When Eric Clapton first heard the Band, he knew he was done with Cream. “I’m in the wrong place with the wrong people doing the wrong thing,” the guitarist later recalled thinking, and he wasn’t the only one left stunned by the group’s laid-back revolution. Synthesizing R&B, country, blues and early rock with chops seasoned by years on the road with Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, Canadians Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson, along with their Arkansas-born drummer-singer Levon Helm — once collectively known as the Hawks, and, later on, the Crackers — made everything old-timey, rural and ramshackle seem profoundly cool. For the next eight years, they would craft some of rock’s earthiest, grooviest and most yearning sounds. Here’s our comprehensive guide to their legacy on record, from Big Pink to The Basement Tapes and beyond.
“We were rebelling against the rebellion,” Robbie Robertson said years later of the group’s defiantly wholesome outlook circa their debut LP, summed up by their decision to pose with their extended family members on the album’s inside sleeve. In the process, they created a new pastoral vision of rock. The group staked its claim to heartfelt subtlety and homegrown feeling right from the start, kicking off the record with wrenching, molasses-paced ballad “Tears of Rage.” The tracks that followed showcased in turn different aspects of the group’s kaleidoscopic brilliance: Levon Helm’s strutting backbeat (“We Can Talk”), Richard Manuel’s supple croon (“Lonesome Suzie”), Rick Danko’s wounded warble (“Long Black Veil”) Garth Hudson’s mad-scientist organ (“Chest Fever”) and the full ensemble’s effortless-as-breathing chemistry (“The Weight”). Music From Big Pink wasn’t actually recorded at the now-mythic Saugerties house it was named after, but the camaraderie and intimacy of the Basement Tapes era are all over the album.
If Big Pink was a collection of great songs, its follow-up felt more like a single sprawling tale told in chapters. The tracks introduced Faulknerian characters like proud Southerner Virgil Caine (“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”), an aging seaman and his trusty mate Ragtime Willie (“Rockin’ Chair”), and a hard-luck farmer turned card-carrying “union man” (“King Harvest (Has Surely Come)”). They also showed the Band further honing both their funky and forlorn sides — see “Up on Cripple Creek” and “Whispering Pines,” respectively — and deepening their back-to-the-land mythos with every violin whine, brass wheeze and raggedy harmonized chorus. As the rock world at large rushed toward a bright psychedelic future, the so-called Brown Album took its sweet time, immersing the listener in a scruffy, sepia-tinted past.
Those looking for a Band greatest-hits package might be better served by this live classic — originally titled Rock of Ages and later reissued in jumbo form — which documents their late-December run that year in NYC. All the familiar tunes are here; the standout feature is the addition of a five-piece horn section, arranged by New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint. The extra musicians, including jazz heavyweights Snooky Young and Howard Johnson, bring colorful commentary to “King Harvest,” Dixieland flourishes to “Across the Great Divide” and whimsical swells to “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show.”
The original Basement Tapes double LP (later expanded massively) remains integral to the group’s status as roots-rock patron saints. In that fabled room below Big Pink, the musicians helped Bob Dylan achieve some of his loosest, silliest, performances (“Million Dollar Bash,” “Tiny Montgomery,” “Please, Mrs. Henry”), as well as a handful of his most poignant (“Goin’ to Acapulco,” his rendition of Music From Big Pink opener “Tears of Rage”). And the tracks without Dylan, many of which were studio outtakes recorded after the actual Saugerties sessions, are just as strong, especially the swirling, psychedelic Helm-sung “Yazoo Street Scandal,” and Manuel’s free-associative blues “Long Distance Operator” and lovelorn plea “Katie’s Been Gone.”
By 1970, drugs and toxic fame were already eating away at the Band’s famous early-years solidarity. But whatever was looming, the songs here are as strong as what came before, from lovely ballads “Sleeping” and “All La Glory” to Band-wheelhouse down-home rockers like “Just Another Whistle Stop” and “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show.” On the title track, a future Last Waltz standout, Danko perfectly captured the mood of a pack of road dogs on the verge of burnout.
A little spottier than its predecessors, Cahoots still has high points that will make you wonder why it’s so often marginalized in discussions of the group’s output. Side One, in particular, is glorious, from festive roots-funk opener “Life Is a Carnival” to typically brilliant lead-vocal turns by Helm, Manuel and Danko (respectively, “When I Paint My Masterpiece, “Last of the Blacksmiths” and “Where Do We Go From Here?”), and “4% Pantomime,” a roaring duet between Manuel and Van Morrison that rivals anything else in the group’s catalog for rowdy barrelhouse charm.
