remembers that the group was after a particular sound for each of their songs.
... the song is becoming the thing, the mood is becoming the thing. Up to this point I’ve been harping on Bob Dylan, on everybody about this sound, and I don’t mean electronic trick sounds. All of that plays a part but there’s a vibe to certain records, a quality, whether it’s a Motown thing or a Sun records thing or a Phil Spector thing. [Bob] was saying, “Who cares about that? I’m only interested in the lyrics.” Well, that’s not the way I felt about it at all. (Bowman 1989)
It is interesting to note that Robertson refers to certain sounds that were characteristic of certain producers or studios, yet in the context of The Band’s work, he is talking about choosing the right sound for each of their songs. This is clear evidence of rock’s use of recorded work as input to the creative process, and of rock’s ability to use other’s recordings as a palette of effects that can be applied as needed.
Drummer Levon Helm remembers it this way: “We would start working on a tune, and the song would dictate who would sing it and who would play supporting roles.” (Weinberg)
It is unfortunate that the group only produced two albums of consistent quality. After that, dissension within the group, financial disputes, management problems, substance abuse and lack of personal discipline prevented them from again achieving the ideal conditions that had produced their two masterpieces. Their later albums still included some notable achievements with individual tracks, however.
Although it may seem that The Band had little to do with the usual rock theme of liberation, in truth they were much about liberation from individual identity. At their best, they were able to transcend their individual musical personas in order to achieve an unrivaled cohesion as a group. In a similar way, they sang convincingly about American characters of all sorts, losing themselves in the lives and stories that surrounded them. The inner photo of The Band from their first album represents this condition visually, with the group surrounded by their families — including parents, grandparents, and children — so that the musicians themselves become nearly lost in the crowd.
Original Release Date: 1989
Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)
This two-CD compilation features the best songs from their catalog. Nearly every one of the 33 tracks is a gem worth having. Even if you end up purchasing their entire first two albums, listed below, this collection is worth having for its summary of the remainder of The Band’s career. Eleven of the tracks are from their first two releases, with the remaining twenty-two coming from their other albums.
Original Release Date: 2000
Rating: 4 Stars (Recommended)
While these are almost all good tracks, this single-CD collection is a bit skimpy. If you can only afford one album by The Band, then this is the one to get, but you’ll be missing a lot of great music.
Original Release Date: 1968
Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)
This debut album by The Band features cover art painted by Bob Dylan, as well as three songs at least partially penned by him. His influence is evident in many of the other songs as well, whose writing credits are shared by Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel. Also included is a cover version of “The Long Black Veil,” a country tune that has an older feel to it.
While the group’s second album is sometimes viewed as the group’s best, it is easy to make a case for this first collection as well. “Tears of Rage,” “The Weight,” “This Wheel’s On Fire,” and “I Shall Be Released” are all essential recordings, and every other song on the album adds to the collection. The lyrics on this album are a bit more adventurous and less literal than on the second, perhaps showing the influence of Dylan. This was a ground-breaking album when first released, and it still stands today as a monumental accomplishment.
Original Release Date: 1969
Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)
The Band’s second album stands out for two reasons. First, the songs when taken together cover an astonishing range of American history and character, including the fall of the South in the Civil War, the civilization of the American West, the retirement of a sailor, the amorous adventures of a trucker, the approach of tornadoes in the Midwest, the end of slavery — the list goes on. This simple catalog doesn’t do the collection justice, as each song is an exquisitely etched portrait of a uniquely American time, place or character.
The second notable attribute of this album is the attention to detail given to the recording of every song. John Simon was credited as co-producer on this album, as well as playing several instruments, and he deserves much of the credit for the way each track was delicately crafted with vocals and instruments best suited to each song. Robbie Robertson and John Simon had begun planning the recording sessions for this album on a week-long trip to Hawaii. Most of the recording was done in a makeshift studio put together in a pool house, part of the property in the Hollywood Hills that they were renting from Sammy Davis Jr. The Band took up residence here, giving them the time and focus necessary to get all the details exactly right. The drums used on the album were an old set with wooden rims found in an L.A. pawn shop, on a shopping expedition by Levon Helm and Garth Hudson. The group thought they provided the perfect sound for this album that was so focused on America’s past. (Bowman 2000, The Band)