THE BAND: MOONDOG MATINEE (1973)
1) Ain't Got No Home; 2) Holy Cow; 3) Share Your Love With Me; 4) Mystery Train; 5) Third Man Theme; 6) Promised Land; 7) The Great Pretender; 8) I'm Ready; 9) Saved; 10) A Change Is Gonna Come; 11*) Didn't It Rain; 12*) Crying Heart Blues; 13*) Shakin'; 14*) What Am I Living For; 15*) Going Back To Memphis; 16*) Endless Highway.
Apparently, Robbie Robertson got tired one day from waking up and looking out of his window to discover the rest of The Band picketing his apartment with large signs reading «ROBBIE WE NEED MORE SONGS FROM YOU» and «ROBBIE GRACE US WITH EVEN MORE OF YOUR EGO». In order to teach those guys a lesson, he decided that from now on — for a short while at least, enough to record one whole LP — The Band were no longer The Band, but would revert back to The Hawks, the barroom/shithouse-playing backing band for Ronnie Hawkins back in their early «Swinging Toronto» days. Alternatively, this may have been a collective decision, but who can tell now? It ain't 1973 any more, and they all lie in their autobiographies anyway.
Cover / tribute albums were not exactly all the rage in 1973, when the world was still young, but they were beginning to coalesce as a separate form of art — the other well known example from the same year is Bowie's Pin Ups — and with Moondog Matinee, The Band ended up playing a serious part in that coalescence. Since, at any point in their post-Basement existence, The Band could have leisurely changed their name to The Academy, Moondog Matinee is no exception: it finds our merry bunch of bearded musical intellectuals «institutionalizing» the lightweight entertainment that they originally grew out of. On a sheerly technical level, they succeed; on a more abstract artistic one, they utterly fail.
At least the choice of material is exquisite. Instead of sanctifying early garage-rock à la Bowie (which would be silly, since The Hawks were never garage-related), or early rockabilly, which would make them look like a British Invasion band, or Chicago blues, which would make them into a second-rate Butterfield Blues Band, they go for a diverse selection that does involve a bit of rockabilly, but generally concentrates on old school soul, R&B, gospel, and New Orleans party muzak — and very few of these songs even begin to come close to «radio standards».
If anything, Moondog Matinee is priceless for its edutainment value. If you squint at the credits hard enough, you might want to find out about Clarence «Frogman» Henry and his throaty croak (which no one in The Band, shameful as it is to say, was able to reproduce — so they just put an electronic distorted effect on Helm's voice), or about The Platters, or about LaVern Baker — or you just might want to shift gears and go watch The Third Man, which is a really good movie, although perhaps just a tad overrated in terms of significance and quality by today's gourmet hipsters, according to whom, almost everything with Orson Welles in it automatically turns to gold... but we were actually talking about The Band here.
To tell the truth, this is not really a «bad» album. The Band honestly try to «Band-ify» the originals — in fact, come 1973, they were so much one with their general style already, they could not have really gone back to their bare roots even if they wanted to — making this, at the very least, into an intriguing modernization of the freshly dug-out «non-classics». However, that is also the root of the problem: some of these songs yield quite unwillingly to the «Band-ification», and some just plain rebel and turn into uncomfortable small puddles of embarrassment.
I am talking first and foremost about the «rock'n'roll» numbers — in one of his monologs on art philosophy in The Last Waltz, Robbie said something to the effect of "been there, done that, could do that along with the best of 'em, got bored and moved on" about their early days playing rock'n'roll, and listening to these tepid, languid takes on Chuck Berry's ʽPromised Landʼ and Fats Domino's ʽI'm Readyʼ (which happens to be one of my personal favorites from the early boogie era, so I take this as a personal offense) sure confirms that stance. Actually, the prime culprit here is not Robertson, but the rhythm section of Helm and Danko — a clear-cut case of «overcooking it»: not content to play simple four-fours and minimalistic, but steady boogie lines, they give both of the tracks a «swing» attitude that completely robs them of their basic point, because if one cannot properly headbang to these tracks in a clear, metronomic fashion, what good are they? Completely no good. Ashes to ashes, funk to funky — if anything, Chuck Berry should be left to the care of the Rolling Stones, and Fats... Fats can probably take good care of himself.
They do a better job with Junior Parker's / Elvis Presley's ʽMystery Trainʼ, which gets seriously funkified without completely losing the vibe of the original — and also turned into a playground for Hudson, who is busy unfurling a little electronic / proto-IDM symphony in the background while Robbie and the boys are merrily hacking away. The weirdness of the combo alone would be sufficient to make it passable; unfortunately, the groove goes on well past its welcome, because even Garth runs out of creative ideas a couple of minutes into the song.
Likewise, everything else is randomly hit-and-miss. One upbeat tune may reach the right spot because of the proper amount of party flavor and tongue-in-cheekiness (ʽAin't Got No Homeʼ, even despite the lame attempt to electronically compensate for the lack of a proper «Frogman» voice) — another one may be a shy, tentative recreation of a much more energetic and overwhelming original (ʽSavedʼ — somebody tell these guys to stay away from African-American parishes). One Manuel-sung ballad may be sweet and touching (ʽShare Your Love With Meʼ), another may attempt to squeeze his free-roaming style into a rigid waltzing doo-wop arrangement where his attack loses focus (ʽThe Great Pretenderʼ). One side-closer may be the completely unexpected rearrangement of the ʽThird Man Themeʼ, now a lazy-summer-day Band-style chillout polka (no zither!), another side-closer may be a moving, but totally expendable Sam Cooke cover (ʽA Change Is Gonna Comeʼ is, I believe, one of those few tunes that are so personal, you'd really have to live it out before adding it to your repertoire — no reasons to doubt Danko's sincerity, but he is not living it out here, he is just paying a humble tribute to Sam).
Thus, it ain't all totally without redemption, but I would never in my life call Moondog Matinee a «success» — certainly not if the goal here was to «update» all the songs for the modern age, nor if the goal was somehow to prove The Band's «authentic» status: ʽThe Weightʼ and ʽThe Night They Drove Old Dixie Downʼ assert their authenticity and heritage far more effectively than a million Chuck Berry and Sam Cooke covers ever could. And this is a thumbs down — still a must-own for the serious fan, an «important trifle» in the legacy, but, nevertheless, also an album which The Band's discography could definitely skip over.
The CD reissue adds a whole bunch of bonus tracks from the same sessions, most of them completely passable (particularly a lame-o-licious acoustic guitar cover of Chuck Willis' ʽWhat Am I Living Forʼ, with a subtle melody change that totally kills off the smooth flow of the original) — including one and one only original track: the studio version of ʽEndless Highwayʼ, which, to tell the truth, would later be done with far more verve and energy on the joint Dylan/Band live album Before The Flood. No surprise here, though — like main course, like bonus.
Check "Moondog Matinee" (MP3) on Amazon