You, me, the music, and me.

Thursday, April 20, 2006


Capitol STAO-132 (1969)

How did a group that was four-fifths Canadian manage to capture the sound of America so completely in their music? From their origins as Ronnie Hawkins' backing band, to their seminal work with Bob Dylan during his conversion from acoustic folk to electric rock and roll, to their own timeless songs and albums, the Band have always had an uncanny knack for capturing the sound of the American heartland; their unique mix of country, folk, blues, and rock sounded like no one else at the time and remains immediately identifiable to this day.

The Band was the second album from the group and showed a marked increase in confidence and versatility. Songs like "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and "Up on Cripple Creek" are such perfect representations of early American folk music that it's easy to forget that they were written by a young Robbie Robertson (credited here as "Jaime Robbie Robertson") at the end of the sixties (much the same way that people forget that "Ol' Man River" isn't actually an old Negro spiritual but a piece of modern musical theatre).

In addition to having one brilliant songwriter, the Band was blessed with three terrific singers. Drummer Levon Helm (the group's sole American) had a gruff but clear workingman's tenor that fit the roguish narrator of "Up on Cripple Creek" to a tee. Bassist Rick Danko possessed a rubbery, plaintive voice that was well-suited to the questioning uncertainties of "Across the Great Divide" and "Unfaithful Servant", and keyboardist Richard Manuel had a shivery, unearthly falsetto that could be moving and unsettling at the same time (as on "Whispering Pines").

Each member of the Band was able to play at least a couple of instruments, but their secret weapon was certainly organist Garth Hudson, who is credited on the album with "organ, clavinette, piano, accordion, soprano, tenor and baritone-sax and slide trumpet"! According to an anecdote from the concert film The Last Waltz, before going on tour with the group for the first time, Hudson had asked for an additional small stipend from each of the band members; the group later learned that this was so he could tell his mother that he was only going on the road with them so that he could give them music lessons!

The Band have several compilations and box sets on the market, but their second album is truly essential, a snapshot of a sound and a voice that is American in its nature but universal in its appeal.


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