Under normal circumstances this would be a fairly disappointing album for the Band, coming as it does on the year-old heels of a live set and a good 30 months since the last appearance of any original material. But with the upcoming Bob Dylan tour probably occupying a large share of their attention and the possibility of a label change in the offing, they probably figured to conserve the group’s not-too-prolific energies by playing around with the past. Moondog Matinee, the Band’s own Self-Portrait, is, at the least, an ingratiating result.
Like most oldies albums, part of the pleasure here lies in seeing what inspirations the Band felt should be resurrected from their early roadhouse beginnings. In the main they’ve drawn well, choosing rhythm and blues styles that run the gamut from Clarence “Frogman” Henry to the Platters, all refined into the wood-smoked ambience that covers the ex-Hawks like a friendly shoe. They take each selection straight, casual and almost off the cuff. There are few surprises, even less tension, and if the album contains a distinct lack of outstanding moments, the group’s consistency has seldom been more apparent or necessary.
Yet redeemed as it somewhat is, Moondog Matinee remains a flimsy work, a collection of B sides that are as enjoyable as they are forgettable in the context of the group’s larger concerns. This is not helped by the Band’s gift for understatement, which, though it enhances the group’s own material, maneuvers at cross purposes with the drift of the album. “A Change Is Gonna Come,” the unbearably lovely Sam Cooke tune, loses much of its emotive power as a result, while “Third Man Theme” becomes merely a pretty pastiche of Felliniesque muzak. They’re on firmer ground when they lay back and rock & roll, as with “Mystery Train” or Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land,” the latter a sterling evocation of Edward Kaspar’s brilliant razorback cover painting, ’55 T-Bird and all.
A sense of humor helps too, amply demonstrated by Levon’s magnificently cracked reading of “The Great Pretender” or the frogman segment of “Ain’t Got No Home.” The best things on the set are Fats Domino’s “I’m Ready,” leading and pummeling the way into Leiber-Stoller’s (via LaVerne Baker) “Saved.” “Holy Cow” is a hat-tip to Allen Toussaint, whose horn arrangements are given tribute throughout the album, and “Share Your Love” features Richard Manuel in the only cut which manages to break out of the jook-joint concept and sit on its own as a fully realized touch of classic.
It’s hard to dislike Moondog Matinee, given its low-priority inflection and modest goals, but it seems to me that the Band and their fans deserve better.