Tuesday, December 8, 2009

December 8: The Band, "The Band"

Artist: The Band
Album: The Band
Year: 1969
Label: Capitol

Often times, the success of a single artist is largely due to their backing band, yet these backing members often go unnoticed and uncredited. Whether it was The Funk Brothers laying the groundwork for nearly every Motown classic, The J.B.'s giving James Brown all the "soul power" he could handle, Booker T & The MG's behind countless recordings for Stax Records, many of these backing groups proved to be equally, if not moreso talented then their frontmen. When it comes to backing bands that made massive impact after stepping away as their "own" group, there are perhaps none more influential then the group of musicians who backed Bob Dylan during his early "electric years," the simply titled, The Band. Standing as one of the most important groups of their generation, it was The Band that formally bridged the gap between country music, folk music, and rock and roll. With melodies and vocals that are instantly recognizable, the music of The Band has influenced everyone from Blind Faith to Elvis Costello and countless other acts. Though The Band may be best known for their timeless debut single, "The Weight," it is on their sophomore effort, 1969's The Band, that the true genius and musical mastery of the group comes into focus, and it results in one of the most stunning albums ever recorded.

The music scene of the late 1960's was being dominated by psychedelic rock bands across the world, and while the music of The Band was about as far a cry as you could get from the current releases from The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, the fact of the matter is, they were garnering just as much critical acclaim. The way with which The Band presented a sound that seemed to be the polar opposite of the music of the time, as the group sounded like five different musicians working towards the same goal, made them instant superstars, and their level of musicianship was also largely unparalleled. The Band seemed to reject the heavily harmonized and single focus that was dominating music at the time, and though the songs are unquestionably cohesive, each group member works towards the "goal" of the song in their own, individual fashion. It is within this unique sound that the influences of each band member, ranging from blues to country to r&b, can clearly be heard, and this "group jam" mentality remains one of the most stunning and influential aspects of their music. Much like on their debut record, every song has a "timeless" quality to it, and The Band's somewhat ironic focus on the American country archetypes (they were Canadian) continues to shine through on each track. However, on The Band, it is clear that the two years since their debut has helped them to grow as musicians and as a group, and the songs are far better structured and cohesive then one finds on their first album.

Though there are only five musicians pictured on the cover of The Band, there are in fact six players on the record, and the music created by the group is like that of no other band at the time. One of the key reasons for the huge musical step forward from their debut is the fact that on The Band, guitarist Robbie Robertson largely took over the songwriting duties, as each song on the album is either completely written by him, or with him as a co-writer. As it was on their debut, Robertson's guitar work is beautifully fantastic, and he manages to find musical progressions that perfectly capture the emotions which the band are attempting to convey. With dual organs and electric piano from Garth Hudson and Josh Simon, the songs found on The Band have a full sound that is simply unparalleled among the other albums of the time. This is also where The Band's heavy influence from funk can be heard, especially on the albums' second single, "Up On Cripple Creek." Multi-instrumentalist Richard Manuel plays everything from drums to piano to saxophone on The Band, and it is this sort of musical versatility that makes the songs on the record so unique. Rounding out the band is one of the finest rhythm sections ever captured on tape, bassist Rick Danko and drumming legend, Levon Helm. Though Helm had departed from The Band during their time with Dylan, it is clear that not only did he share a special bond with the other members, but it is often his playing that gives the group their signature sound.

Along with the various instruments that each band member plays, the vocals are equally diverse, and the unique vocal harmonies are a unlike those of other bands. Without question the most recognizable of all the voices is that of Levon Helm, and his work on the albums' best known song, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is a perfect example of musical perfection. Helm's voice soars on the track, and the raw emotion that he presents is the key to the songs' success, as it has been covered countless times over the years by everyone form Johnny Cash to The Black Crowes. Helm also handles the lead vocals on The Band's other standout track, the equally timeless, "Up On Cripple Creek." It is on this song that one will find perhaps the first ever use of a "wah" peddle on a Hohner Clavinet, and this practice fueled an entire generation of musicians who followed. In many ways, "Up On Cripple Creek" is the ultimate song from The Band, as it incorporates all of their favorite themes: "Americana," drinking, and the overall folk sound. Whether a slow, bluesy song or a more upbeat number, The Band excel brilliantly on every song, and this ability to play their signature sound in a number of styles is what makes the record so stunning. While it was obviously not the case, one can easily imagine the songs found on The Band being played around a campfire in the middle of nowhere, and this homey, intimate feeling is one of the key aspects that makes The Band such a magnificent recording.

While The Band's debut record was an absolutely shock to the musical system at the time, it wasn't until their sophomore effort appeared that they became true music legends. With a far more diverse sound in terms of arrangements and tempo, The Band proved that the group could excel beyond the slow, mournful songs that dominated their first album. Without question, the deep emotion and conviction behind the songs is still very much present, but it is clear that the years between albums enabled the group to mature musically, and the true genius behind their music is far more clear and focused. Led by the amazing voice of Levon Helm and the unparalleled songwriting of Robbie Robertson, The Band's second record unquestionably marks one of the most pivotal moments in music history. It is largely due to their efforts that the folk, country, and blues found their way into the more rock-based format, and countless artists continue to benefit from their pioneering efforts to this day. Creating musical textures unlike that of any other group, the wall of sound that is found on every song on The Band is truly magnificent, from the layered keyboards, to the unique guitar work, to the drumming that pushes each song ahead is like nothing else one can experience from any other group. Similarly, the vocals, both solos and group harmonies make the sound of The Band instantly recognizable, and it is one of the main reasons why their songs have stood the test of time. Though their debut album was a solid effort and is well worth owning, it was the second, self titled 1969 release from The Band that showed the world the extent of their exceptional talents and it remains one of the most phenomenal and important albums ever recorded.

Standout tracks: "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "Up On Cripple Creek," and "Jawbone."

1 comment:

rockandrollguru said...

It doesn't get much better than The Band...and this album is a classic. I think I'll drag out my vinyl copy and put it on right now.