A selection of songs by The Band that have meaning to me and have stuck with me through the years, appearing frequently on mix tapes and playlists.
Caledonia Mission “She reads the leaves/and she leads the life…” Forget about that “Tears of Rage” nonsense that leads off Music at Big Pink. For me, the record truly started with this song, the second track that may be about a drug bust (according to Levon Helm and Ronnie Hawkins, among others) or some kind of romantic betrayal. Or, the interpretation I favor, is that it’s about an illicit affair gone wrong and a love interest who may be beneath the legal age of consent and who may have been transported across state lines. But it doesn’t matter–Robbie Robertson leaves lots of room for interpretation while implanting certain images in the minds of listeners that help root the song in some type of historic reality. The girl, the love interest, is being held in a mission, behind heavy iron gates at the command of a magistrate. She may have been used as bait to get to our hero (portrayed by Rick Danko). She somehow betrays him to the authorities. And she’s a bit of a witch–besides reading tea leaves she uses a hexagram. This lyric fantasia is accompanied by a folksy ensemble and country-style harmonies. I’ve heard it said in documentaries that people were unsure what Dylan and The Band were doing in upstate New York, but there was an element of mysticism that surrounded them–this song vibes that up perfectly.
The Weight I’ve said before that “The Weight” is the greatest rock song ever written, and on any given day you might get me to argue in support of that point of view. This song does instantly what Big Pink and The Band, in general, have been credited with doing–distilling the essence of rock and roll down to its component parts. From its parable-like verses that use Biblical language and the language of rural America to its call and response to the community, it’s a song of deep healing. Musically, Robbie Robertson chose to use the language of gospel, the bedrock source for so much American music. “The Weight” should be our national anthem because in it we can all see ourselves and we can also see our neighbors as well all who help carry our load as well as those of our family, our friends, our country. The chorus also functions nicely as a lullaby of sorts.
Whispering Pines On a record that is steeped in boisterous Americana, “Whispering Pines” is a striking moment of introversion and introspection. While the lyrics represent a feeling of melancholy and depression, driven in part by the delicate voice of Richard Manual and by the knowledge that he did in fact suffer from depression and that he eventually took his own life. But there is also a sense of resolution, of coming to terms with the pain of this life and of finding some peace. It also demonstrates, as many Band recordings do, the sonic inventiveness of Garth Hudson, whose organ is used, not to play counterpoint or bluesy fills, but rather to create little clouds of sound that add to the sense of being inside the singer’s thoughts and to the song’s sense of gloom and isolation rising like fog.
Rockin’ Chair Another song that, while it presents a character speaking to his best friend, Willie about all the homey times they will have sitting in a rocking chair on the porch and chatting up old friends and family in ‘old Virginny’, is really about coming to terms with mortality and how, as we age, we tend to settle into the things that we find most important and comforting in this life. The narrator, age 73, tells his running partner “Turn to stern and point to shore/These seven seas won’t carry us no more.” The verses all use the metaphor of the sea, including the Flying Dutchman, to represent the vagaries of life that the narrator is retiring from in his getaway where he and Willie will await the arrival of their final days in a rocking chair: “We’re gonna soothe away the rest of our years/We’re gonna put away all of our tears/That big rocking chair won’t go nowhere.” But that time is not the present. When you listen closely to the song you understand that the narrator and Willie are not on the shore, not retired down in Margaritaville or Virginia. They are still at sea, and they could still lose their lives in a wreck or a storm or be knifed and left for dead in some port. The narrator wants to go home and spend the rest of his days sitting on the front porch. And there’s ambiguity in the lines “Woulda been nice just to see the folks/and listen once again to the stale jokes.” It would have been nice? That’s a turn of phrase that points towards the past, as in that would have been nice, but unfortunately, it just didn’t turn out that way. In the end, it’s a song that communicates perfectly something that is difficult to put into words.
