The Sunday Dozen: The Band

The back cover of Cahoots by Richard Avedon.

As a kid, I’d read about The Band in the music magazines of the day: Creem, Crawdaddy and Rolling Stone. But I never heard them until I bought a copy of Cahoots in 1971. I was smitten from the first notes of Life Is A Carnival: “Run away, run away–it’s the restless age. Look away, look away–you can turn the page.”

I began to explore The Band’s back catalog and saw the original group live as often as possible. I got in serious trouble with some friends at a CSNY stadium concert for declaring that The Band blew them off the stage. The Neil Young fan girls among my friends were not amused. I love CSNY, but The Band remain one of the greatest live acts I’ve ever seen.

I made it to The Last Waltz, but their best live album is Rock Of Ages hands down. I have long argued it’s the best live album ever recorded, and I say that as a devout Deadhead.

What made The Band so great? The songs. They told so many wonderful stories set to such marvelous melodies. Their output is comparable to Johnny Mercer in an earlier generation.

Another thing that made The Band special was the fact that they had three great singers: Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, and Rick Danko. Add Robbie Robertson’s high, raspy voice and you had some of the greatest harmonies this side of The Beatles or Beach Boys.

I refuse to get in the middle of the Robbie-Levon dispute. Robbie was stingy with sharing his songwriting royalties, which caused resentment on Levon’s part. And Robbie’s refusal to participate in the regrouping was another sore point. As we all know from our own lives, there’s nothing worse than falling out with someone to whom you were once close. Been there, done that.

It’s a shame that Robbie and Levon weren’t able to patch things up before Levon’s death. In the fine documentary Once Were Brothers, Robbie describes sitting with Levon in his hospital room as he lay dying. Levon was unconscious and didn’t know Robbie was there, but it was important for his former bandmate to represent. R.I.P. to Levon, Richard, and Rick.

This was another tough one. I started off with 25 songs and winnowed it down to 12.  As usual, the list is in chronological order and reflects my own taste.

There’s a notable omission: The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. It fell at around #20 on my original list. While I don’t think it’s as problematical as some, it’s sung from the perspective of a Confederate veteran. I don’t think of Levon or Robbie as lost causers any more than I think of Warren Zevon as a con man because of Mr. Bad Example. It’s a first-person story song, the narrator in such a tune doesn’t always reflect the views of the songwriter. That’s my two cents.

It’s time to use my best Bill Graham voice: On drums and vocals, Mr. Levon Helm; on lead guitar, Mr. Robbie Robertson; on piano and vocals, Mr. Richard Manuel; on bass and vocals, Mr. Rick Danko and on keyboards Mr. Garth Hudson.

Ladies and gentlemen, The Band.

Nobody sang mournful songs better than Richard Manuel. Tears Of Rage was the first of many sad songs recorded by the pianist and vocalist extraordinaire.

The Weight is one of The Band’s most famous numbers. I like it better live:

Across The Great Divide has one of the best opening lines in rock history: “Standin’ by your window in pain, a pistol in your hand.”

Pain and menace go hand in hand. Let’s join hands and go across the great divide.

The Brown Album original of Up On Cripple Creek is terrific but I adore this live version from The Last Waltz. Why? Rick Danko’s harmony vocals are the cherry on the musical sundae.

Time To Kill is one of The Band’s most joyous tunes. It’s one of many songs that benefitted from the 2020 remix of Stage Fright by Bob Clearmountain. I prefer the running order as well. Good job, y’all.

The Rumor is a song I’ve used many times over the years as a last word: “It grows and grows, where it started no one knows.”

Allen Toussaint’s music was featured in this week’s Friday Cocktail Hour and Saturday Odds & Sods. He did the swinging horn arrangements for Life Is A Carnival.

Speaking of Richard Manuel and sad songs, The Moon Struck One is one of the saddest, most plaintive songs in The Band’s repertoire.

Acadian Driftwood tells the tale of the Acadian migration from Quebec to the Gret Stet of Louisiana. It’s Robbie’s finest history song.

Speaking of sad songs, Rick Danko could milk every bit of emotion out of a song. The best example is It Makes No Difference.

The Saga Of Pepote Rouge’s political lyrics are somewhat obscure but it contains a great lead vocal by Rick and sublime interplay between Robbie’s guitar and Garth Hudson’s organ.

Jubilation was the last album released by the regrouped, uh, group. Book Faded Brown got it off to a strong start. The funeral images evoke a John Ford film, always a good thing in my book.

The Band’s covers were legendary. They had the old school attitude that songs are meant to be played and enjoyed. Their all-covers LP Moondog Matinee was savaged by the critics but is one of their best records.

The Band Covers Half Dozen

Don’t Do It is the first song on Rock Of Ages. It starts with a Danko bass line followed by a blasting horn section. Good stuff.

Share Your Love With Me is another sad song with lead vox by the late Richard Manuel.

Allen Toussaint wrote Holy Cow. Say no more.

Even before working with Martin Scorsese, Robbie was a film buff. The Third Man is one of my favorite films and contains one of the most unique scores in movie history. The theme song is pretty darn good too.

Georgia On My Mind was recorded in support of the 1976 Carter-Mondale campaign. That must have given its composer, the ardent right-winger Hoagy Carmichael the vapors or even conniption fits.

Atlantic City is a Levon-centric cover of a Springsteen song. Levon sings lead and plays mandolin. It was one of the regrouped, uh, group’s finest moments.

It’s lagniappe time with three covers of classic songs by The Band.

First up, Aretha Franklin takes a load off with Duane Allman on slide guitar.

Joan Baez’s cover of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down was a big radio hit. Joan is not exactly a lost causer.

Finally, Little Feat rocking Rag Mama Rag:

That’s it for this week. I’ll let Levon, Garth, Robbie, Rick, and Richard have the last word.

3 thoughts on “The Sunday Dozen: The Band

  1. I can never put my finger on it exactly, but The Band is one of those artists that transcend “good” or even “great” into something different. This is solid work doing something that’s really tough, picking 12 songs from a group that has so many great songs.

    1. Timeless is the word. The song I most regret omitting is Smoke Signal. But I didn’t want to post more than 2 tunes from each album of original material.

  2. Surprised nothing from The Basement Tapes made your list. “Katie’s Been Gone” is such a beautiful, sad, haunting song…

    Thanks for the post!

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