When the Band emerged in 1968 with Music From Big Pink, they were already a seasoned and cohesive unit. Four of the band, Robbie Robertson (guitar/vocals), Richard Manuel (piano, drums, vocals), Garth Hudson (keyboards, saxophone, accordion) and Rick Danko (bass/vocals), had embraced rock 'n' roll during its first flush of success in the late 50s. One by one they joined the Hawks, a backing group formed by US rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins that included fellow American Levon Helm (drums, mandolin, vocals). A minor figure in the USA, by the late 50s Hawkins had moved to Toronto, Canada, where he pursued a career consisting mostly of rabble-house cover versions.'Bo Diddley'(1963) was a major hit in Canada, but the musicians flexed their independence during sessions that later appeared on the Mojo Man compilation, with Helm taking lead vocals on versions of 'She's 19' and 'Farther Up The Road'.
The quintet left Hawkins at the end of 1963 and toured America's small-town bars, performing for 'pimps, whores, rounders and flakeouts', as Hudson later recalled. Billed as the Canadian Squires or Levon And The Hawks, they developed a loud, brash repertoire, drawn from R&B, soul and gospel styles, while the rural life left a trail of impressions and images. The quintet completed 'Leave Me Alone', under the former appellation, before settling in New York where 'Go Go, Liza Jane' and 'The Stones I Throw' were recorded as Levon And The Hawks. The quintet enjoyed the approbation of the city's famed Red Bird label. Robertson, Helm and Hudson supported blues singer John Hammond Jnr. on his debut single, 'I Wish You Would' (1964), while Helm's pacey composition, 'You Cheated, You Lied', was recorded by the Shangri-Las.
Robertson, Helm and Hudson maintained their link with Hammond on the latter's fiery So Many Roads (1965), through which they were introduced to Bob Dylan. In August 1965 Robertson and Helm accompanied the singer for his Forest Hills concert in New York and although the drummer reneged on further involvement to head south and work the oil fields, within months the remaining Hawks were at the fulcrum of Dylan's most impassioned music. They supported him on his 'electric' 1966 world tour and followed him to his Woodstock retreat following his motorcycle 'accident'. Between spring 1967 and the start of the following year, Dylan and the Hawks taped over 150 songs, mostly recorded in the basement of Danko, Manuel and Hudson's rented house, affectionately dubbed 'Big Pink'. The lyrical, pastoral fusion of soul, country, folk and gospel explored by the musicians at these sessions anticipated the style the Hawks later adopted as the Band, and the direction Dylan moved towards with his own John Wesley Harding. The music was widely bootlegged and Robertson compiled an official selection, including Band demos and overdubs, released in 1975 as The Basement Tapes.
The Hawks were now known around Woodstock as 'the Band', a self-effacing appellation they took as their new name. They signed a management contract with Albert Grossman and landed a recording contract with Capitol Records. One part of the contract was the return of Helm (the unit's sole American-born member) into the fold, and it was he who was behind the quintet signing their contract as the Crackers, an in-joke seemingly lost on the moneymen at Capitol Records. The quintet teamed up with producer John Simon and recorded their debut album in the first two months of 1968, alternating between studios in New York and Los Angeles. Music From Big Pink was released the same August, housed in a sleeve dominated by a cryptic painting by Dylan. The names of the musicians were listed inside the gatefold sleeve under a heading stating 'The Band'. The photograph of the musicians inside the album was taken by the then unknown Elliott Landy, and featured the five members posed against a backdrop of the Catskill mountains dressed in clothes that made them look like they had just stepped out of the nineteenth century. The other side of the gatefold sleeve featured a photo of the musicians posing with four generations of their relatives, an explicit rejection of the generation gap central to the revolutionary ferment exploding across America. The vinyl within was equally reactionary, restating traditional American music in an environment dominated by acid rock and psychedelia. Natural in the face of technocratic artifice, its woven, wailing harmonies suggested the fervour of sanctified soul, while the instrumental pulse drew inspiration from carnivals, country and R&B. The Band's deceptive simplicity was their very strength, binding lyrics of historical and biblical metaphor to sinuous, memorable melodies. The set included two Dylan co-writes alongside Robertson and Manuel originals, with the latter's songwriting talent (one of the great losses of the Band's later career) shining through on 'In A Station', 'We Can Talk' and 'Lonesome Suzie'. The album's most famous song proved to be Robertson's near-hit 'The Weight', which, if lyrically obtuse, was the subject of several cover versions, notably from Jackie DeShannon, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross (with the Supremes and the Temptations) and Spooky Tooth.
