Reviewed on this page:
Music From Big Pink - The Band - Stage Fright - Cahoots - Rock Of Ages -
Moondog Matinee - Live At Watkins Glen -
Northern Lights - Southern Cross -
Islands - The Last Waltz - Storyville - High On The Hog -
Arguably the most famous New York area rock band of the late 60s, the Band probably did more to put roots rock on the map than any other act. Like them or not, they're certainly idiosyncratic and quite distinct from any of their peers. Because their influences ranged widely, from familiar genres like rock 'n' roll, R & B, and the blues, to less fashionable sources like folk, bluegrass, country-western, and ragtime, the Band could draw on the entire history of American popular music in a way that no other rockers had the depth to do.
Another strength: with every member being an instrumental jack of all trades, they could fabricate complexly orchestrated arrangements without leaning on outside session musicians or producers - producer/engineer/multi-instrumentalist John Simon was more of a sixth band member than a guru. And then there was guitarist Robbie Robertson, a fine songwriter who was more than able to supply them with a never-ending stream of lyrics (there's debate over how much of the music he actually wrote).
And I haven't even mentioned Dylan. Yes, "the Band" got that name by serving on the road as "Bob Dylan and the Band" from 1965 on, although the master used them rarely in the studio (Blond On Blonde is a major exception). The group had previously kicked around for years as a small-time Canadian rockabilly act called the Hawks, fronted by a Southerner named Ronnie Hawkins.
Playing with Dylan gave the Band the boost they needed to gain international recognition. He had a heavy hand in their first record and continued to cross paths with them over the next decade, with all of them living in the Woodstock area, and the Band supporting him for occasional live appearances and joining him on his 1974 album Planet Waves (the Band has maintained a Woodstock presence to this very day). But Dylan's first leg up was nothing more than that; as soon as their debut record came out, the Band had carved out its own unique niche.
There is a down side to the Band. I'll earn some flame letters for saying it, but to my ears they lacked either a top-notch singer, a truly awe-inspiring lead instrumentalist, or a really innovative songwriter. The Band in general, and Robertson in particular, were capable in all those roles - but quite a few contemporaneous New York area rock musicians were a heck of a lot more than just "capable," including Jimi Hendrix, Lou Reed, Simon & Garfunkel, or of course Dylan.
Not to mention everything else that was going on in London, Los Angeles, and San Francisco back in those days. In the end, the Band made its mark not with virtuosity, but with solid, workmanlike, carefully collaborative distillations of diverse influences that other acts were afraid to touch. Maybe that explains why rock critics were always so wild about them. The bottom line is that you'll either love 'em or hate 'em, but don't make the mistake of ignoring them completely.
After Robertson quit the Band and thereby put it to a halt in 1976, the remaining members slowly reassembled, and by 1983 were making live appearances. Unfortunately, pianist Richard Manuel committed suicide in 1986 - a big shock, and I remember it like it was yesterday. Robertson never rejoined them, but the remaining three members got more serious about recording and touring as the 1990s began, putting out three studio LP's that were full of cover versions and beefed up by numerous extra players. We've reviewed one of their shows on our concerts page.
The unexpected death of bassist Rick Danko in December, 1999, presumably put an end to the group, but I don't really know what remaining original members Levon Helm and Garth Hudson plan to do.
The Band web site is really quite good, with heavy newsgroup involvement and plenty of useful info. Unlike most sites it includes album reviews, some of which seem balanced and some of which seem like over-the-top fan raves. Although I never trust the All-Music Guide, I do agree with one of their major points: the Band's endless greatest hits packages and box sets (there are two of the latter) are a total waste of time. Head for the early, original albums instead.
Lineup: Rick Danko (vocals, bass, fiddle, etc.); Levon Helm (vocals, drums, etc.); Garth Hudson (keyboards, horns, accordion); Richard Manuel (vocals, piano, drums, you name it); Robbie Robertson (guitar); John Simon (production, engineering, incidental instrumentation).