King Harvest (Has Surely Come) So, the funny thing about authenticity is that sometimes the most authentic experiences are pieced together, edited in a way that brings form and meaning to what is otherwise a random scattershot of happenings called ‘reality.’ “King Harvest” is cobbled together from memories of Grapes of Wrath, black and white photographs, first-hand accounts of life in the dust bowl era. Stories of farms failing, banks foreclosing, people forced off their land and from their homes to work for subsistence wages as field hands in California. And bubbling beneath it all is the soft, almost chanted chorus: “King Harvest has surely come.” The album that received no other name than The Band’s moniker, which came to be called The Brown Album, was originally going to be titled Harvest, because the group felt they were harvesting the crop of seeds, musically, that had been planted long ago in American soil. But harvest time is also a time of the coming of darker days and laying in of supplies for the winter ahead. In one chorus they sing of ‘a carnival on the edge of town.’ Carnivals are traveling shows, in many ways not unlike a musical group. Sometimes there are darker elements that mix in with the crowd–the carnival is restricted to the darkness on the edge of town. Robertson had a certain fascination with carnivals and the people who traveled with them: he wrote the song “Life Is a Carnival” and co-wrote and starred in the movie Carny. “King Harvest” oversees the celebration of plenty, the preparation of life to sustain itself through the winter, but the flip side of that is He Who Walks Between the Rows. And the harvest is a bitter one for the nameless character who sings this song. Robertson turns to Richard Manuel again, with his high range and ability to convey anxiety and desperation as few singers have ever been able to do. The sound of the group is tight and dry, almost claustrophobic as Levon’s drums and Rick Danko’s bass slide into each verse and lock in on a groove that is positively slippery. Of course we get some nice organ fills and swirls from Garth that add enormously to the song’s atmosphere. And at the very end, Robbie Robertson breaks out a guitar solo that is both breathtaking in its emotional impact and amazing in its brevity. Robertson has spent the entire song playing more fills than he often does–his guitar is never silent nor resigned to strumming chords. He’s playing lead all the way, and at 2:53 he breaks into one of the most underrated guitar solos in rock history. I mean, Clapton must have been shitting bricks when he heard it. Then at 3:37, it’s over, and so is the song. And the album.
The Rumor Originally the last track on Stage Fright, it’s been moved up in the tracklisting by Robertson for the album’s 50th-anniversary reissue. I think that as with “King Harvest” on The Band they ended with a song that was far from comforting, but unflinchingly honest in its emotions. “The Rumor” is about life in a small town and how gossip can affect the lives of those who are talked about with little recourse. It’s a timely song, to say the least. “Some of your neighbors/Well, invite it right in/maybe it’s a lie/even if it’s a sin/they’ll repeat the rumor again.” Then comes the strange gospel incantation sung by Richard Manuel: “Close your eyes and hang your head/until the fog rolls away/Open up your arms/and feel the good/It’s a-comin’, a brand new day.” Maybe it is, but you have to wonder.
Don’t Do It The group cut a studio version of this Marvin Gaye song, and they performed it as their final encore at The Last Waltz (in the film it is the first song we see them perform), but this live version from the complete concert that yielded the double album Rock of Ages, recorded at the New York Academy of Music on New Year’s Eve 1970, seems like their best-recorded performance. They put it all out there, and there, and they have the same Allen Toussaint horn arrangement that they used at The Last Waltz, but the horns are punchier and sound better in this mix. Manuel and Hudson chuck along on keyboards, and Robertson is incendiary. The crowd roars its approval.
Get Up Jake At first glance this seems like a pretty minor entry in The Band’s repertoire, and I suppose it is, but I’ve always had a soft spot for this orphaned track. According to Barney Hoskyns’ original liner notes for the 2000 reissue of The Band album: “First heard in its live incarnation on Rock of Ages in 1972. Recorded in the Sammy Davis Jr. poolhouse during the sessions for The Band, it was mixed on July 9, 1969, but didn’t make it on to The Band. A mono version was later used on B-side of ‘Ain’t Got No Home’, while this stereo mix made its debut on the 1989 anthology To Kingdom Come.” It’s a four on the floor rock song that just has one of those choruses that make you want to sing along. It would never be one of their better songs, but it’s still better than a lot of groups could manage, and it has the killer line “You tell me that you’re dying/But I know it’s not true.”
Acadian Driftwood Northern Lights Southern Cross would be the group’s final studio album of all-new material (the hodgepodge of Islands followed) and it is truly one of their great albums, possibly their third best. While Robertson was writing all of the material by this time and the group members didn’t always show up for recording sessions, they came together well enough to create a recording that updated their sound with a gorgeous studio gloss that maintained its musical integrity because it was largely produced by Garth Hudson. Robbie wrote some great songs for this album and Garth helped put together the group’s performances in the best way possible for the music. “Acadian Driftwood” is another song with a historical basis where Robertson used things he’d read or his own research to tell the story of the outlawed Cajun people who traveled from Canada all the way to their new home in the swamps of Louisiana. I wouldn’t use the song to write a historical report, but just as with “King Harvest” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” Robertson places a character against the backdrop of history, of persecution, of war, of famine to demonstrate the way that all humans strive for lives of dignity, even in the most adverse circumstances. Some nice fiddle work and that chorus is one of Robbie’s most soaring: “Acadian Driftwood, Gypsy tailwind/They call my home the land of snow.”
It Makes No Difference There are some great tracks on Northern Lights, including “Ophelia” but this one, well this one is special. It’s got a country feel to it, and it’s one of Rick Danko’s best vocals, right on the edge of breaking down, but somehow holding it together. The track’s musical lushness makes this a widescreen Band performance, and Danko’s vocal is up to the task. I disagree heartily with those who say that the use of synthesizers destroyed the group’s organic sound–in Garth Hudson’s able hands they become another texture and they helped move The Band’s sound into the current era in which they were recording. Plus Hudson’s soprano sax solo on this track is among the more gorgeous things I’ve heard him play.