My Year of The Band

Sometimes life just comes together around a thing, and there, blessing of blessings, you have it.

Owing to a random sequence of events, 2016 – 2017 will prove to be my “Year of The Band.” I couldn’t be tickled any more about this.

The Band occupy a deeply impressive place in rock ‘n roll history. At a time when rock was either heading into the psychedelic cosmos or taking steroids and pumping iron during its classic rock era, The Band dared to put out music that went back in time, waay back.  With a mix all their own of folk, blues, gospel, rock, and R&B, with an occasional touch of classical and sometimes a big dash of funk, The Band would have been the perfect house band for a paddlewheel steamer plying the Mississippi in an earlier century, late night, when the the guests are read to kick up their heels and let down their hair.

Their accomplishments are legion, their legacy perhaps the best example ever of being at the right place at the right time when early on they were asked by Bob Dylan to back him during his infamous “Dylan goes electric” tour in 1966.  They were arguably the band to put roots rock on the map, stand toe to toe with The Allman Brothers in launching southern rock, and should be credited as the forefathers of the country rock scene that emerged in southern California (The Eagles, The Flying Burrito Brothers) in the early ’70s.  They set the gold standard for rock documentaries, in partnership with Martin Scorsese, with The Last Waltz.  And of course they were there at many of the era’s most famous moments, starting with Dylan going electric: Woodstock, the 1969 Isle of Wright Festival; the trans-Canada all star train adventure known as the Festival Express, to name a few. George Harrison cited The Band as a major influence on him in the late 60s and early 70s; Eric Clapton tried unsuccessfully to join The Band.

Beyond their unique blend of sounds and songwriting, what probably distinguishes The Band are two things.  They boasted three exceptional singers, each of who could have fully fronted their own band–Richard Manuel, whose falsetto is best displayed on the songs “Tears of Rage” and “I Shall Be Released”; Rick Danko, whose voice emoted like no others, as in “It Makes No Difference” (there is simply no more heartfelt expression of these words in all of music as when late in this song Rick sings the line, “Well, I love you so much”); and of course Levon Helms, whose full throated back country drawl, as in “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down,” conjures up the deep south in a way Ronnie Van Zant could only dream of. Their other secret weapon was Garth Hudson, an absolute savant multi instrumentalist who lived to explore the outer reaches of the soundscape, and whose spontaneous excursions on piano or the organ in concert were the stuff of legend.  A great example of Garth’s contribution to The Band (and the world beyond) is when he revealed the remarkable funk potential of the clavichord, as he did in “Up On Cripple Creek.”  Whose your daddy, Trey McConnell?

Of course I missed all of this while it was happening (The Band broke up in ’76), though I can say I wasn’t geographically far from the action when they first got off the ground (they created their first album in Saugerties, NY, near Woodstock, about 100 miles east of Binghamton). Which isn’t to say they didn’t register for me back when I was young. Seems to me “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down,” as just one example of their music, was etched in my mind back then with the same sort of hymnal mythos as surrounded a song like “Amazing Grace”—timeless, perfect, with a story and message so epically told that listening to the song became reverential.

For all of these reasons, and being a hack rock historian, I do indeed revere The Band. Thus my delight at the sequence of events of which I’m currently in the middle, the better to know and touch and feel who and what this band was.

Robbie Robertson put out his memoir, Testimony, last year. As is to be expected, he did a book tour in support, and I caught him up in San Rafael in November. Robbie’s such a great talker and story teller that it was magic to just sit there and listen to him yak away. In describing his experiences supporting Dylan during the infamous “Dylan goes electric” tour, Robbie said, “That’s when I learned how to play the guitar without looking at my fingers, since I had to be ready to duck from shit thrown at us by the crowds.” Demoralized on that tour by night after night being met by a wall of boos and catcalls, I love the understated way that Robbie eventually approaches Dylan and says, “I’m wondering if maybe we should rethink our approach to this.” Much to Dylan’s credit his response was, “You’re right. Let’s play louder tonight.”