Music From Big Pink (1968)
The centerpiece of the Band's famous debut album is Robertson's "The Weight," with its "take a load off..." refrain and plodding 2/4 beat. The funk number "Chest Fever" is arguably even better, and it surely demonstrates that the guys could pump out a really good groove. Robertson's songwriting hadn't completely taken off quite yet, so Manuel gets in several of his own hymn-like numbers, and they're good ("In A Station"; "Lonesome Suzie").
And there's more of a direct Dylan influence here than on the later records, with several cuts being well-known Dylan tunes ("This Wheel's On Fire" and "I Shall Be Released," both featuring bizarre organ parts and both done even more oddly by other acts). Bob even painted the album cover. All of this adds up to a lot: despite the rough edges, this is a solid record that gets under your skin after a while. The title refers to the farm house near Woodstock, New York where the Band hung out and wrote the album (it was recorded in New York City and L.A.). (JA)
The Band (1969)
Although Stage Fright did about as well on the charts, this was unquestionably the Band's greatest moment: it includes the hillbilly funk number "Up On Cripple Creek," their biggest hit, and is full of other engaging and well-known cuts like the swaying anthem "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," and the joyful "Across The Great Divide," propulsive "Rag Mama Rag," and rocking "Look Out Cleveland." It was almost entirely written by Robertson, with some co-writes by Manuel; Robertson even engineered (again, there's some question about the songwriting credits).
The recording techniques are more sophisticated here, the players are better practiced, the vocals are smoother, and there's a lot more going on with creative accordion, piano, and especially horn parts, like the gentle Dixieland arrangement on "The Unfaithful Servant." In sum, this is about as well-written and well-thought out as a record could be, given that it's mostly "live in the studio" without overdubs. (JA)
Stage Fright (1970)
Most of this album has a clear-headed, kick-ass attitude that the first two often lacked - and being so much more mainstream, it's both more accessible and less innovative. It often has a lyrically old-timey focus, but an easy, good-natured musical tone ("W. S. Walcott Medicine Show"). The big single here is "The Shape I'm In," an up-beat, funkified rocker with a brilliant Garth Hudson call-to-prayer organ intro; it's one of their most memorable tunes. The chipper title track, with its paranoid lyrics, is another high point and also got a lot of airplay.
And there are plenty more solid efforts here like the romantic "The Rumor" and the genteel rocker "Time To Kill." Despite all this, the overall performance is just not as memorable as on the preceding record, and there are a couple of toss-offs like Helm's "Strawberry Wine." As always Robertson dominated the songwriting credits. I've read that this was cut at the Woodstock Playhouse, which is a bit jarring for folks like myself who have actually been there. Amusingly, the engineer was a young Todd Rundgren. (JA)
Apparently the critics and the public alike didn't appreciate this album too much, and although it's a step down from the first three outings, it's really not so bad. It opens with the fine, uncharacteristically joyful "Life Is A Carnival" and keeps your attention all the way through. There's plenty of hard-rocking stuff like "Smoke Signal," and enough old-timey schtick to keep it all distinct. Robertson was credited once again with almost all the songwriting, although there's a Dylan tune ("When I Paint My Masterpiece"), and "Carnival" was a group composition.
Allen Toussaint arranged the parts for an outside horn section that appears on a few songs like "Volcano," and Van Morrison co-authored and guested on "4% Pantomime." The record was cut at a studio in Bearsville, just down the road from Woodstock. (JA)
Rock Of Ages (1972)
A tightly performed live double album recorded on New Year's Eve 1971, this was the group's last gold record. It includes their second and last Top 40 hit: a crisp, energetic, and lengthy cover of "Don't Do It," written by Holland-Dozier-Holland for Marvin Gaye. There are a few other surprises, like a new, medium-quality Robertson pop song ("Get Up, Jake"); a bizarre, noodling Garth Hudson synthesizer instrumental ("The Genetic Method"); and an encore cover of Chuck Willis' chugging "(I Don't Want To Hang Up) My Rock And Roll Shoes." However, most of the tracks are reliable Band standards like "Chest Fever," "Stage Fright," "Rag Mama Rag," and of course "The Weight." Powered by a smooth, classy four-man horn section, the sound is slicker, more upbeat, and more updated than on the earlier studio records - even the vocals seem stronger. Fans who are really turned on by those albums will want to move on to this one eventually. (JA)
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (rec. 1971, rel. 1992)
I was under the impression that this 11-track disc consisted of alternate takes from the Rock Of Ages shows, but I've been informed by a serious Band head that although the running times and the order of the tracks are different, the takes are actually the same ones as on that record.
