Category Archives: The Band

Small Town Talk Speaks Volumes

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Any book dealing with Bob Dylan is usually full of conundrums and partial truths, but any book dealing with Bob Dylan is usually a good read. Sprinkle in The Band, Van Morrison, Paul Butterfield, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Todd Rundgren and other rock notables and you should have an enjoyable word stew. Barney Hoskyns’ new book, Small Town Talk, is a very good entree.

Dylan was visiting his brooding, enigmatic manger Albert Grossman in Woodstock NY. He had just returned from a hard grueling career changing 1966 electric world tour with his backing band, The Hawks. He needed to re-charge. Woodstock was the ideal place for him and his family to leave the public eye and enjoy a more rural pastoral life. In other words Bob was tired.

That all changed on July 29, 1966 when Bob wrecked his beloved Triumph motorcycle. Reports of the time ranged from his death, to broken neck to career ending injuries… at this point the book takes off.

During his recovery Bob invited The Hawks up to the village to play, write, and have some fun. The Hawks became The Band, the playing and writing became The Basement Tapes and the fun became infectious. Word leaked about what was happening up in Old Woodstock, then the songs leaked out and then Big Pink leaked out,  then everything changed.

Soon every rock star passed through, visited  or moved to the tiny village, and with them came sex, drugs, and, you know, rock and roll. It was a startling invasion of not only musicians but their entourages: parasites, groupies, drug dealers and media. This book chronicles those stories from 1966 until today. Some of the best parts of the story is how the locality and its governing officials and town business owners had to deal with this new paradigm of change. (The Chief Of Police has some fine stories with regards to the driving escapades of certain members of The Band ). Money was flowing in, but the quiet farming/art community was becoming more Greenwich Village than Mayberry. A seamy underbelly was growing underneath the narrow streets of the beautiful old village. The uneasy balance between old and new Woodstock is as much a character in the story as any musician. It is also filled with sadness as many of the Woodstock icons succumbed to their demons: Richard Manuel, Janis Joplin, Rick Danko and others.

Small Town Talk is a wonderful read, and any rock fan who cares about the birth of the Americana genre should pick it up. I’m betting most Dylan and Band fans already have. My only complaint is I wish the author would have dug deeper into the locals’ reaction to the conquering horde, being from a small town I know how my father would have.

Available at your favorite bookstore and here at Amazon.

A Tale of Two Bands

On November 25, Thanksgiving, 1976 at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom The Band called it quits. They called it in style with a huge guest filled concert that was labeled The Last Waltz. After 17 years on the road, the toll on Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel was being to show emotionally and physically. The film and recording of this event has gone down as one of the greatest live concerts ever staged. But there’s more to add to their legacy with two new found recordings.

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The first being a recording of a concert only fours months before The Last Waltz. The Band at Carter Baron Amphitheater Washington DC, July 17th 1976 proves they were not throwing the towel in on other dates of their last tour. I was fortunate to be in the audience that night, it was a downpour of rain but the show went on.

I had seen The Band many times before, even followed The Band/Dylan Before The Flood Tour on its East Coast dates. This show was bittersweet  for me, the audience knew it was maybe the last time they would ever see one of the greatest bands and live acts on stage. But The Band came to play and the recording proves it. Starting with their “we own this now” cover of Don’t Do It  to the ending notes of W. S. Walcott Medicine Show, their playing is committed and sharp. The vocals, always a benchmark of a Band show, were great except for Manuel’s which were strained and weary. Always considered the lead singer by his bandmates, his voice was showing the road and all its distractions. Robbie’s guitar work on the recording is the best I’ve ever heard, his lead on Forbidden Fruit just kills it. Garth doesn’t go off the charts as he was capable of with his keyboard work but still keeps the glue. Rick was always an inspired bassist and sometimes an ethereal vocalist, here he proves both especially on It Makes No Difference. As always Levon’s drum work was in the pocket and his vocals impassioned and impeccable. He was always the heart and soul of this unit. Other highlights are Twilight and a bare bones non-horned up Ophelia. A full track listing follows at the end of this post. A worthy and important addition for any Band fan.

