The Band

      Music From Big Pink (Capitol, 1968)
      The Band (Capitol, 1969)
     Stage Fright (Capitol, 1970)
    Cahoots (Capitol, 1971)
     Rock of Ages (Capitol, 1972)
    Moondog Matinee (Capitol, 1973)
     Northern Lights—Southern Cross (Capitol, 1975)
     The Best of the Band (Capitol, 1976)
    Islands (Capitol, 1977)
     The Last Waltz (Warner Bros., 1978)
    Jericho (WEA/Rhino, 1993)
    High on the Hog (WEA/Rhino, 1996)
     Jubilation (WEA/Rhino, 1998)
    The Best of the Band, Vol. 2 (WEA/Rhino, 1999)
      Greatest Hits (Capitol, 2000)
      A Musical History (Capitol, 2005)

The Band didn't have a bona fide star, but the first two albums from the mostly Canadian outfit are essential influences for almost every country-rock band that followed, from Little Feat to Lucinda Williams to Uncle Tupelo. While honing their chops as backup players for the Arkansas-born rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, the Band developed a strong sense of their roles as musicians and singers. They also heard a lot of tall tales about the American South that would inspire their later music. When the group left Hawkins to eventually back Bob Dylan during his mid-Sixties transformation from acoustic folkie to rock poet, guitarist Robbie Robertson and keyboardist Richard Manuel absorbed Dylan's literary approach to songwriting. In 1967, the Band moved into a country house (dubbed "Big Pink") in upstate New York, where they came up with the songs for their extraordinary first album.

Music From Big Pink introduces a group with a clarity of vision that had never before been heard in rock & roll. Made while the Beatles were downing LSD and writing about tangerine dreams and marmalade skies, Big Pink was remarkably simple and direct, right down to the tiniest details. In the opening track, "Tears of Rage," the sensitivity and grace of the singing and nuances of each instrumental brushstroke underscore the desperate plea of a father saddened by his daughter's hotheadedness: "We carried you in our arms on Independence Day/And now you'd throw us all aside and put us all away."

From Robertson's stinging Stratocaster leads to Levon Helm's raunchy drumming, Rick Danko's down-home bass lines, Manuel's gospel/R&B piano playing, and Garth Hudson's majestic, churchlike organ textures, it seemed at times as if the Band was trying to work up a soundtrack for Democracy itself. But it was Robertson's remarkable ability to match the songs with the right voices—Helm's Southern twang, Danko's mournful croon, or Manuel's haunting tenor—that elevated the Band from a great musical ensemble to first-class storytellers. Big Pink is basically a collection of tales about ordinary Americans—as powerfully and gracefully painted onto a musical canvas as Twain's characters were written into books. The album's most famous track, "The Weight" encapsulated the mood of the album and of the times, offering a simple tale of human vulnerability in a time of great upheaval. It's also one of all-time great songs to sing with drunken friends in a bar.

Robertson and company expanded on their reputation as American storytellers on The Band. Kicking off with the sweeping "Across the Great Divide," the group's second album combines uptempo songs (the rural dance tune "Rag Mama Rag" and working-class allegory "Up on Cripple Creek") with more delicate personal meditations (the ethereal solitude of "Whispering Pines" and bitter betrayal of "Unfaithful Servant"). This time, Arkansas native Helm's influence on Robertson's songwriting is evident, and his voice is more prominent on the album. His Southern drawl gives credibility to "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," a populist anthem written from the bitter perspective of a proud but powerless Civil War soldier.

With the success of the Band's first two albums came the by-products of fame: substance abuse, exhaustion, grandiosity, and greed. As a result, Stage Fright found the Band slipping. Robertson's songwriting took a more personal turn as he dealt with the psychological toll on his group. The highlights—"The Shape I'm In," "Daniel and the Sacred Harp," and "Stage Fright"—reveal a growing sense of anxiety and cynicism. While the playing—especially Hudson's evocative organ and accordion parts—remains first rate, the sharply detailed character sketches of the first two albums are in shorter supply.

Cahoots is a near-total wash. The carnivalesque atmosphere of the music and cinematic sweep of the lyrics never completely gel. Only the lead-off track, "Life Is a Carnival," "4% Pantomime" (with a guest spot by Van Morrison), and Helm's gorgeous interpretation of Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece" deliver anything approaching the quality of the Band's previous work. The dubious distinction of Cahoots is that it contains Robertson's first truly awful song, "The Moon Struck One." Perhaps the most portentous song is the prophetic plea "Where Do We Go From Here?"

The Band never completely recovered from the lost innocence of Stage Fright and Cahoots. While Rock of Ages is an excellent double-disc document of the group's early-Seventies live performances, Moondog Matinee finds the Band retreating to the safety of its collective childhood with a set of interesting if unremarkable cover versions of Fifties and Sixties R&B songs. On Northern Lights—Southern Cross Robertson reclaims his reputation as one of rock's great songwriters ("Ophelia," "Acadian Driftwood," and "It Makes No Difference"), although the synthesizer flourishes date the overall sound. Islands is a barely listenable collection of outtakes the Band released to fulfull its contractual obligations to Capitol Records.

When the Band decided to call it quits (at least, for a while), they staged a farewell concert in San Francisco featuring an all-star cast of their musician friends (including Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, the Staple Singers, Muddy Waters, Dr. John, and Emmylou Harris) and mentors (Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan). The Last Waltz, the Martin Scorsese film that chronicled the concert, is one of the best rock movies of all time, and the concert album of the same name (recently expanded into a four-CD box set) is an excellent companion piece.

In 1983, the Band (without Robertson) regrouped and began touring small clubs again, but they didn't record a new album for another decade. Jericho was dedicated to Manuel, who had committed suicide while on the road with the Band in the mid-Eighties. It was a surprising return to form for the Band, even without Robertson, its primary songwriter and guiding light. Gone are the sweeping storylines and stinging guitars, but the Band's signature blend of vocals, instrumentation, and American musical styles remains intact. Jericho lacks the edge of the Band at its prime, but the interpretations of Bruce Springsteen ("Atlantic City"), Bob Dylan ("Blind Willie McTell") and Muddy Waters ("Stuff You Gotta Watch") and the moving tribute to Manuel ("Too Soon Gone") make this album a fascinating milestone in the group's development. High on the Hog basically repeats Jericho's formula, with less successful results. Jubilation finds the reunited Band growing, its mix of acoustic instruments and roughened voices revealing a new, dignified maturity. By 1999, however, the death of Danko effectively put an end to the Band.

Greatest Hits is a misnomer—"Up on Cripple Creek" was the Band's only Top Thirty single—but it's a solid chronological anthology of the group's best songs, and offers more music than The Best of the Band, an earlier collection. The Best of the Band, Vol. 2 is a decent overview of the reunited Band's work.

In 2005 the Band released the extraordinary five-CD, one-DVD box set A Musical History. It traces their entire history from their days as Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks to backing Bob Dylan through the original break-up in 1976. All of the original albums have been remastered and reissued with previously unreleased outtakes and detailed liner notes, and are well worth seeking out.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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