Not much of a buy regardless. (JA)
Moondog Matinee (1973)
A set of painstakingly recorded recreations of 50's rock 'n' roll songs with no original material.
That might sound like a nauseating prescription - David Bowie made a total fool of himself with a very similar project the same year.
But they pull it off: every track oozes sincerity (Danko's soulful, on-the-edge rendition of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come"), with just a touch of humor and a mild 70s sheen keeping it from sliding into pure nostalgia ("Ain't Got No Home," with irresistable sock-hop horn parts and a flakey Levon Helm lead vocal; a druggy, campy take on "The Third Man Theme"; Leiber and Stoller's tongue-in-cheek gospel-rock hybrid "I'm Saved").
It's also not really so far from their own sound (Allan Toussaint's fat and brassy "Holy Cow," with a piercing, wah-wah'ed Robertson solo);
and they hit the mark with their awesomely tight and imaginative recreation of the old Sam Phillips-Junior Parker standard "Mystery Train."
It is uneven - Manuel tries hard on two weepy ballads, and while one turns out gorgeously ("Share Your Love With Me"), he just doesn't have the vocal chops to pull off the other ("The Great Pretender"); and their foot-tapping, boogie-woogie takes on Chuck Berry's "The Promised Land" and Fats Domino's "I'm Ready" are rote.
Still, it's an interesting, modestly entertaining diversion for fans.
Self-produced; Ben Keith, a really top-notch Nashville session guitarist, is the only guest. (JA)
Live At Watkins Glen (rec. 1973, rel. 1994)
A carefully packaged, well-intentioned release that can't make up for the source tape's poor quality no matter how historically interesting the concert may have been - the upstate New York rock festival was one of the largest in history and ended up being the group's only significant live performance during this period.
Release supervisor Wayne Watkins trimmed the tape to a bare-bones 45 minute selection of jams (Hudson's haunted house/ballpark organ improv "Too Wet To Work"; an aimless, overheated, and brief "Jam"), obscure covers, and secondary material like their strutting, hill-billy-esque Dylan collaboration "Don't Ya Tell Henry."
Only "I Shall Be Released," "Up On Cripple Creek" and "The Rumor" are concert staples, but only the latter is even up to their usual standards.
Meanwhile, the crowd noise is deafening and the Band seems sloppier and more out-of-control than ever, with Robertson even taking a couple of convoluted, but unenlightening solos ("Henry"; "Time To Kill," from Stage Fright).
Still, the arcana will please diehards: their energetic takes on Chuck Berry's "Back To Memphis" and the almost-unrecognizable Stevie Wonder ballad "Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever" would have fit in well on the last album, and Robertson's sweet, shuffling contemporary tune "Endless Highway" (otherwise available only on Before The Flood) is nicely done.
Incidentally, I've seen a lengthy article arguing that this release doesn't match a bootleg from the show and does include outtakes from the Rock Of Ages shows instead, but regardless of the tracks' origin, they are useful to hear. (JA)
In 1974 Robertson guested on Joni Mitchell's "Raised On Robbery." (JA)
In 1975 a set of eight Band tracks (almost an album's worth) were hidden in the official release of the Basement Tapes, the group's widely bootlegged 1967 double album with Bob Dylan.
I've heard conflicting things about whether these tracks were newly recorded for the record.
To me, the eight tracks that were written and sung by Band members sound more carefully recorded and performed than the rest, which jibes with the theory I've heard that they were recorded much later.
Other people have told me the same thing.
However, the famous rock critic Greil Marcus' brother tells me that this is not true and the tracks were recorded in 1967 and 1968 as demos for Music From Big Pink.
Note that Greil Marcus wrote the liner notes for the record in consultation with Band members. (JA)
Northern Lights - Southern Cross (1976)
The group's last serious effort at a studio album of new material, and their first in four years - it's no surprise that Robertson had enough lyrics stocked up to fill out the whole thing.
