The Band are arguably one of the most uniquely, and tongue-in-cheek, named outfits in music. The name came about because they honed their skills as the backing to Ronnie Hawkins and, more famously, as Bob Dylan’s backing musicians in his divisive “electric” US and world tour in 1965 and 1966 before striking out on their own.
Their first album, Music From The Big Pink, was based on The Basement Tapes that they had recorded with Dylan, and Dylan wrote and contributed to several of songs featured on Music From The Big Pink, including “I Shall Be Released”. Their second effort, the eponymous The Band, however, was an entirely in-house creation, with most of the song writing credits going to Robbie Robertson.
This includes the album’s opener, “Across The Great Divide”. As an opening track, “Across The Great Divide” is perfect for setting the tone of the album, both lyrically and musically. Lyrically the song tells of Molly, “standin’ by your window in pain, a pistol in your hand”, and the song’s title has been taken to refer to the possibility of achieving the American Dream after crossing the great divide.
These lyrics reflect The Band’s status as a concept album, with tracks about life in the American South, a theme notably continued on songs such as “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)”.
Musically, the fast tempo and variety of instrumentation on “Across The Great Divide” are classic The Band, with a large part of their success coming from the individual mastery of their instruments by the different members, arguably essential in a band without a recognised frontman.
The album then launches into “Rag Mama Rag”, one of the most ‘goodtime’ songs featured in The Band. Featuring a change up on the instruments, Levon Helm, the drummer, plays mandolin on this track, with Richard Manuel on drums, and bassist, Rick Danko, on the fiddle, the song nevertheless quickly settles into a joyful ragtime groove, which encourages foot tapping and dancing perhaps more than any other song on the album.
Following “Rag Mama Rag” is The Band’s most renowned song, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”. Telling the story of Virgil Caine, a Confederate soldier during the Civil War, it justly ranks as the 245th best song of all time according to Rolling Stone.
The tempo is appropriately slow, and the instrumentation arranged well and performed expertly, but the song really succeeds on the strength of Arkansas native Levon Helm’s vocal performance. This conveys superbly the sorrow of the defeated Confederate everyman, and thus gives “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” a real emotional power, and rawness.
When listening to the song, one can easily imagine the down-trodden Virgil Caine, and it is impossible not to feel sympathy for him, as part of the human flotsam left by war.
Next is “When You Awake”, a fairly simple ballad. Not one of the more memorable of The Band’s tracks, it does nevertheless possess merit. Danko’s vocals give the song an emotional bedrock, and Garth Hudson and Manuel’s ragtime organ and drums make the song an interesting listen.
Following “When You Awake” is “Up On Cripple Creek”. A joyous song, of a “drunkard’s dream”, the track tells the story of a trucker and his girl, ‘Little Bessie’, who is the aforementioned drunkard’s dream.
The song benefits from Levon Helm’s ever engaging vocal style, and Hudson’s clavinet played with a wah-wah pedal, which would later become a staple of funk, but in 1969 was a new technique. This coupled with a tight rhythm section, performed ably by Helm and Danko, lends “Up On Cripple Creek” an enjoyable, and funky, groove.
“Whispering Pines”, the next track, provides a significant change in tone. After the funky “Up On Cripple Creek”, “Whispering Pines” commends itself on its gentle melodies, and a vocal performance by Manuel, joined in the last verse by Helm, that conjures effortlessly heartbreak and despair.
The Robertson penned lyrics aid the song’s emotional pull, with imagery of lone foghorns, empty seas and the whispering pines that give the song its title.
“Jemima Surrender”, the song that kicks off the album’s second half, is a return to the joyful, toe tapping rock and roll that made The Band such excellent live performers. Robertson’s catchy guitar is central to the song, and gives it a vivacious vibe, that reflects The Band’s musical debt to southern roots rock.
“Rockin’ Chair” is a slower, more wistful song, telling of an aged sailors desire to be at home, in his rocking chair. It continues the album’s tradition of storytelling, about Americans nearer to the bottom of society than the top, and wrapping those stories up in pleasing vocal harmonies, in this case performed by Manuel and Danko.
“Look Out Cleveland” provides an interesting departure from the general musical tone of The Band, beginning with a boogie-woogie piano riff performed by Richard Manuel. This reflects the track’s more bluesy sound, compared with the rural influences that are generally prevalent throughout the other tracks on the album.
Robertson’s guitar also has more bite than in previous tracks, and he plays on an electric rather than an acoustic, unlike on most of the other tracks. This all leads to “Look Out Cleveland” providing an enjoyable, albeit brief, departure from the sound of The Band, and illustrates the range of musical styles The Band were able to deploy.
“Jawbone” is a song that succeeds because of the dominant triumvirate within the song, Manuel’s voice and piano, and Robbie Robertson’s guitar. The repeated riff is a catchy one, and Manuel’s vocals complement it, creating an enjoyable, if fairly simple tune.
The next, and penultimate track, “The Unfaithful Servant”, returns to the slower and more pensive tone of “Whispering Pines”, although the vocals are performed by Rick Danko instead of Manuel. Like Manuel however, Rick Danko’s vocals have an air of fragility, which is what lends the song its noteworthy pathos.
The final track on the album, is also one of its finest. “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” tells the story of an unfortunate farmer, voiced by Levon Helm, and his continuing ill luck, which includes his barn burning down and his horse, Jethro, going mad, and his hope that union work will improve his lot. Helm’s vocals capture perfectly the image of a rural southern farmer, doubtless aided by his own experience growing up in Arkansas.
Robbie Robertson’s guitar, once again electric, is also superb on this track, indeed in the opinion of this reviewer, his performance on “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)”, which is understated yet still able to provide a complex and enjoyable backdrop to Helm’s vocals, is second only to his work on “The Weight”, which appears on Music From The Big Pink.
The Band is a great album, in part because of its music, but mostly because of its storytelling. This is best represented by “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”. This incarnation of the song sounded unfamiliar at first, having first encountered it on The Band’s recordings of their famed Last Waltz concert.
Despite that, the swell of emotions behind the song, particularly Helm’s vocal performance, remain as powerful. That emotional power is the strength on which The Band’s greatness as an album rests upon. Though consummate musicians, The Band are at their very best, when they use their music to tell stories.
A remastered edition of The Band’s The Band can be purchased from iTunes here.
Words by James Smith