What’s in a name? Not much if you’re The Band
October 21, 2005
What a prosaic name for an extraordinary musical entity: The Band. Here you had one of the handful of groups that could honestly claim to have altered the course of American/British popular music, an outfit worthy of one of the grand or evocative names popular in the late ’60s – and all they could come up with was The Band?
But what an uncommon aggregation of talent: all five members of The Band took their turns singing leads and harmonies. Here you had a bassist, Rick Danko, who also played fiddle; a drummer, Levon Helm, who doubled on mandolin; a keyboardist, Richard Manuel, who was as good a falsetto singer as rock ‘n’ roll has ever heard, and was a wild man when spelling Helm on drums. And those are arguably the lesser visionaries of the group. Robbie Robertson was the chief composer, responsible for such essential pieces as “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and, as proved emphatically in the recent Bob Dylan documentary “No Direction Home,” among the most electrifying guitarists ever. (And underrated: when Rolling Stone’s list of the Top 100 guitarists had Robertson No. 78, I coughed up blood.) Garth Hudson, an organist who wailed on saxophone, accordion and whatever else he touched, was such a profound musician that when he joined The Band, he insisted that he be paid extra to give music lessons to his mates. They agreed.As good as they were individually, The Band was many times the sum of its parts. Sparks flew when Robertson’s stinging guitar sparred with Hudson’s eerie organ sounds, all on top of the pounding drums. And the group was fantastically versatile; on a dime, they could switch from raucous rock to tight, acoustic songs, then pull out the horn section for swaggering r & b. When Robertson signed on to back Bob Dylan for a 1965 tour, he convinced Dylan to employ the whole band. One quick tryout was all it took to form a collaboration that would result in high points of both live music and recorded albums (“The Basement Tapes”).
The deserving new box-set documenting this abundance bears a name as plain as The Band. “A Musical History” could well have borrowed from a song title and been called something more colorful: “This Wheel’s On Fire” or “King Harvest (Surely Has Come)” would have worked.Little matter about the title. “A Musical History” is five CDs, one DVD and a full-size book of text, photos and data that charts the career of an American cultural institution. (Make that most of the career: left out are The Band’s three ’90s reunion albums, made without Robertson and after the mid-’80s suicide of Manuel. And make that a North American institution: all of the members save Helm were Canadian, though the group recorded in the States, and notably drew on U.S. history and themes for their songs.)If The Band holds a niche in rock, it is for turning their backs on the trends of the late ’60s. While Eric Clapton’s Cream was blowing up the blues as far as they could go without bursting, Hendrix was lighting his guitar afire, and the Dead were playing 30-minute versions of “Dark Star,” The Band’s first album “Music From Big Pink,” was concise, devoid of guitar solos, and rooted deep in the ground of American myth. It kicked off the genre that came to be known decades later as “Americana.” As Robertson noted, they rebelled against the rebellion.
But the box goes further back than that definitive moment. Disc 1 features tracks by Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks, the high-powered, early ’60s r & b group that served as a training ground for The Band, and a series of previously unissued songs by its successor, Levon & the Hawks. In addition to virtually the complete first two Band albums, “A Musical History” throws in an assortment of live recordings, song sketches and alternate takes. The DVD has performances from the 1970 Festival Express tour across Canada and a 1976 “Saturday Night Live” appearance.On further reflection, The Band might have been a perfect name choice. As much as any rock group, they are the band, creating a collection of songs and sounds that will unquestionably stand the test of time.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org