The sound is softer than before, but the funky "Ring Your Bell" is practically a Philly soul tune, and the performances are mostly sharp, with some fine vocals (like Manuel's on the melodramatic "Hobo Jungle") and a few interesting experiments by Hudson ("Jupiter Hollow").
Meanwhile, Robertson's rubbery, lightly distorted lead guitar work is looser and more energetic than ever ("Forbidden Fruit").
They also don't update their sound all too much; Hudson slips a little synth into almost everything, but it's mostly in good taste and sometimes even recalls Stevie Wonder.
But "Jupiter Hollow" and the ballad "Rags And Bones" are drab and indistinct, and there's only room for eight titles because three key songs are bloated by six minute-plus running times: the mellow country-rock sing-along "Acadian Driftwood" (which suffers from Hudson's distractingly peppy, Gaelic-flavored piccolo parts), the crisp, burbling "Forbidden Fruit," and the wrenching, soulful "It Makes No Difference," with one of Danko's best vocals ever.
But between that stuff and the celebratory Dixieland/New Orleans R & B tune "Ophelia," the record still ends up being a respectable addition to their canon.
Well-known Nashville fiddler Byron Berline ("Acadian Driftwood") is the only guest. (JA)
Although the group was officially kaput by now, they still had a record contract with Capitol to complete, so they pumped out this blend of out-takes and a few new tracks. Most critics dump all over it, but it's not a toss-off; everything's carefully performed and even slick-sounding.
"Let The Night Fall" has a bittersweet refrain; "Christmas Must Be Tonight" is mellow and tuneful; the title track, with Larry Packard on violin, is a pleasant horn-driven instrumental.
And they do often successfully recycle their usual performing quirks and old-timey instrumentation (there's accordion all over "Knockin' Lost John").
Admittedly, most of the tunes just aren't memorable, and the frequent mid-70s studio pro vibe epitomizes everything the Band originally stood against - "Right As Rain" is soft-rock plain and simple.
There are two covers: Sam & Dave's "Ain't That A Lot Of Love," done up as unadulterated Stax-Volt, and Hoagy Carmichael's languid, sentimental "Georgia On My Mind," which they had released as an A side the previous year. Except for the hazy Danko-Robertson R & B tune "Street Walker," the rest is Robbie's.
Produced by the Band, but John Simon joins Hudson and two outside players in the horn section. (JA)
Rick Danko (Danko: 1977)
The first solo album by a Band member, with guest stars like Eric Clapton, Ron Wood, Helm, Hudson, and Manuel, a lot of well-known L.A. session players, and music by Danko (but lyrics by collaborators).
Danko's last solo album until some obscure releases during the 1990s. (JA)
Levon Helm & The RCO All-Stars (Helm: 1977)
Helm also was able to pull together a big-name lineup to record a major-label release.
This time the players include members of the MG's (Cropper, Dunn, and Jones), white bluesmen Paul Butterfield and Dr. John, and R & B singer Emeretta Marks, plus Hudson and Robertson but not Danko or Manuel.
Mostly original material with much of it by Dr. John.
A flop like Danko's record. (JA)
The Last Waltz (1978)
If you're looking for a live Band record this is definitely not the place to start, but the star power and ecelecticism make for some good clean fun. The 1976 concert recorded here was one of the most famous ever - it was even filmed and given a big-screen release. There are both two-CD and hard-to-find four-CD versions floating around; the "short" version that I have covers the key points.
It alternates between standard-issue Band tunes like "Life Is A Carnival"; a few unimpressive new compositions, either from Northern Lights or specially written for the show; a bunch of sloppily performed big hits by big 70s rock stars; and assorted blues numbers by friends of the Band like Ronnie Hawkins, Paul Butterfield, and Dr. John.