81auja5zysL._SL1425_In 1983 members of The Band reconvened as a touring unit minus Robbie Robertson, his guitar work taken over by The Cate Brothers; and though not on stage, his brilliant songwriting was in full force. This is a recording of their first concert since The Last Waltz. They had played together backing Danko’s solo work and in some impromptu jams with other artists, but this was the kickoff, the 2nd Act. Recorded in Chicago’s Mandel Hall on November 6, 1983 as a FM broadcast special The Band came roaring back and took names. That concert can now be found on a new and most worthy CD called And Then There Was Four.
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Starting with some drum kicks and whoops The Band storms into Up On Cripple Creek and never lets up. You can feel the love on stage as they played old favorites, a solo Danko tune and some lively blues numbers that Levon was swimming deep in since 1976. The Cate Brothers do admirable work here but even two guitarists could not match the staccato power of Robertson live, but the exuberance of the performances more than makes up for it. Every song is good and for a board recording of a radio broadcast, the quality is great. I do nothing but smile when I hear them.  Some standouts are The Shape I’m In, Rag Mama Rag and a wonderful joyous version of (I Don’t Want To) Hang up My Rock and Roll Shoes.  A complete track listing follows at the end of the post.

The biggest notice here is the quality of Manuel’s voice, what was weary and worn in 1976 was strong and pure here, listen to King Harvest Has Surely Come and I Shall Be Released for the proof. Sadly this would not last, three years later in an undiagnosed depression he took his own life in a Florida motel during a tour. This tragic incident ending this second chapter of The Band. The third chapter was seven years away with the release of Jericho, a superb album that kicked off a short lived but beautiful Renaissance. #

 

The Band ‎– Carter Barron Amphitheater Washington DC, July 17th 1976

1 – Don’t Do It
2 –  The Shape I’m In
3 –  It Makes No Difference
4 – The Weight
5 – King Harvest (Has Surely Come)
6 – Twilight
7 – Ophelia
8 – Tears Of Rage
9 – Forbidden Fruit
10 – This Wheel’s On Fire
11 – The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
12  – The Genetic Method
13 – Chest Fever
14 – Up On Cripple Creek
14 – The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show

And Then There Were Four

1 – Up on Cripple Creek                                                                                                  2 – The Shape I’m In
3 – It Makes No Difference
4 – Milk Cow Boogie
5 – Mystery Train
6 – King Harvest
7 – Java Blues
8 – I Shall Be Released
9 – Rag Mama Rag
10 – Long Black Veil
11 – (I Don’t Want To) Hang up My Rock and Roll Shoes
12 – The Weight
13 – Ophelia

 

Five Favorite Album Covers

I love album covers. It’s the thing I miss the most about vinyl. I know vinyl is back, but most of the time the cover is designed for the CD, digital image AND the vinyl album. Not much room for nuance when the design is made for a .375 inch square avatar instead  of a square foot canvas.

The following are five of my favorite covers, I’m not saying they are the best, just five art/designs that hold special to me. I also admit what sound came from their sleeves made an impression on the choices.

5. Sailin’ Shoes – Little Feat  This was not only my initial introduction to the band but to their cover artist, Neon Park. He went on to make many more Feat covers and became a much in-demand  illustrator. Sailin’ Shoes remains my favorite Feat album and my favorite Park cover. I mean an anthropomorphized slice of cake on a swing, half a blue boy and a voyeuristic  snail, come on!

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4. Led Zeppelin  This album burst out of the speakers like a rock blues hurricane, and the album art captures that explosion. All of Zeppelin’s covers were fantastic but its first, and starkest design, is the best. Note: the band and friends thought this album would fail like a lead ballon, thus the band name and the art: crash of the Hindenburg.

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3. School’s Out – Alice Cooper  A perfect album cover for me at the time. Released in the Summer of 1972, I had just graduated high school and the single and the album became athemic. The cover was also interactive. It was a desk. Using great photography, oragami and wicked attention to detail, this design stood as art or at least a good high school shop project. Note: the original release album sleeve was a pair of girl’s panties soon replaced by a regular paper sleeve. Alice knew his audience, huh?

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2. The Band – The Band   Designed by the great Bob Cato, using an Elliot Landy photograph, this simple cover speaks volumes of what waits inside. Their first album, Music From Big Pink (and a contender for this list) did not show the members of the group on either the front or the back; you had to open it up to see the group. Here they confront you head-on, staring at you from another time. This was the time of paisley and psychedelic design and fonts. Not this band, there were dressed as workers, laborers, as if they stepped out of 1940’s  America. Hell, they could’ve been mistaken for hobos then. The album was sepia toned as if taken from our grandparents’ scrapbook. And the music reflected it all, and magnificently. A masterpiece.

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1. Revolver – The Beatles  Now you know I could’ve put lots of Fab covers here, as a matter of fact all five spots could be Fab covers: With The Beatles, Rubber Soul, Sgt. Pepper, The Beatles (White Album), Abbey Road. But Revolver is my favorite. Designed and drawn by their friend and fellow musician Klaus Voorman, the cover captured the band as they were moving from Fabdom to somewhere else. It captures this space in time and the music within perfectly. As a professional graphic designer I think it is beautifully rendered and remains timeless. It also won the Grammy for Best Album Cover Design, that’s one they got right.

