THE BAND: THE BAND (1969)
1) Across The Great Divide; 2) Rag Mama Rag; 3) The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down; 4) When You Awake; 5) Up On Cripple Creek; 6) Whispering Pines; 7) Jemima Surrender; 8) Rockin' Chair; 9) Look Out Cleveland; 10) Jawbone; 11) The Unfaithful Servant; 12) King Harvest (Has Surely Come).
It does make some sense to argue about what's better — Music From Big Pink or The Band — because these two records, in between themselves constituting the backbone of «The Hawks»' legacy, are significantly different from each other. At least, different enough to have had Robert Christgau at the time openly admit his dislike for the former and unexpected deep passion for the latter: he went as far as to claim that The Band could actually trump Abbey Road as the best album of 1969. Well, as far as I am concerned, The Dean could go fly a kite with that opinion, but as for the rest of it, his position may be understood.
The Band marks the beginning of Robbie Robertson's steady rule as The Band's creative director and major mastermind — much like Paul McCartney with the Beatles since 1967, he seems to have occupied this position just by being the most focused and «goal-oriented» of 'em all (causing much grief among the «slackers», who would later accuse him of despotism, vanity, greed, and other deadly sins a-plenty; not that there was nothing to it, but, as we all know, one man's industriousness may easily be another man's authoritarianism). Of the twelve songs on their second album, eight are credited to Robbie exclusively and four are allegedly co-written. Furthermore, The Band is generally faster, livelier, «rockier», and much more guitar-based than Big Pink — arguably the only song here to carry over the dirge-like, solemn spirit of its predecessor is the ballad ʽWhispering Pinesʼ, not surprisingly, co-credited to Richard Manuel.
And, of course, the main difference is that this time around, the album does not hover in circles around the idea of «Americana» — it simply dives in, head, feet, and tail. You do not even need to go further than the song titles, with all the references to Old Dixie, Cripple Creek, Cleveland, rags, pines, and rocking chairs. Throw in Manuel's and particularly Levon Helm's «authentic» rootsy manner of singing, chord sequences and instrumentation that derive ever more transparently from jugband, bluegrass, dancehall, and vaudeville, and all that remains to seal the deal is the brown color of the album sleeve and the grim, weather-worn, but somewhat satisfied faces of the five band members on the photo. Just got paid for working on the railroad?
I think that I will forever remain convinced that The Band made a wrong turn here — that with Music From Big Pink and its subtle, but perfect synthesis of tradition, innovation, Dylan, and non-Dylan they were onto something fabulously universalist and mind-opening, but that The Band blocked further progress on that path and steered them towards a less risky, humbler, but not quite as universally appealing route (of course, it was more appealing to Christgau, but the guy has always been a notorious isolationist in the first place, so no surprise here). If ever stuck in between ʽCaledonia Missionʼ and ʽUp On Cripple Creekʼ, I will choose the former: the vibe of ʽCripple Creekʼ is much easier to understand, assimilate, and explain away than the whiny mystique of ʽMissionʼ. These here songs sort of landlock and pigeonhole themselves, and with them, The Band's entire subsequent career.
But as it always happens with talented ensembles establishing a fleshed-out formula, first time is always forgivable, since it is usually the best time; and The Band themselves must have thought of it as a fresh, focused «reboot», or else they wouldn't have called it The Band. There is no denying neither the sincerity and dedication of approach, nor the melodicity and catchiness, nor the inventiveness and great care that went into the arrangements. In fact, Side A of the album is probably the most tightly packed Band sequence of radio hits and concert favorites; and Side B is arguably the most promising Band sequence for the time when one finally gets sick of radio hits and concert favorites, and starts yearning for something underrated, forgotten, and secretly fabulous. Maybe ʽJemima Surrenderʼ is a bit too lumpy and straightforward in its pub-rock brutality, but at the end of the day, I have no specific concerns to voice about the rest.
The sheer power of these songs is perhaps most evident in the simple fact that I very rarely, if ever, hear any civil rights activists' protests about ʽThe Night They Drove Old Dixie Downʼ. You get lots of flack if you happen to be Margaret Mitchell, D. W. Griffith, or a member of Lynyrd Skynyrd singing ʽSweet Home Alabamaʼ, but somehow the textbook image of Levon Helm drumming his heart out to "well he was just eighteen, proud and brave / but a Yankee laid him in his grave" is admired and imitated — even by the likes of Joan Baez, who never minded singing about the life of Virgil Caine... despite the fact that the song does not present convincing evidence that Virgil Caine was not, by all means, an active nigger-hater.