The heavy hitters are Neil Young ("Helpless"), Joni Mitchell ("Coyote"), Muddy Waters ("Mannish Boy"), Bob Dylan (a long, self-indulgent medley), and Van Morrison ("Tura-Lura-Lural"). A bunch of other folks show up and just don't do much, including Ringo Starr, Ron Wood, and Eric Clapton, who gets in an unremarkable "Further On Up The Road." And then there's always Neil Diamond and Emmylou Harris... a huge horn section and an orchestra crop up on several numbers, but that's par for the course. (JA)
Levon Helm (Helm: 1978)
Helm's ABC contract led to a second release, this one full of covers like Al Green's "Take Me To The River."
Cropper and Dunn are back, joined by a bunch of well-known Muscle Shoals R & B players like Hawkins and Hood, Barry Beckett, Jimmy Johnson, etc.
However, none of the other Band members appear on this solo record or Helm's next two. (JA)
American Son (Helm: 1980)
Helm managed to get this put out on MCA although the players are much more obscure this time (Kenny Buttrey is among them), and the song material is again pasted together from multiple sources. (JA)
Levon Helm (Helm: 1982)
His last solo album before the Band reformed without Robertson and turned into a small-time oldies act, confusingly lacking a title like his 1978 record because (presumably) it was his only Capitol release.
Another pile of Muscle Shoals musicians here like Beckett, Hawkins, Hood, Johnson, and even Pete Carr and Bonnie Bramlett. (JA)
Robbie Robertson (Robertson: 1987)
This one sounds nothing like a Band record, and the steamy hit single "Somewhere Down The Crazy River" certainly goes much farther in a synth-pop direction than you'd ever expect. Danko and Hudson guest on the album, but Helm doesn't; Terry Bozzio is the drummer. Produced by Daniel Lanois. (JA)
Storyville (Robertson: 1991)
It's frustrating to hear a talented veteran like Robertson get so carried away with overproduction.
It almost seems like he's trying to drown out his voice, which turns out to be a smokey, soulful whisper with almost no range.
Three different horn sections collide with fretless bass lines, soothing synth and organ parts, gospel singers, a brass band, and echoey Latin percussion courtesy of Alex Acuña.
Ironically, Robertson's singing style is so close to the ever-earnest Rick Danko's that spotlighting it would have cost him nothing.
But he ends up with the same drab sound on one five-minute song after another ("Day Of Reckoning" shuffles on for seven).
Geared for a thirty-something VH-1 audience, it's polite and superficially sophisticated but deadly dull, plastered with pompously spiritual lyrics, "uplifting" chord progressions, and atmospheric textures - he even rips off the Edge's shimmering guitar effects.
The best example is "Resurrection," but the catchiest tune also departs most strongly from this formula: "Go Back To Your Woods," a collaboration with Bruce Hornsby that has that glossy, Stax-Volt influenced 80s R & B/blues sound so popular among surviving Rock Legends.
Garth Hudson is on three tracks, and there are so many guests it's a circus: Ginger Baker, Ndugu Chancler, Mark Isham, and backing vocalists such as Danko, Mike Mills, the Neville Brothers, and Neil Young. (JA)
This is an honest-to-goodness brand-new studio album. The bad news is that with Manuel dead and Robertson not participating, it's a three-fifths Band effort - most of the members had been reunited since 1983, but the lack of Robertson seems to have kept them out of the studio. A million guest musicians were recruited to make up for it, most of them of little note except pianist Champion Jack Dupree. Without a real songwriter, the group went with a bunch of donated tunes and covers like Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City" (egads). At least John Simon was around to produce. (JA)
Music For The Native Americans (Robertson: 1994)
Robertson suddenly awoke to his ethnic heritage - he's half-Mohawk - and decided to make a solo album that would focus on Native American political issues and spotlight Native American musicians.
The resulting self-produced blend is odd, with his previous hi-tech 80s synth-pop sound leaving most tunes gasping for energy, but the angry lyrics and exotic musical elements adding some real interest.
The best moment is a superb, semi-a capella 3/4 traditional tune performed by singer Pura Fe and her group Ulali ("Mahk Jchi (Heartbeat Drum Song)").