Four fifths of the Band (then known as the Hawks) appear on Dylan’s classic 1966 “Royal Albert Hall” live album — Helm had split when the booing got out of hand — but Before the Flood, recorded at the end of a triumphant 1974 tour, marks the only official live Dylan release to feature the entire group. A track like the scorching “All Along the Watchtower,” with Helm setting a breakneck tempo and Robertson and Hudson trading virtuosic leads, plainly shows that Dylan never had a better backing band. During a lengthy set packed with Sixties classics like “Highway 61” and “Lay Lady Lay” — plus the then-recent “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and the Band’s excellent renditions of their own favorites — the singer matches them with howling, near-maniacal energy.
Two future Last Waltz standouts debuted on this gorgeously produced 1975 set — the bouncy, Helm-sung “Ophelia” and heart-rending Danko ballad “It Makes No Difference” — as well as the greatest Band song that many fans have never heard: “Acadian Driftwood,” sung in turn by Manuel, Helm and Danko, with a memorable French coda. A history song in the vein of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” it turns a regional tragedy — the removal of the Acadians by the British during the French and Indian War — into something poignant and universal.
A Band album in name, this soundtrack to the legendary Scorsese concert doc is really more like the greatest rock mixtape ever assembled. Definitive versions of the group’s greatest hits mingle with stellar renditions of tracks from 1975’s overlooked Northern Lights — Southern Cross (“Ophelia,” “It Makes No Difference”) and star turns from “a couple friends.” Everything in the latter batch is pure joy: Van Morrison’s freewheeling, borderline-unhinged “Caravan,” Neil Young’s otherworldly “Helpless,” Muddy Waters’ mesmerizing “Mannish Boy” Bob Dylan’s roaring “I Don’t Believe You” (for which he had to be coaxed out of his dressing room) and much more. Helm hated the whole endeavor and never forgave Robertson for instigating the group’s breakup, but for the rest of us, this farewell document is something to treasure.
“That was all we could do at the time,” Helm said of the increasingly conflict-ridden group’s decision to fill its fifth album with covers of rock and R&B songs they loved. If nothing here matches the Band’s stellar version of Marvin Gaye’s “Don’t Do It” (heard on both Rock of Ages and The Last Waltz), this one’s worth hearing for Helm’s spot-on version of Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s “Ain’t Got No Home,” complete with loopy vocal effects; Manuel’s tender take on “Share Your Love”; and a whimsical, thoroughly Band-ized run through Anton Karas’ theme from The Third Man.
If you never thought you needed a Band Christmas number in your life, you haven’t heard Rick Danko sing “Come down to the manger/See the little stranger” on the insanely charming “Christmas Must Be Tonight.” Other highlights on this final LP by the Band’s original incarnation include the fun singalong “The Saga of Pepote Rouge” and Manuel’s lovely take on his idol Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind.”
The group’s comeback album, and their first studio LP without Robertson, has its missteps (if you’re a Levon Helm fan who’s never heard the crude cultural caricature that is “Move to Japan,” try to keep it that way) but mostly finds Helm, Danko and Hudson slipping effortlessly into their old groove with help from new members Jim Weider, Randy Ciarlante and Richard Bell. Danko and Helm’s take on Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell,” which eventually prompted Dylan himself to start performing the song, is excellent; the Helm-sung cover of Bruce Springsteen’s immortal Nebraska cut “Atlantic City” is a flat-out masterpiece; and Manuel’s “Country Boy,” recorded before his death in 1986,” is a fitting memorial to the group’s sad-eyed soul man.
A cover of En Vogue’s “Free Your Mind” (worth it just to hear Levon Helm drawl, “I like rap music/And hip-hop clothes”) isn’t the only sign that the group is reaching on this 1996 set, probably the weakest Band studio album. Die-hard fans should still stick around for “Where I Should Always Be,” a yearning Blondie Chaplin tune that finds Rick Danko right in his comfort zone; stirring from-the-vault live Manuel ballad “She Knows”; and “The High Price of Love,” which features a classic loping Helm groove and hand-in-glove harmonies from the drummer and Danko. And bonus track “Chain Gang,” Danko’s synth-heavy, borderline-eerie take on the Sam Cooke classic, is a compelling oddity.
