“The Band” by The Band (1969)
From left: Manuel, Helm, Danko, Hudson, Robertson
The cover of the Jan. 12, 1970, issue of Time magazine features an illustration of five somewhat menacing-looking men, with the heading: “The New Sound of Country Rock.”
The quintet had released its second album four months earlier, to impressive sales – it reached No. 9 on the Billboard 200 – and tremendous critical reception.
The Band’s “The Band” represented a departure from rock music to that point. The album contains a series of tuneful vignettes seemingly taken from the annals of American history. Ironically, 80 percent of The Band was Canadian, including chief composer Jamie (Robbie) Robertson.
“For the rest of the year, the press treated us like gods,” recently deceased singer and multi-instrumentalist Levon Helm recalled in his autobiography, “This Wheel’s On Fire.”
Certainly, The Band is legendary in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll, but all the attention and accolades might seem like an anomaly in retrospect.
That’s probably because the band couldn’t live up to the bar set by “The Band.” The follow-up, 1970’s “Stage Fright,” drew a good bit of praise; the next album, “Cahoots,” didn’t. Then there was veritable silence, with just a live LP and a collection of cover songs during the next four years. Then came a decent studio effort before a star-studded concert that was made into a movie brought proceedings to a halt.
Certainly, The Band’s debut, “Music from Big Pink,” still holds esteemed status 44 years after its release. But it’s the sophomore effort that stands as the crowning achievement for Robertson, Helm, the late Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and the late Richard Manuel.
The album opens with sparse musical accompaniment to Danko’s plaintive voice, the intro to “Across the Great Divide,” in which Robertson writes about an individual embarking on the great American journey toward Manifest Destiny. As the song develops into a jaunty, melodic number, the protagonist displays the type of initiative that is bound to make his countrymen proud: “I had a goal in my younger days, I nearly wrote my will/But i changed my mind for the better, I’m at the still, had my fill and I’m fit to kill.”
“Rag Mama Rag,” the song to which Time may have been referring with the “country rock” claim, takes a fun-filled approach to the eternal issue of male-female disconnect, with Helm’s assertive lead vocal a stellar match for Robertson’s lyrics: “I ask about your turtle, and you ask about the weather/Well, I can’t jump the hurdle, and you can’t get together.”
Helm summons the lamentations of a century past in his native Arkansas – he was The Band’s token American – with “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Robertson actually researched the subject matter before penning a tune that could easily be mistaken for a Reconstruction period piece. As he tells it in Martin Scorcese’s “The Last Waltz”:
“When I first went down South, I remember that a quite common expression would be, ‘Well don’t worry, the South’s gonna rise again.’ At one point when I heard it I thought it was kind of a funny statement, and then I heard it another time and I was really touched by it. I thought, ‘God, because I keep hearing this, there’s pain here, there is a sadness here.’ In Americana land, it’s a kind of a beautiful sadness.”
Manuel teamed up with Robertson to write “When You Awake,” a bittersweet childhood reminiscence mixed with the travails that life eventually presents: “The snow’s gonna come and the frost gonna bite, my old car froze up last night/Ain’t no reason to hang my head, I could wake up in the morning dead.”
If you’re disturbed by reading that line and knowing that Manuel committed suicide in 1986 by hanging himself, you’re not alone.
Cheer up by listening to “Up On Cripple Creek,” in which Helm boasts of his affair with Little Bessie before returning to his “big mama” after getting tired of “living on the road.” One of the best-known songs in The Band’s repertoire, it also represents the group’s pinnacle of success in the singles market, rising to No. 25.
“Whispering Pines,” another Manuel-Robertson composition, sees Richard returning to the high-pitched, pained style of singing that became his staple with “I Shall Be Released” on “Music from Big Pink.” It also features unsettling lyrics, in the context of his life and death: “If you find me in a gloom or catch me in a dream/Inside my lonely room there is no in between.”
The tone turns upbeat again with “Jemima Surrender,” with helm hitting heavily on the title character: “I hand you my rod and you hand me that line/That’s what you do, now, we ain’t doing much fishin’ or drinkin’ any wine.”
The spare arrangement for “Rockin’ Chair” suits the subject matter, of a 73-year-old sailor who muses about sitting at home in Virginia with his friend Willie instead of dying aboard his ship.
“Look Out Cleveland” captures the mood surrounding an impending apocalyptic storm, while “Jawbone,” the final Manuel-Robertson song on the album, is the most upbeat musically of the lot. The lyrics still are on the depressing side, about a petty criminal who says he likes what he’s doing but keeps winding up in jail.
Robertson again evokes the 19th-century South in “The Unfaithful Servant,” in which the song’s narrator compares his situation involving a woman to an Antebellum affair involving a slave: “Makes no difference if we face away/It’s just as it was, it’s much too cold for me to stay.”
Closing “The Band” is another concert staple, “King Harvest (Has Surely Come),” in which a farm worker hopes for the best despite such potential obstacles as drought, fire and a union strike.
Not a bad snapshot of life in the American heartland for (mostly) a bunch of Canadians.