The key players are bassist/guitarist Bill Dillon, percussionist Alex Acuña, plus Sebastian Robertson (drums), Tony Green (bass), Jim Wilson (programmed atmospheric sounds), and many others; with her sister and niece, Rita Coolidge (a Cherokee) adds backing vocals throughout. (JA)
High On The Hog (1996)
God-damn these guys sound good. But it's yet another three-fifths effort, so they have to scramble for song material: two Dylan tunes (they'd already performed "Forever Young" on Last Waltz and Dylan's Planet Waves), a bunch of obscure covers, and just one original composition, which isn't so great to start with ("Ramble Jungle," with Dupree on mumbling vocals).
There aren't quite so many backing musicians this time because a new Band had solidified around Rick Bell (keyboards), Randy Ciarlante (drums, vocals), and Jim Weider (guitar). Ciarlante is a gruff, but competent singer, and Weider is an extremely precise, skillful, and understated bluesman who plays more leads than Robertson ever bothered to. Meanwhile, the original members fully succeed in imitating their original sound, even when they're covering bizarre stuff like the feel-good political hip hop tune "Free Your Mind."
But without Robertson, the Band has devolved into a calculated nostalgia act. The performances just can't make up for the material and the production, which is so relentlessly slick that you can't wait to get the taste of NutraSweet out of your mouth once it's over.
Co-produced by Aaron Hurwitz, and there's no John Simon involvement; Richard Manuel is credited because he appears on a souped-up live recording from 1986 ("She Knows") that also surfaced on one of the box sets. (JA)
Ironically, on its last record the neo-Band suddenly started writing most of its own material - usually led by Danko or Helm and their assorted buddies (Hudson delivers the shimmering, jazz-fusion like solo instrumental snippet "French Girls").
But it's arguably the most listless record any version of the Band ever cut, rehashing the group's inimitable sound for no particular reason.
Eric Clapton arrives on "Last Train To Memphis," but it's exactly the kind of chugging, laid-back, self-consciously old-fashioned honky tonk blues he's done a million times.
Meanwhile, John Hiatt duets with Danko on his deadly-dull donation "Bound By Love."
They do put across one repetitive but amusing party-time New Orleans sing-along ("Spirit Of The Dance").
But the rest of the time the group mostly indulges in half-stoned sunny good vibes, with plodding rhythms and would-be-uplifting melodies (Paul Jost's "Book Faded Brown").
All the creaky old-time efforts are dull ("Don't Wait"), and often hopelessly sentimental ("High Cotton"; the glacial, unlistenable "If I Should Fail").
They even manage to leech the energy out of a Stax-Volt soul number ("Kentucky Downpour") and a honking Allen Toussaint R & B tune ("You See Me"), although the derivative boogie woogie "White Cadillac (Ode To Ronnie Hawkins)" is a bit fun.
Flawlessly professional, but the record's merely comfort music for baby boomers, with its old-timey obsessiveness proving just how much Robertson's progressive vision meant to the group.
Among the bit players Marie Spinosa sings backups and Tom Malone adds some horn parts.
Helm mostly sticks with mandolin or guitar; Bell is almost absent, and instead Aaron Hurwitz adds piano and/or accordion to most tracks.
Co-produced by Hurwitz and the Band. (JA)
Contact From The Underworld Of Red Boy (Robertson: 1998)
Robertson's next step was even more bizarre and off-putting, but it's his most important artistic statement in a quarter-century.
He's still obsessed with Native American politics, so again there are a bunch of pointed, self-affirming political lyrics, and there's an even longer list of Native American guest musicians - even including a pair of Inuit singers and left wing cause celebre prisoner Leonard Pelletier (who recites his life story over one number).
But this time Robertson also decides to go with the high-brow techno production standards of recent U2 releases, even recruiting U2 mix master Howie B. to craft several tracks, and getting the same spaced-out, hypnotic sound out of additional producers like Marius de Vries.
I'm still formulating an opinion, but it's clearly a step up from his 1994 release, and if you like anything from Robertson's solo period - or if you're a 90s U2 fan - you'll find this really interesting and occasionally downright fun. (JA)
The Sea To The North (Hudson: 2001)
There's a cover of the Dead's "Dark Star," but most of the tunes were written or co-written by Hudson.
Produced by Aaron Hurwitz, who's on keyboards; guests include Helm, Willie Weeks, and a couple members of the Call. (JA)
Can't weight to get out of here?