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Band - The Music of The Band

  by Carl Bookstein

published: 31 / 7 / 2009

Band - The Music of The Band


In the latest in our 'Soundtrack to Our Lives' series, in which our writers describe the personal impact of music on their lives, Carl Bookstein writes about the revelation for him of discovering the music of The Band in his late teens

The music that came out of Big Pink, the late 1960s Woodstock, New York clubhouse and home to The Band was a pure revelation. It was a sound that was earthbound yet pristine. In my life, particularly in my college years, I found a refuge in the music of The Band- an absolute comfort zone. Their music transported me to a peaceful, more beautiful place. The Band left behind their stint as Bob Dylan’s storied back up group to lay down some of the most gorgeous roots based music ever recorded. Their sound was a complete departure from the 1960s psychedelic rock era. 'Music from Big Pink', The Band’s debut album recorded in 1968 defies all categorization: rock, country, folk, gospel, bluegrass and a bit of blues all at once. While 'Big Pink' remains my most treasured Band recording, it was 'Best of The Band' that I first discovered. The year was 1980, I was eighteen and, through pure felicity, my uncle left an 8-track tape of the 'Best of The Band' in a woven wooden basket in my family’s Northern Michigan summer home. My uncle was a former bluegrass musician and a hero to me as well. I truly valued his taste. I put the 8-track in the stereo and could not believe the sound I was hearing. 'The Weight', 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' and the touching ballad 'Tears of Rage' washed over me. Instantly I was hooked. This seemed to me the richest, most down home music I had ever heard. The Band quickly became my absolute favourite. Somehow my very soul was reflected through the light of their music. Robbie Robertson was the lead guitarist and principal genius songwriter. Drummer Levon Helm, bassist Rick Danko and pianist Richard Manuel traded vocal duties like a trio of countrified rock angels- for my ears, a heavenly choir. Garth Hudson, a brilliant organ player, completed the quintet. For years, my adventures were aligned with The Band. In the summer of 1981 I was listening heavily to Bob Dylan and The Band’s live tour album 'Before the Flood'. I had a ticket to see Dylan live later that summer. I was a big Dylan fan, but for me his most appealing work including 'The Basement Tapes' was his work with The Band. That summer I hitchhiked 300 miles from Northern Michigan to the Pine Knob music theater in metro Detroit to see Dylan live. I was somehow on a quest to hear the sound of 1974’s 'Before the Flood' recaptured. In 1981 Dylan was in his gospel period, which I would later come to appreciate. At this show, however, I would be disappointed that gospel Dylan was definitely not the music of Bob Dylan and The Band. The Band, aside from Arkansas born Levon Helm, all hail from Canada. There they honed their craft as the Hawks, backing up rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins in blues bars and dives across the North American landscape of that country. Despite his Canadian upbringing, Robbie Robertson would with songs like 'Across the Great Divide' and 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down', write music that would help define America. His songwriter voice captured a graceful and authentic America that arose out of the ashes of the South and the Civil War. Back in my young Northern Michigan days, I would watch the sunset melt into Lake Michigan as I listened to the music of The Band. The beauty of nature and their music came together for me then. The Band is forever tied to my memories of coming of age. Among their accomplishments, The Band helped Dylan go electric as the back-up band for his first electric tour in 1965. In 1965 and 1966 audiences of folkie purists would boo through song after song, seeing Dylan as a traitor who left folk music behind. Nevertheless the music that was being played by Dylan and The Band at this time was an absolute sonic epiphany. The first two albums by The Band, 'Music from Big Pink' and 'The Band', recorded at the tail end of the 1960s are both masterpieces. The Band was an equal musical collective where each member played a vital role. Their dress, rural garb that could have come from the previous century was actually timeless. Their lyrics and music were far removed from the psychedelic conventions of the time. 'Music from Big Pink' is beautiful and wondrous- always one of my top five favorite albums of all time. 'Tears of Rage', the opener features an absolute emotion filled vocal by Richard Manuel (who has been called “the white Ray Charles”). Robertson’s majestic 'The Weight' is positively addictive as Helm, Danko and Manuel all contribute interlocking vocal parts. Dylan’s 'I Shall Be Released' closes 'Big Pink' with a lovely falsetto vocal by Manuel. The harmony of the chorus is a perfect example of The Band’s characteristic vocal blend: Manuel on top, Danko in the middle and Helm on bottom. For me, listening to 'Big Pink' was like going to church. The music, at once earthly and heavenly, literally gave me religion. It likewise fostered in me a feeling of connection to the land. In every way the music of The Band captured my imagination. In 1976 The Band would retire with 'The Last Waltz', their guest-filled, Martin Scorsese filmed farewell concert which I would watch countless times. The Band would later reunite, although Robertson would not be a part of it. In Ann Arbor, my University of Michigan college town, I would see the reunited Band in 1984 when they played the Second Chance bar. After an impressive show I would venture backstage, where I was lucky enough to be invited to eat Chinese food with The Band. I talked to Richard Manuel about their recent tour of Japan. He said that Japan was a beautiful country and a rewarding place to play. I was genuinely grateful to meet Manuel, who died two years later in 1986. It felt like a real stroke of luck. This was a time, like so many others, when my whole life seemed richer and truly blessed for the music of The Band.

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Band - The Music of The Band

Band - The Music of The Band

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