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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Band: Jubilation


1) Book Faded Brown; 2) Don't Wait; 3) Last Train To Memphis; 4) High Cotton; 5) Kentucky Downpour; 6) Bound By Love; 7) White Cadillac (Ode To Ronnie Hawkins); 8) If I Should Fail; 9) Spirit Of The Dance; 10) You See Me; 11) French Girls.

Of the three «sorta-reunion» albums released by «The Band», it is usually only Jericho that gets a decent rap — having expressed the obligatory respect towards the legendary minstrels of Ame­ricana who are back «at it» again, the critics and the public quickly went on to forget about their presence, and the pig with the evil grin on his face was no big help either. Most critical sources either ignore these records, or give all of them a more or less equally condescending pat on the back. And it's not as if there weren't a good reason behind such behavior.

That said, I find myself just a wee bit more partial towards Jubilation, the last record in this relatively ill-fated trilogy. Perhaps it is a silly feeling, motivated by some trifle. For instance, the fact that they swing back to tolerable album sleeves now — instead of the ridiculously clothed Sus domesticus, we get a half-kiddie, half-Indian-style drawing (by «famed Illinois folk artist George Colin», according to Net sources). Or the fact that it is so relatively short — good old normalized roots-rock is best taken in small dosages, after all, certainly not exceeding the classic fourty(-five) minute LP boundaries.

Or maybe just the fact that it is the last one: a year and a half later, Danko would pass away from drug-related heart failure, finally leaving Helm and Hudson in no position to go on driving Old Dixie down. Of course, there was no predicting this in mid-1998, while the album was being re­corded, but there is no denying, either, that age and health problems were quickly catching up, and (gruesome but true) it was basically a question of who would go first — both Rick and Levon sound completely wrecked on most of the tracks. Although Rick lost in the competition by more than a decade (mainly because of far heavier substance abuse throughout his life), the outcome is certainly not clear if you just listen to the songs.

All the more ironic is the album title: Jubilation consistently sounds like a fatalistic dirge rather than a celebration of anything in particular or in general. The title comes from a line in ʽSpirit Of The Danceʼ, which, technically, is indeed a New Orleanian, Allen Toussaint-ish dance number, heavy on brass fanfare and twisted syncopated rhythms. But its minor-key mood, dark basslines, and plaintive lead vocals do not even begin to approach an atmosphere of rejoicing — either it is a complete failure to reach the achieved goal, or that goal was never set in the first place, and the whole "dance, dance 'til the break of day, dance all our cares away" routine was firmly tongue-in-cheek from the very start. Honestly, no self-respecting Creole would probably want this played at his wedding or birthday. Maybe for the funeral?..

Another omen is that Jubilation was recorded at Levon's home studio in Woodstock — thus com­pleting the circle begun in 1967, when The Band was officially christened as an independent artistic unit by Godfather Bob. No idea whether shades and echoes of Music From Big Pink were ringing in the original members' ears when they were recording these songs, but the fact does remain that Jubilation has a strong «weepy» aura around it, starting from the very first song — Paul Jost's ʽBook Faded Brownʼ, either a religious anthem tailor-made for the local Amish po­pulation or just a «nostalcholic» look back at all the good times that the singers had before fate drafted them into the Confederate Army.

The song is generically composed, but tastefully arranged and mildly touching — and so is pretty much everything else on Jubilation, which tends to avoid experiments, production excesses, and any attempts at sounding like «rock'n'roll» (with one tolerable exception — ʽWhite Cadillacʼ, suppo­sedly a tribute to the old boss Ronnie Hawkins, who, contrary to rumors and impressions, was not dead at all, but actually outlived them all; beginning quite deceptively, with an old rockabilly in­tro that you can hear on the Burnette brothers' ʽTrain Kept A-Rollin'ʼ, it goes on to become a mild country-rock boogie where the piano and accordeon «rock» harder than the guitars). Quite a few of the numbers are now credited to The Band itself, and although that does not improve the gene­ral level of songwriting, at least it makes Jubilation into a more «authentic» proposition than its predecessors, to some degree.

Curiously, the album is very light on whatsoever kind of electronics: for the most part, Hudson sticks to regular old pianos and, predominantly, the accordeon, which is also responsible for gi­ving Jubilation much more of an «old-timey» feeling. All of Garth's «modernistic» passions are in­tentionally saved for the last track: ʽFrench Girlsʼ is a two-minute-long instrumental synth-based coda (still with the inclusion of saxes and accordeons, nevertheless) that, in keeping with the over­all somber mood of the album, would rather seem to be dedicated to the likes of Saint Jeanne than to the Folies Bergère, if you get my drift.

Perhaps if the players were in better shape, or spent more time coordinating their act, or had a slightly better and less «subconscious» understanding of why they were there in the first place, Jubilation might have even been comparable in status to one of the classic Band's «minor» albums, like Cahoots or something (ʽSpirit Of The Danceʼ does, after all, seem to have been written «in memory» of ʽLife Is A Carnivalʼ). As it is, Jubilation is limp, formulaic, and not at all memorable — but it still sounds decent while it's on: professionalism and good taste are, after all, the only proper guides through the local reefs and shallows when all else is gone.

Most importantly, it all sounds natural — it is all exactly the way these guys were in 1998: old, sad, nostalgizing, well aware of their imminent mortality, and maybe just driven by a subcon­scious desire to leave just one more tiny particle of themselves behind while they still have time and just enough strength to do it. That seems to be the main vibe permeating most of these songs, and that vibe suffices for a thumbs up — and, more importantly, for an acknowledgement: Jubi­lation can be accepted as a minor «post-scriptum» to the history of The Band, where I would have a real hard time convincing myself that Jericho and particularly High On The Hog could be incorporated in the same history.

Check "Jubilation" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Jubilation" (MP3) on Amazon