The Band was unable to play live shows until the following spring after Danko suffered serious injuries in a car accident. Coupled with the lack of photographs and the fact that they gave no interviews to promote their debut album, the mystique surrounding the quintet began to grow. Although sales of Music From Big Pink were modest, the Band's standing with fellow musicians was high. Eric Clapton, then playing with the hugely successful rock trio Cream, travelled to Woodstock to attempt to join the Band, and though unsuccessful he then embarked on a more roots-orientated musical direction. On either side of the Atlantic, artists such as the Grateful Dead, the Rolling Stones, Elton John and Fairport Convention were equally inspired to embrace this new sound and incorporate it into their own music.
The Band decamped to Hollywood, California, to record their second album at the start of 1969. Widely regarded as one of the greatest albums ever recorded, The Band confirmed the quintet's unique qualities. Robertson had emerged as their principle songwriter, yet the panoramic view remained intact, and by invoking Americana past and present (inspired by Helm's southern upbringing), The Band reflected the pastoral desires of a restless generation. The album contained several telling compositions - 'Across The Great Divide', 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down', 'Whispering Pines' (Richard Manuel's sole contribution), 'The Unfaithful Servant', 'King Harvest (Has Surely Come)' - as well as 'Up On Cripple Creek' and 'Rag Mama Rag', ebullient US Top 30 and UK Top 20 hits respectively.
In January 1970 the Band appeared on the cover of Time magazine, billed as 'The New Sound of Country Rock'. By now they had resumed touring as a live act, the perils of which were chronicled on 1970's Stage Fright. By openly embracing contemporary concerns, the quintet lacked their erstwhile perspective, but in 'The Rumor' they created one of the era's most telling portraits. The title track and 'The Shape I'm In' also stood up next to the best of their earlier work. However, the unit's once seamless sound had grown increasingly formal, a dilemma that increased on the following year's Cahoots. Melodramatic rather than emotional, the set offered few highlights, although Van Morrison's cameo on '4% Pantomime' suggested a bonhomie distinctly absent elsewhere. It was followed by a warm in-concert set, Rock Of Ages, arranged by Allen Toussaint, and Moondog Matinee, a wonderful selection of favourite cover versions reflecting the music the quintet used to play in their days as the Hawks. It served as a spotlight for Richard Manuel, whose emotional, haunting voice wrought new meaning from 'Share Your Love' and 'The Great Pretender'. In 1974 the Band backed Bob Dylan on his acclaimed Planet Waves album and undertook the extensive tour documented on Before The Flood. The experience inspired a renewed creativity and Northern Lights-Southern Cross, their strongest set since The Band, included 'Acadian Driftwood', one of Robertson's most evocative compositions. However, the individual members had decided to dissolve the group and the partnership was sundered in 1976 with a gala performance at San Francisco's Winterland ballroom on 25 November. The event, The Last Waltz, featured many guest contributions, including those by Dylan, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Paul Butterfield, and was the subject of Martin Scorsese's film of the same name and a commemorative triple album. (A remarkable 4-CD box set was issued in 2002 with 24 extra tracks.) The Band also completed their contractual obligations with Islands, a somewhat tepid set notable only for 'Knockin' Lost John', which featured a rare lead vocal from Robertson (his first since 'To Kingdom Come' on Music From Big Pink).
Levon Helm subsequently pursued a dual career as a performer and actor, Rick Danko recorded an intermittently interesting solo album, while Hudson saved his talent for session appearances. Robbie Robertson scored soundtracks to several more Scorsese movies, but kept a relatively low profile, refusing to join the ill-fated Band reunions of the mid-80s (he was replaced by the Cate Brothers and then Jim Weider). A third tour ended in tragedy when, on 7 March 1986, Richard Manuel hanged himself in a motel room. His death inspired 'Fallen Angel' on Robertson's 'comeback' album, but despite the presence of Hudson and Danko elsewhere on the record, the guitarist refused to join his colleagues when they regrouped again in 1990 with Weider and former Hawks pianist Stan Szelest. New members Randy Ciarlante (drums/vocals) and Richard Bell (keyboards) completed a more stable line-up with Helm, Danko, Hudson and Weider. The Band's first studio album in 17 years was released in 1993, but Jericho and 1996's High On The Hog both suffered from lacklustre songs and the lack of Robertson's powerful presence. Altogether different was a 1973 concert allegedly recorded at Watkins Glen Racetrack, which was finally released in 1995 and caught the band at a musical peak. The subsequent revelation that several of the tracks were probably lifted from different shows did little to dampen the enthusiasm for the CD. Jubilation was the last Band recording to feature Danko, who died in his sleep in December 1999. The concurrent ravaging of Helm's voice by throat cancer persuaded the surviving members of the Band to finally lay the group to rest.
The Band smelt of Americana (or Canadiana) like no other before or since. This is the flavour of Barney Hoskyns' compelling biography Across The Great Divide: The Band And America, which argues with some conviction and evidence that they were North America's greatest ever rock 'n' roll band.
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