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OK, one more, not really a favorite but this design for Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats freaked me out in 1969 and still does today. Some cats have nightmares about bogeymen and monsters, I have nightmares of Hot Rats.

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I’d love to know some of your favorite covers and why.

 

 

Overlooked, initially underwhelming and woefully underplayed classics.


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Before Jive Talking and Saturday Night Fever, the Bee Gees were a great pop band. Consisting of three brothers Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb. They were responsible for hits like To Love Somebody, I Gotta Get A Message To You, Massachusetts, Words and many others. After the release of their 1969 double velvet encased album Odessa, Robin left the group to pursue a solo career. Odessa remains their crowning pop achievement, but it is the next release, Cucumber Castle, minus Robin, that we touch on here. From the album cover, with the two remaining Gibbs dressed as Knights, plumes intact, to the music’s over the top production, everything about Cucumber Castle is in excess.

Through my many years of listening to music, this is without a doubt the most overproduced, lush, bloated, garish, dense, beautiful mess I’ve ever heard and I love it. Don’t Forget To Remember Me, Bury Me Down By A River and I Lay Down And Die seem as if they were written in an English manor with a baroque quartet during the 17th Century then updated with a bit of pop sensibility pepper. The album is a masterpiece of production that holds up to any of today’s rock, pop or classical release engineering. It is stunningly beautiful. The only clunker on the album is the song My Thing, I’ve never understood its inclusion as it breaks up the thick sonic cycle before and after it.

Cucumber Castle was not a hit album release and didn’t birth the usual Bee Gees top singles. It was and is overshadowed by its predecessor Odessa, the follow up album 2 Years On, featuring the return of Robin and the smash hit Lonely Days, the subsequent Top 40 hits and finally the mega success of the Saturday Night Fever era and their mirror ball future. Buried in that hubris of great pop and decadent disco are the bold shining nuggets and crystals of Cucumber Castle. It is a place worth visiting.

Note: I have no idea why the CD of Cucumber Castle is so high on amazon, so here is a link to the mp3 version and a iTunes download.

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When your first two albums are true musical masterpieces the third has the potential to add to your legacy, disappoint and question the preceding work or take a back seat to it. In the case of The Band’s Stage Fright the majority view lies with the latter, mine the former, very few the middle. A tiny number of artists create their seminal works with their debut and sophomore release, but with Music From Big Pink and The Band (aka The Brown Album), The Band did just that. Seasoned musical veterans of years on the road with Ronnie Hawkins, a tour as Bob Dylan’s backing band and months of wood shedding songs together gave birth to these two incredible albums. Hailed as heroes of the new country rock genre with a cover feature in Time Magazine, lauded by critics worldwide, the pressure on their third release was enormous.

The critics were not kind to Stage Fright, but every critique was based on what came before, and what came before was different. There was less cornfield and more rock in the grooves of Stage Fright. Less sharecropper observations and more street views. Less in-the-moment songs and more remembrance. It was also a work by a successful band instead of struggling musicians in search of not only a career but a steady paycheck. They had stopped living and working together,  they now had families and separate lives and paths. Looking back on Stage Fright, time has lessened the critical web surrounding it. It was unfair to expect The Band to stay the course and not explore their rock and rhythm and blues alleys. And really, how can any album containing songs as rich and remarkable as Stage Fright, W.S. Walcott Medicine Show, The Shape I’m In, Daniel And The Sacred Heart and The Rumor be considered anything other than triumphant.

Though musically estranged from its older siblings, I believe Stage Fright stands with them as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, consecutive first three albums by any musical artists.

The Basement Tapes Complete – Raw Myths

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In 1967 in Woodstock, New York recovering from a motorcycle accident, Bob Dylan gathered his then touring band (who by then had become close friends) in a basement of a frame house painted pink to record a few songs for shits, giggles and history.

This gathering and these songs became a treasure hidden by layers of dust and fable. The house became Big Pink and the friends became one of the most important groups in American rock and roll, The Band. For years those songs swirled around the music universe, some released in bootlegs such as The Great White Wonder and finally in 1975 an authorized truncated double album called The Basement Tapes. This release was sweetened in the studio and only contained 24 songs. Although it satisfied the hunger for these sessions we all knew there was more to hear from those months of woodshedding.