An unexpected treat to being there for Robbie’s event was in talking with the lady I sat next to that night.  Turns out, she was there for The Last Waltz, and indulged my every last question about what that night was like.  When Robbie first came out, he asked the crowd if any of them had been there.  She counted herself among about a dozen people who could say that in the crowd.  You have to be a good ten years older than I am to be able to say that.  I’d take on those years in a heartbeat to be able to!

In mentioning Dylan, I guess you could say my YOTB actually began in October last year, a few weeks before seeing Robbie, when I went to the Desert Trip festival. Granted, I never set eyes on Dylan that first night, due to the fiasco of my travel plans that day. But I can say, when John and I eventually pulled onto the festival grounds and stopped to present our tickets to security outside our parking area, the song carried on the wind from the stage was Dylan’s closing effort, Like A Rolling Stone. Dylan had just recorded that song in New York the day Robbie met him there.  So there’s that connection.

So first a minor Dylan encounter, then seeing Robbie.  This past weekend I wildly overindulged myself by running down to Austin to catch the opening night of The Last Waltz 40th anniversary celebration tour. This is a Warren Haynes based tour that features a number of other prominent artists, including Don Was, Cyril Neville, Taj Mahal, and Dr. John, who of course played at the actual Last Waltz.  Why I went to Austin is because I couldn’t make the performance that will take place this Saturday in San Francisco, which was going to drive me bat shit crazy. When I heard that Garth Hudson was going to play at a few shows, including the one in Austin, that more or less settled things and had me begging Ann to support my disappearing for 24 hours this past weekend to go catch this.

I’d like to be able to say the evening was end to end fabulous, but the truth is much of the performance was marred by a pretty bad sound system that allowed the deeper bass sounds to just crush the higher register guitars and vocals (sitting through a concert like that is not unlike being Tyson’s sparring partner). Still, the night was simply made by the arrival on stage for the final four songs of Garth Hudson. My Facebook posting pretty much says it all:

“They cap last night’s 40th anniversary celebration of The Last Waltz by bringing out Garth Hudson. God bless him, he’s stooped over, has a beard to make ZZ Top blush, needs two guys to get him to the piano… The crowd’s just so happy to see him, expecting nothing of this old hero…and then Garth begins to play. It was absolutely mesmerizing, a ten minute improv of funky Garth virtuosity, at the end of which he says, “Let’s do it,” and the band drops into The Weight. So, so joyous. “Take a load off, Fanny…and…and…AND…you put the load right on me…””

So, within 5 months I’ve managed to be in the same room with each of the two surviving members of The Band, including hearing perform the most talented musician in the group. Pretty satisfying.  And the best may be yet to come.

Sometime this past year I read that Big Pink is available to rent, the famous pink house in Saugerties, New York where many of the members of The Band lived while they worked out the songs for their first album (titled Music From Big Pink), and where Dylan and The Band recorded the famous “basement tapes” (once considered the holy grail of bootlegged recordings). I doggedly tracked that rumor down, and damned if it isn’t true. And damn right—I’ve rented Big Pink for two nights this June. I still can’t get my head around this, cannot WAIT to see and spend time at what may be one of the three most famous rock ‘n roll houses in history (Graceland and the chateau in southern France where the Stones recorded Exile On Main Street being the other two).

Consider the songs that were created at Big Pink: I Shall Be Released, This Wheel’s On Fire, Quinn the Eskimo, The Weight, Tears of Rage, Chest Fever. Aaaa-maaa-zing!

Being at Big Pink will be heady enough, but it will also allow me a base from which to go visit the site of Woodstock, about an hour away, another screamingly obvious bucket list item for this hack historian.

The Band.  You’d be forgiven for thinking that name reflects either a painful lack of creativity, or, truly remarkable balls for claiming it.  In truth it was more the former, a name they more or less whimsically happened upon at the time of signing with Capitol.  That their majestic body of work resulted in them earning the title is all to their credit.

“…and all the people were singing, they went, naa…na na na na naa….”

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