Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Band: HIstory and Album Guide

The Band never achieved the fame of legendary rock bands such as the Beatles or Rolling Stones, but in the opinion of critics and fellow musicians, they were one of the greatest bands to ever play rock music. The music of the Band was an amalgam of diverse traditional American styles such as country blues, electric blues, gospel, R&B, and country music fused with rock and roll.

Among roots rock bands, the Band likely employed the greatest number of influences. They became known as purveyors of “Americana” despite the fact that this group was 80% Canadian. Guitarist Robbie Robertson, pianist Richard Manuel, bassist Rick Danko, and organist Garth Hudson all hailed from Southern Ontario in Canada. Drummer Levon Helm, the sole American member, was a native of Arkansas.

When Arkansas rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins moved north to Toronto in the late Fifties with Levon Helm in tow, events were taking shape which would lead to the creation of the Band. Once settled, Hawkins began to recruit local musicians to flesh out his band, the “Hawks.” Future members of the Band, Robertson, Danko, Hudson, and Manuel joined the ranks of the Hawks. Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks toured North America and recorded throughout the early sixties until the Hawks decided to leave their leader behind. The Hawks, minus Ronnie Hawkins, continued to tour and recorded and gained a reputation as a great bar and club band.

During the mid-Sixties, the Hawks made their first recordings without Hawkins under the names, the “Hawks” and the “Canadian Squires,” laying down superb rockabilly on the singles, “Leave Me Alone,” and “Uh-Uh-Uh,” and folk rock with “The Stones I Throw.” These singles are available on the superb Band retrospective, “A Musical History” (2005).

By the mid-Sixties, the Hawks were ready for a new challenge, and an opportunity soon presented itself. Bob Dylan had recently “gone electric” and needed a band to support him on an upcoming tour. Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman had been informed by his Toronto-based secretary that the Hawks would be a good fit for Dylan. Grossman arranged a meeting between Dylan and Hawks guitarist Robbie Robertson. Dylan and Robertson hit it off, and soon the Hawks were Dylan’s new rock band. The Hawks embarked on a tour of Europe with Dylan which was filled with stadiums of surly fans who resented Dylan for abandoning folk music for rock. The Hawks were vilified by many of Dylan’s fans as accomplices in this unforgivable crime.

Following the tour, Dylan and the Hawks took up residence in the bucolic arts community, Woodstock, New York, in a pink house which would become famous as “Big Pink”. Dylan and the Hawks wrote and played new material together in the basement of Big Pink and recorded their creations on primitive reel to reel tape. These recordings would be released in 1975 as “The Basement Tapes.” Some critics hailed the release as one of the greatest albums of American popular music.

Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel were also busy writing songs during the Big Pink stay, and in 1968, the Hawks, now dubbed, “The Band,” recorded their first album, “Music from Big Pink.” The album was a modest commercial success and yielded a minor hit, “The Weight,” but it met with critical raves for its variety, originality, and rustic charm. The Band followed it up with the release of perhaps their best album, “The Band,” the following year. This album was even more rustic than the debut and featured tremendous songs by Robbie Robertson including, “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Robertson wrote almost all the material on “The Band” and had begun to wrest creative control of the group.

Throughout the early and mid-Sixties, The Band continued to release solid albums, but they never again reached the artistic heights they achieved on the first two releases. “Stagefright” (1970), their third album, featured the minor hits, “The Shape I’m in” and the title track, “Stagefright.” “Northern Lights, Southern Cross” (1975), “Moondog Matinee” (1973), “Cahoots” (1971), and “Islands” (1977) all have fine moments and are worthy of the Band’s reputation. “Rock of Ages” (1972) is a fine double album of live material culled from The Band’s 1974 tour. Bob Dylan’s album, “The Basement Tapes” (1975), is a collection of the recordings he made with The Band in the basement of Big Pink, and includes several excellent tracks of The Band without Bob Dylan.

In 1976, The Band decided to give their final concert and retire from touring. Their final concert took place at the Winterland Theater in San Francisco, and Martin Scorsese filmed the proceedings as part of his film tribute to the Band, “The Last Waltz.” The soundtrack from the film is an outstanding collection of music from The Band and their many special guests including Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, and Bob Dylan.

The Band-1969