Finally those days and those songs have reached the light of day with the release of The Basement Tapes Complete. A sprawling 6 CD set of 138 songs capturing a pure moment of time and artists. From experience I can tell you nothing is as spiritually lifting and exuberant as making music with friends, and second to that is being able to listen to it being made. This release fulfills the latter.

The songs run from traditional folk and blues covers, Johnny Cash and Curtis Mayfield tunes to hammering out new original works. Some of those dents hammered into classics like I Shall Be Released, You Aint Going Nowhere, Tears Of Rage, This Wheel’s On Fire, Quinn The Eskimo and many others. You hear the sheer happiness and fun these musicians are having; thankfully a reel to reel tape recorder was on capturing every guffaw and every perfection. Don’t expect a shimmering sound, this is raw stuff, recorded in the absolute lowest fi, but it’s real. It was the first trek on the genre road we now mark as Americana.

Dylan takes lead vocal on every song while The Band works out backgrounds and harmonies. This is also Dylan’s finest recorded vocal performances. He is relaxed and uses his honey soaked throat (think Lay Lady Lay) on many numbers while on others he is full of irony and bitterness. But never too serious, the setting and the musicians around him didn’t allow it. The other revelatory aspect of this set is to hear the interplay of The Band, just off years of playing electric blues and rock, including the just concluded first Dylan rock tour, they expertly handle the acoustic country folk arrangements. Some of their work here is jaw dropping with a vast canvas of instruments and voicing. This music is flesh, blood, laughter, heart and history all unfiltered and magnificent.

This release finally opens and closes the chest containing one of the most sought after troves of musical enlightenment by one of the greatest songwriters and bands to ever strike a note. It is myth making and it’s a true, you just have listen.

Note: a slimmed down 2 CD version is also available, The Basement Tapes Raw. 

Levon Helm – An Appreciation

I saw The Band over 30 times. They were my first concert way back when as a sophomore in high school. That night they tore up Merriwether Post Pavilion. In 1974 from January 15th through the 22nd, I saw The Dylan/Band: Before The Flood Tour six times in four cities. The last time I saw them was at Wolf Trap opening for John Prine. I took my daughter Morgan for her first ever concert. As much as I loved it, I think she was too young to appreciate the music, but she liked the tie-died Life Is A Carnival tee shirt I bought her.

One visit to New York City in 1981 at a small club I was fortunate to see an impromptu show by Steve Forbert. He was joined by Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Levon Helm. As great as the music was, it was made fantastic because during the break and after the show all four artists sat at our table. It remains a memory that has become almost surreal. All I can say is that they were down to earth, friendly, and gracious. They were cats you could hang with at the local bar or pool room. The clearest moment I have is that every time the waitress (her name was Rhonda and she was from Virginia and is the reason why we were so well seated and treated) brought the table drinks Levon would say in that beautiful soft southern drawl “thank you m’am”.

Every member of The Band, except Richard Manuel, would tell you Richard was their lead singer. But for me the voice of The Band was Levon. My first introduction to their music was his line “I pulled into Nazareth…” Hell, I never pulled out. He is considered by many as one of the best drummers of his and any generation, I cannot attest to that but I know the cat could play, and as he played he sang his ass off.

Over the past days so many appreciations of Levon have been written and read. They tell of his days as a boy in Arkansas, his stay as a teenager drummer in Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, Dylan years, The Band, the Last Waltz, acting, The Band’s reemergence, the illness, Midnight Rambles, revived solo career and Grammy awards. I urge you to take time to read about this remarkable artist, man, friend, father and grandfather.

This is what I know. The following are links to what I consider are his greatest vocal performances, and they are what I want people to hear as a tribute to this American troubadour, this music legend.

When I Paint My Masterpiece – A Bob Dylan song that The Band and especially Levon added the masterstroke to.

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down – This is the live Last Waltz rendition and it’s revelatory. Levon sings as if a gun is held to his head and his life depended on this particular take. It’s one of the greatest vocals of all time.

Atlantic City – Bruce Springsteen may have written it, but The Band and especially Levon own it.

Tennessee Jed – From his last solo album, Electric Dirt. His voice, ravaged by time and illness, still conveys his power and the innate good natured inflection I love about his voice. And his pitch, as always, perfect.

So rest easy Levon, we here know the drum stool is now taken in Heaven, you and Rick and Richard can start a band.

The Weight of your favorite song.

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What’s your favorite song?

That’s a question we all are asked a few times during our life time.

Knowing me you would think a Beatle song of course and you would be very close, because if I had to pick my second favorite song it would be their brilliant, romantic and nostalgic classic “In My Life”.

