Monday, July 05, 2010

Why I Love The Band

Over the weekend I went to see a "tribute band" who perform only the music of great 'sixties and 'seventies rock band known simply as The Band. It was a good show and a loving tribute. The audience was an interesting mix of old-timers like myself and a surprising number of young folks who clearly knew and loved the classic music. Anyway, I should mention that the name of the tribute band was The THE BAND Band. What else?

Their mission is to "present the music of The Band in a manner true to its original style and form, evoking the sound and the spirit of their live performances." They did just that. Seeing their show reminded me of how much I love The Band. I've been singing their songs all weekend.
I post a lot of music to this blog, but I have not written about music much. I thought I'd change things up a bit today by putting in words just why I love The Band and why I think they were the greatest rock and roll ensemble ever. But first, give a listen:

I have always said that I like music that shows its roots, and Ophelia is a good example of that. The Band came along when psychedelic pop was reigning on the one hand, while self-involved singer-songwriters held forth on the other, and in the midst of all this The Band produced a body of work that was as unpretentious as a pair of muddy boots. Their music was made of stories, characters, blues riffs, dance hall riffs, circus calliope riffs, Beat poetry, and passionate harmonies. Mostly Canadians, they dragged rock and roll kicking and screaming back to its original impulses, back to its Delta birthlplace.

But that's not all. They were, for a time, a remarkably co-operative band, creating ensemble music that did not feature a "star" front man. The lead singer might be Levon on one verse, bassist Rick Danko on another, and keyboardist Richard Manuel on yet another. They didn't just play music, they truly "shared" it.

"The Weight" might have been the first "Band song" I ever heard, but it wasn't their version. It was Aretha Franklin's amazing rendition that caught my attention at the age of fourteen or so. By the way, I also love this string band version by Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, on stage with Old Crow Medicine Show.

Another unique characteristic of The Band's music was its persistent sense of the sheer drama of the human condition. American and Canadian history informs some of their best music. This sort of thing is common enough in country music, where there has always been a strong sense of passing on an inheritance of music and stories, generation to generation. The Band re-enlivened that same sensibility in rock and roll, with songs like Evangeline, The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down, and Acadian Driftwood. The first of these is a kind of Mississippi riverboat waltz, beautifully staged by Martin Scrocese for The Last Waltz:

Acadian Driftwood is in my opinion one of the highpoints of The Band's songbook. It is sung convincingly from the very inside of the story, a story that is still too little known outside of Canada.

Well, this post is getting awfully long, but I can't end my personal tribute to The Band without featuring the great Rick Danko. His vocals had a sweet but weary innocence. I love his spirit.

Over the years I've been rather amazed at how many great musical artists who came of age in the late sixties would later say they were greatly influenced by The Band, and especially their groundbreaking album, Music from Big Pink. Early Elton John, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, EmmyLou Harris, and many others. Their songs have been covered many times with great love and respect.

Creativity is the great culture-wide churning of everything that has been along with our primal longings and highest visions for the future, all somehow filtered, distilled, refined, into the narrow frame of a song, a story, a picture, a combination of words, a riff, that somehow creates in itself a kind of still moment, a place of fleeting balance.

They were Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, and Levon Helm. The were The Band.


speculator said...

Right on, brother.

Robbie Robertson produced some great music on his own- in the early 90s.
And don't forget Daniel Lanois (especially his album, "Acadie.")
Lanois connects The Band with U2.

Milton Stanley said...

And remember, Levon Helm is a Southern boy. As far as I'm concerned his voice as much as any single factor made The Band The Band. Peace.

Bob said...

I completely agree. I love Levon's voice. He gave The Band great authenticity.

Erin Hope said...

oh man. nate just played that song, ophelia the other night. ...except he couldn't remember all the words.
:) but it sounded good.

Bob said...

I wish I'd heard that!