Jubilation is the reunited Band’s strongest declaration of independence from Robertson, an album stocked mostly with originals after the prior two covers-heavy LPs. Danko sounds as poignant as ever on “Book Faded Brown,” while Helm — his voice hoarse, a symptom of the throat cancer that would eventually claim his life, but still mighty — infuses “Kentucky Downpour” and “You See Me” with timeless Southern soul. Hudson’s closing solo instrumental “French Girls” is a lush, affecting farewell. “A couple friends” turn up here, too: Eric Clapton, who’d dreamed about joining the group after hearing Music From Big Pink, finally got his wish 30 years later, adding some spiffy twanged-out lead work to “Last Train to Memphis.”
“Further on Up the Road” (The Hawks, 1961)
Recorded while the future Band members were still working as Ronnie Hawkins’ back-up group, this consummately loose, Helm-sung take on a 1957 Bobby “Blue” Bland hit — featuring saxophone from then sixth member Jerry Penfound and plenty of space for Robertson’s already-extraordinary lead work — gives more than a hint of the greatness that was in store.
“Who Do You Love?” (Ronnie Hawkins, 1963)
On what would become Hawkins’ signature song, he and the Hawks teased out the wilder side of the Bo Diddley classic. The group matches the leader’s wild howls with a raucous instrumental rave-up featuring Robertson’s snarling guitar, Manuel’s pounding piano, and Danko and Helm’s insistent pulse.
“Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” (Bob Dylan, 1965)
Dylan sounds like he’s accompanied by a rock & roll orchestra on this rollicking non-album single, recorded with the Hawks in the studio after the Highway 61 sessions and before the members embarked with Dylan on his fateful ’66 electric tour.
“Sunshine Life for Me (Sail Away Raymond)” (Ringo Starr, Ringo, 1973)
Four fifths of the Band met half the Beatles on a track from Ringo’s third solo album. Robertson plays guitar, while Danko, Hudson and Helm — heard on violin, accordion and mandolin, respectively — add some down-home Brown Album flavor. Vocal Band admirer George Harrison, who wrote the whimsical tune, sings backup.
“Going, Going, Gone” (Bob Dylan, Planet Waves, 1974)
If The Basement Tapes captured Dylan and the Band goofing off at home with zero stakes, Planet Waves showed what these six musicians could achieve in a more conventional studio setting. The highlight is this quietly devastating ballad, where Robertson shadows Dylan with stinging, swooping leads, often sounding like he’s reading his boss’ mind.
“Revolution Blues” (Neil Young, On the Beach, 1974)
Neil Young borrowed Rick Danko’s bulbous bass lines and Levon Helm’s inimitable shuffle groove for this steady-rolling blues cut, which also featured David Crosby on guest rhythm guitar.
“Sip the Wine” (Rick Danko, RIck Danko, 1977)
Rick Danko only really made one proper solo studio LP, now sadly out of print. It’s an uneven listen, but Danko hit the bullseye with this summery, laid-back power ballad — written by bassist Tim Drummond, and recorded earlier by artists such as Tracy Nelson — which he can be seen previewing for Martin Scorsese in a brief Last Waltz scene.
“Fallen Angel” (Robbie Robertson, Robbie Robertson, 1987)
Richard Manuel died just months before Robertson began recording his solo debut, and the guitarist honored his late bandmate on the very first track of his solo debut. With help from producer Daniel Lanois, Robertson put a slick Eighties sheen on the roots-rock sound he’d helped to invent.
“The Mountain” (Levon Helm, Dirt Farmer, 2007)
The drummer-singer recaptured the Band’s timeless rural spirit on his first solo album in 25 years; his weathered late-career voice is perfectly suited to Steve Earle’s lament for natural beauty blighted by industrial progress.
“A Certain Girl” (The Levon Helm Band, The Midnight Ramble Sessions, Vol. 3, 2014)
Helm’s loose, guest-star-studded Midnight Ramble shows, held at his barn studio in Woodstock, New York, gave fans a chance to witness a legend in the most intimate setting imaginable. For one 2007 gig, New Orleans R&B legend and Rock of Ages arranger Allen Toussaint turned up to sing lead on a 1961 Ernie K-Doe hit, with none other than Elvis Costello sitting in on guitar.
Levon Helm With Stephen Davis, This Wheel’s on Fire
Helm’s straight-talking memoir is the definitive version of the Band’s saga, starting with his humble beginnings in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas; moving through the mid-show brawls and after-hours orgies of the Hawks era; chronicling the group’s high-flying Sixties peaks; and winding toward a tragic conclusion with the deaths of Manuel and Danko. There’s celebration of brotherhood here, but also savage bitterness at Robertson’s decision to break up the group. “Do it, puke, and get out,” he writes of his mindset going into the The Last Waltz.