My favorite song is “The Weight”, performed by The Band and written by Robbie Robertson. This work spoke to me at an early age. It was 1968, I was 14 years old when I first heard it broadcast from my FM radio and I was immediately struck by the sound and honesty of it. Even the name of the group was dramatic, THE BAND. During this period of music it was the time of Strawberry Alarm Clock, The Chocolate Wristband, The Electric Prunes and many more who copped their handle from the elongated Beatles’ moniker, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The longer or weirder the better, because in order to play the “in” music of the time, psychedelic, the more shocking or experimental your band’s name should be.

Then out of the fog of smoke machines, back-lit slide shows and surrealistic lyrics stepped out five road tested musicians with songs about people, places and things. They didn’t wear Nehru shirts or dashikis, instead they wore jeans, vintage suits and fedoras. Their album (Music From Big Pink) design wasn’t paisley patterned with smoking pigs but adorned with photographs of their families as if at a large family reunion. Their music was the same.

The songs were real, the voices of working men singing songs of their past and their future hopes. They sounded “old”, familiar even on first listen. A complete break from “Incense and Peppermints” to dirt and corn. And leading me to their revival tent of American music history was “The Weight”.

“I pulled into Nazareth…”

The journey stars with that phrase, could it be the Nazareth of the Bible or the town in Pennsylvania where the best acoustic guitars have been made for decades, C.F. Martin & Company?

And who are Carmen and the Devil, Luke, Crazy Chester or the Fanny who has the load to bear throughout the song…. and why take the load from her. It was and remains as mysterious, haunting, enigmatic and beautiful today as the first time I heard it.

It is my favorite song because it led me to many different roads of music: folk, country, bluegrass, New Orleans, Appalachian… they are too numerous to list.

It’s my favorite song because it made me feel that music was hand-hewn and not something so far beyond me that it was impossible achieve. For the first time in my life music became a living breathing thing in my life and not just wonderful grooves on vinyl. It also brought kinship with the music of my father. I began to understand his love of Johnny Cash and finally got his affection for Hank Wilson. “The Weight” did that for me.

Every time I hear the guitar start that beautifully mournful roll into its opening line, all those feelings of family, friends and times-had roll back to me as Levon Helm starts to sing. And when it comes to its closing, whatever mood I may have been in, it is improved with bittersweet memories of times gone and times to come.

That’s why it is my favorite song.

I wish you would share yours, too.

My Five and Why.

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I was asked the other day what are my favorite albums? I really couldn’t answer because I have so many, but I was pressed and I gave an answer. Looking back on it, and having time to ponder, I’ve picked the five that I would have to keep. The five you could only listen to for the rest-of -your-life-five.  I made some parameters: only one from any artist/band, no live albums, no greatest hits and no various collections (no K-tel allowed baby).

1. Rubber Soul – The Beatles. No surprise I’m sure, they are intrinsic to my DNA, picking one was almost impossible, but I listen to Rubber Soul at least once a week, how could I not ever hear it again.

2. The Band (The Brown Album) – The Band – A seminal work for me, easing out Music From Big Pink by a guitar string. This album changed the way I heard and thought about music and it’s rich American heritage. Through this piece of work I discovered Bob Dylan, the blues, country and western, gospel and much more. It forked the road for me from British/American pop to another darker less traveled path.

3. Into the Music – Van Morrison. I can’t imagine never hearing Van’s voice again, and this work shines vocally. In his grunts and swoons I can hear Elvis, Jackie Wilson, Tom Waits, Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett, Frank Sinatra and many more. I chose this for the vocalists I love, with Van at the top of the heap.

4. Broken Moon – Lowen & Navarro. I cannot put into words how I feel about this album, it has healed me many times. I think Eric Lowen and Dan Navarro are two of the best songwriters, singers and performers I have ever had the pleasure to know. I have given this album to friends almost as much as I have given them Rubber Soul;  it’s that good and that important to me. Lowen and Navarro are the brave working troubadours, carrying on a time honored tradition of  songwriting and truth. And brave may be too weak a word.

5. Honky Tonk Heroes – Waylon Jennings. The greatest country album by one of the greatest country artists. The songs of Billy Joe Shafer brought to stunning life by a crackerjack band and a soulful singer. But it’s on the list for more than that, this album is a chapter of my life in 1973-1975 that remains as some of the best years I had as a young man and with the best brothers- in-arms a friend could ask for… and also because of Lakeside Amusement Park, three fingered whiskey and wiiiiiiild buffaloes.

So there’s my five and why, now you do the same, post yours in the comments below and let’s listen to what your life is like.