The Band - The Band

by Bill Golembeski Rating:10 Release Date:1969-09-22
The Band - The Band
The Band - The Band

Speaking strictly in rock ‘n’ roll terms, there is something very wrong with the world today.  I recently made the pilgrimage to Canada’s Stratford Upon Avon, the hometown of the late Richard Manuel who was the piano player, drummer, sometime songwriter, and vocalist extraordinaire for North America’s greatest rock group - The Band. While visiting the Tourist Center, I noticed a shrine to the one and only Justine Bieber, who apparently is also a hometown boy. When I asked the young tourist guide about Richard Manuel, the poor guy just stared blankly in answer to my question. In fact, he had never even heard of The Band.

Well, in an attempt to fill that black hole of a blank stare, The Band’s second self-titled album is, quite simply, the greatest North American rock record. Four Canadians and one guy from Arkansas made a definitive statement about America. And it’s an America about dreams, dreams that are balanced and given credence through a hard frontier truthful reality. Great American literature is all about dreams and reality simply because that’s the stuff that is Born in the USA.

The very first song, “Across the Great Divide,” finds its speaker thanking “Molly girl” for “chicken every Sunday,” but the guy is also worried with the hard question as to what she’s “done with the gun.”

And really, crossing “the great divide” is the dream of America. How can various states in our union, with very different and divergent needs, somehow get along? It’s like the Iroquois Confederacy, five tribes into one cohesive league. In other words, E Pluribus Unum, you know, out of many, one.  And in many ways, The Band themselves subscribed to this motto. During this second classic album, the five incredibly talented musicians served rock music, the songs on this record, and most importantly, each other.

Then they slowly discovered the distance in the different dreams of even the best band of brothers. Other albums would never capture the same spirit. Oh, a tune here and there was pretty great like “Life Is a Carnival” or “Acadian Driftwood.” But this second self-titled Brown Album flows with the beauty and power of Niagara Falls, which connects Canada to America, and is filled with countless sublime musical moments.

So, let me count the ways.

Richard Manuel’s three co-writes with Robbie Robertson create the soul of this record. Rick Danko’s vocal and Garth’s Lowery organ make “When You Awake” almost too beautiful for inclusion on a mere rock record. “Jawbone” has a nearly impossible melody that’s only that becomes mortal by the sheer aerobics of Manuel’s voice. But it’s “Whispering Pines” that steals the heart. Robbie wrote the lyrics that captured the essence of his friend’s troubled soul. The foghorn calling out to sea, one star that shines and is enough, an out of tune piano key, and an empty house, in the cold, cold sun are powerful proof that even in a vacant forest, the pines still whisper for no one to hear, just as any town without a shrine still sings the beautiful songs of a lovely man who is no longer part of its conversation.

There is true pathos in the voice of Levon Helm as he sings the tale of Virgil Caine who just wants to see Robert E. Lee and “swears by the mud below his feet” that “you can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat.” And listen to the harmony voices that sing with the wisdom of a Greek chorus.

The sheer funkiness of “Up on Cripple Creek” sports Garth Hudson’s wah-wah clavichord and Levon’s laugh out loud “he he” after he sings the line about his “little love of mine” as she “dips a doughnut in his tea.”

Of course, “Rockin’ Chair,” which isn’t really rockin’ music at all, has an irresistible chorus, “a very best friend called Ragtime Willie,” “the same old jokes,” and a three-part harmony that sounds like truly lost conversations finding other lonely voices who also love to hear the whisper of the pines.

Robbie’s guitar smokes during “Look Out Cleveland.”

Rick Danko’s tremulous vocals do justice to “Unfaithful Servant,” a song that proves, once again, “the impossibility of sainthood.”

And finally, there is “King Harvest (Has Surely Come).” This is, indeed, the final harvest of a brilliant album, as it is the harvest of The Band’s pursuit of America and its music. What other rock tune contains a horse named Jethro who went mad,” a desperate plea to a “rainmaker,” a “scarecrow and a yellow moon,” and an almost inaudible (and nearly perfect) guitar solo from Robbie Robertson.

Then the music slides into a weird silence, a personified silence that knows that after the harvest, the winter is sure to follow.

Now, I will confess my bias: I think this is the best song-for-song and performance-for-performance rock album. And just for the record, the runners-up are Genesis’ Foxtrot, Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, and King Crimson’s Larks Tongues in Aspic. I suppose The Band is a strange bedfellow to several prog rock giants. And that’s yet another confession: I love progressive rock. But really, and I truly do believe this, The Band fully qualifies as progressive rock—American style. Forget about Kansas, Starcastle, or Happy the Man. They simply copied the English models. But The Band was to America what Genesis was to England. Gabriel & Company incorporated British culture of Anglican hymns, folk songs, and very English humor. Progressive rock fused many traditions into its take on rock music. The Band did the very same thing. They drank deeply from the well water of American traditions. They speak and sing with the voices of country, gospel, bluegrass, soul, jazz, and rhythm& blues. And they do it in the context of a very complex conceptual rock ‘n’ roll format. Sure, the songs themselves aren’t that long, but prog greats like Gentle Giant never wrote side-long epics. Their classic Power and the Glory is comprised of short tunes that all play to a universal theme. The same is true for many Italian bands like Le Orme. Not only that, but Garth Hudson quietly plays rings around Rick Wakeman or Keith Emerson with the beauty and dignity of any downhome American turn of the century funeral parlor. Let’s just say that the South’s William Faulkner, in his own very different way, is equal to London’s William Blake and his New Jerusalem.

As the true man of Southern soil Levon Helm said, “We never played fruit rock. We never wore dresses on stage and put paint on our faces. We never blew up any bombs on stage. We didn’t suck off any snakes on stage. We didn’t wear tight pants or them big turquoise rings. We didn’t take a piss on stage or throw TVs out the window that I can remember.”

That’s true. But The Band created an album of America’s greatness, a greatness that included humor, pathos, fiction, fact, worry, Rick Danko’s Rag Mama Rag violin, thieves, storm shelters, Fender guitars, chicken every Sunday, the lost who are found, and every Ophelia who understands that “the best things,” do indeed, sadly “disappear.” And it’s a greatness in the grooves that spins a story that deserves to told, and to be reverently heard, over and over again.

 

 

Overall Rating (1)

5 out of 5 stars
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