Of course, Robertson is very careful here with the lyrical imagery — carefully sidetracking all the uncomfortable issues — but this is still a tragic song about the downfall of Southern pride, want it or not, and yet its popularity quickly went nationwide; Yankees all over the place were na-na-nah-ing along with the chorus fairly soon, regardless of their convictions. It took all the authenticity, melodicity, and, actually, humility of the piece (it crawls along at a snail's pace, and even though the chorus is based on group harmonies, its overall volume levels hardly rise over those of the verse), I think, to turn the song into such a universal charmer; but even so, I have never been able to empathize with the title character.
I feel much more at home with ʽUp On Cripple Creekʼ, the other of the two big Helm-sung hits on Side A — sort of an optimistic, earthy, downhome retort to the heavy-handed suffering of ʽThe Weightʼ, with which they roll at more or less the same pace. Of course, it would be nowhere near as memorable if not for Garth Hudson's inventive, wah-wah driven Clavinet part, made to sound like a traditional Jew's harp, especially during the brief triumphant soloing buzz at the end of each verse. It adds the necessary bit of hot spice to what would be an otherwise rather bland blues-rock arrangement. But then there's also the funny repetitiveness of the chorus (the triple hit of "she sends me", "she mends me", and "she defends me" is enough in itself to make the experience unforgettable), and there is something about Helm's singing here that makes the whole song, like, the quintessential embodiment of America's «road spirit», maybe only rivaled in that department by the Allmans' ʽRamblin' Manʼ (although the lyrics of ʽRamblin' Manʼ fall back on clichés of the genre much more frequently).
Maybe, in the end, the real hero of this album is not Robbie, but still Garth Hudson — always on the watchout that the arrangements of the songs elevate them from «genericity». Not only would there be no ʽCripple Creekʼ without the Clavinet, but there would be no ʽAcross The Great Divideʼ without the slide trombone parts, lending a friendly, supportive, muscular shoulder to Manuel's «wimpy hero» vocal delivery, and there would be no ʽWhen You Awakeʼ without the snowy organ and accordion to reinforce the plaintive singing. Then there's also Rick Danko's folk dance fiddle parts on ʽRag Mama Ragʼ (a song that borrows its title and sort of «suggestive» lyrics — "shag mama shag, now what's come over you", really? — from old dance blues tunes, but little else), Richard Manuel blowing a mournful, soulful sax on ʽThe Unfaithful Servantʼ... indeed, Robertson might be providing the bodies here, but it mainly falls to the other guys to bring in the clothes, and, in a way, most of them were perfectly entitled to eventually go to war with Robbie over the credits — most of these, in spirit and form, are «Band» numbers.
The one song here that has always looked like a particularly rewarding dark horse is stuck at the very end. Already on ʽJawboneʼ, the band experiments with 6/4 signatures, but the result is a bit clumsy, if not uninteresting. However, it is a completely different story with the contrast between the verse and chorus in ʽKing Harvestʼ — a truly bizarre effect there, what with the verse being pinned to a fairly standard, if a bit funkified, blues-rock pattern, and the chorus verging on «dark folk», delivered in a stern, uncompromising manner; the whole song is like a dialog between the poor, struggling, emotional farmer, voiced by Manuel, and the cold, impassionate forces of nature that count away the seasonal regularities ("scarecrow and a yellow moon... pretty soon a carnival on the edge of town... smell of the leaves from the magnolia trees in the meadow..."). The whole song is like the fighting of a predeterminedly unwinnable battle — with Manuel holding on until he can hold on no longer, and then a piercing, hysterical little solo from Robbie takes over to wail the last wail (and, for that matter, have the last word on the album itself: notable, since there are very few Robertson solos of note on the album altogether).
The whole thing eventually ties into a very coherent panorama. Way too heavily intellectualized, of course, to be «truly authentic» — it would be interesting to know what all those pre-war folk and blues survivors who had the chance to hear it thought of the execution — but that is the very point of it: Robbie and pals are not trying here to put themselves in the shoes of their heroes, they are trying to bridge the gap between these heroes and contemporary art, much like Bob used to do on his earliest albums (or on John Wesley Harding, for that matter). Those who think the whole idea is just a lot of bull will do better to stick with Creedence Clearwater Revival, who did the same thing, but without a single whiff of pretense. But those who think that there is no reason why modernism and traditionalism shouldn't ever try to sleep in the same bed, feel free to join with me in another major thumbs up. (Even though I reiterate that I'd never be willing to raise those thumbs to the level of Abbey Road — a record that appeals to the senses on so many more levels — or even to the level of Music From Big Pink — because the best album by The Band cannot not have any Dylan covers on it — so up yours, Mr. Dean, for being way too clever for poor little me!)
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