The Band: The Band (1969)
Glenn: I should probably admit up front that until about six months ago I had no feelings whatsoever for The Band. Sure, they rocked it with Dylan, and I’d seen enough of The Last Waltz to be glad that punk rock was able to dispose of the coke-crusted cremains of dinosaur rock (seriously, there’s so much self-congratulatory bullshit smeared all over the celluloid that it’s hard to see what’s happening). But I’d never been interested in The Band’s music, per se. At best, they provided fodder to late-night acoustic guitar jams (“The Weight,” “Up On Cripple Creek”). At worst, they seemed to typify all that was wrong with rock: way-too-sorrowful ballads, pretentious romanticizing of rural life, too-earnest singing, “funky” but actually leaden drumming, bad organ solos (there’s a special place in hell for “Chest Fever,” ugh). I hated their version of “Long Black Veil” — and I hated that my brothers always tried to play their too-damn-slow version instead of the superior Johnny Cash version.
Suffice it to say that I was blaming The Band for things beyond their control. Just because one can hear the roots of Journey and Foreigner in “Chest Fever” doesn’t mean that The Band is to blame. In fact, they should be celebrated for their very real accomplishments and general awesomeness. I was blind, but now I see.
With their self-titled second record, The Band came into their own. Their music became a perfect fusion of soul, country, rock-and-roll, light psychedelia, blues, and gospel. And they did it not only musically, but lyrically as well. Check out “When You Awake.” At first it seems to be a countryish ditty about the wisdom of old folks. But it morphs into something…else. What to make of the convoluted syntax of the final line of the chorus? “When you believe, you will relieve the only soul that you were born with to grow old, and never know.” Perhaps it’s a song about how we can never know ourselves — or each other. And yet that bridge! It sends the song off into prophetic, gospelish territory, or something. It’s as if the narrator of the song suddenly grows up, accepting his fate with hard-earned hope.
It’s this kinda of cheesy yet honest excitement that The Band garners. What are y’all’s favorite moments on this record?
Phil: I’m gonna confess, I love (x3) “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Maybe I’m a sucker for a wordless chorus, but there’s something about singing the story of an underdog, an honest underdog, that makes me (and I assume many others) just fall in love with a song. The way the chorus is slightly delayed really pulls me in and completely envelops me in the world of that song.
Other moments include the little hit after they sing “King Har-vest has sure-lee come.” It makes the song for me. And I think “The Weight,” while grossly overplayed by format radio and drunken college a-holes alike, is gracious and heartfelt on this record. [Glenn: Just to be clear, “The Weight” is on the earlier Music From Big Pink.]
I will not, however, defend the latter-era Band for its crimes of melodrama and wankery. This is probably the only Band album I will ever own (except, for some reason, I have Rock of Ages on LP).
Oh, and Bobby Bare’s version of “Long Black Veil” is a masterpiece of understatement. In a good way.
Adam: I don’t know what it is about this album, but I always get bored when I listen to it. I do like several of the songs, and “Look Out Cleveland” has become my de facto soundtrack while staring out the window in an airplane on its descent into Grand Rapids, MI. Something about the backbeat coupled with the lyrics which are sort of travel related makes the song fit in that context very well. I’d have to say, then, that my favorite moment on the album is the drumming and the chorus in “Look Out Cleveland.”
Despite my lack of enthusiasm for this album, I don’t hate The Band. I like all of the individual members, especially Levon Helm, and I have a newfound appreciation for “When You Awake” thanks to Glenn, but this album loses my attention after about 15 minutes. I have never listened to Music From Big Pink because I’m afraid of the same result. I’ll get to it one day, I am sure, but I’ll stay away from their later albums.
Glenn: See, and that’s funny, Adam. While Music From Big Pink does tend to bore me, The Band reveals new secrets with almost every listen. This is a record that distracts me from whatever I’m doing (cooking, reading, blogging, whatever), because there is so much happening under the surface — weird touches in the lyrics, cool organ and Clavinet bits, clipped guitar licks, powerful rhythms. I can’t tell you how many onions have gone unchopped because this record is on.
Suffice it to say, then, gents, that our feelings on The Band and The Band are positive, albeit mixed. And yet when “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” comes on the box, that wordless chorus is going to render our pussyfooting and hand-wrung criticism lame.
What do you say? Can you recommend the record without reservations?
4 Essential Tracks:
“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”
“When You Awake”
“Look Out Cleveland”
“King Harvest (Has Surely Come)”