Islands by The Band

March 28, 2009

Islands was the final studio album that all five original members of The Band would record together. It seems they owed the Capital label one more album, so the group reached into their past for some unreleased tracks and leftover songs and combined them with a few new tunes and Islands was born.

It was more of a hodgepodge than any of their previous releases. Some of the songs had an unfinished feel and others were more popish than in the past. The album also had a modern sound which was not the usual Band style.

Oddly, the song that appears most out of place on the album is also its best track. “Georgia On My Mind” was written by Hoagy Carmichael and is given a beautiful interpretation by Richard Manuel. It is a soulful vocal that just sends chills through the listener.

There were several strong points to the album. “Right As Rain” was as good as most of the better songs that Robbie Robertson would create. Rick Danko brings it to life with a fine vocal and Garth Hudson would provide the instrumental underpinning with his usual creative keyboards. “The Saga Of Pepote Rouge” is a nice story song by The Band. The unique vocal duet by Danko and Helm is first rate. Every once in awhile The Band would add horns to their sound with good effect. “Livin’ In A Dream” is just such an occasion. It moves the focus from the average lyrics to the enhanced instrumental sound. “Street Walker” is a gritty song penned by Danko and Robertson. It is one of the few songs on the album that Robertson seems enthused enough to provide some creative guitar work.

On the other hand, Islands contains some very average work by them. The title song is an instrumental co-written by Hudson, Robertson, and Danko. I just expect more of Robertson and Hudson, especially when they are unencumbered by lyrics. “Christmas Must Be Tonight” written by Robbie Robertson for the birth of his son, is an inferior version to the one that later appeared as a bonus track on the Northern Lights, Southern Cross CD. Songs such as “Let The Night Fall,” “Knockin’ Lost John” and “Ain’t That A Lot Of Love” are ordinary at best and are deservedly buried in The Band catalogue.

Islands may have some good points but it is far from the quality of the group’s early and classic releases. All in all it remains a very average album by a very good group.

Northern Lights, Southern Cross by The Band

March 27, 2009

The Band returned in 1975 with their first album of all new original material in four years. The group had re-located to California and Robbie Robertson was inspired to write all the material for this release. While several members of The Band had begun to experience personal problems, at least in the studio they proved to be focused and were able to create an excellent album.

The songs were a little longer than usual for The Band but because only eight tracks were included on the album it was be their shortest release. In this case brevity translated into excellence as Northern Lights, Southern Cross would be The Band’s last truly superior studio album.

The album’s first track, “Forbidden Fruit,” would find a different Robbie Robertson. His guitar sound and particularly his soloing were more apparent and up front than in the past. The other surprise was Garth Hudson was now playing a synthesizer. While this veered the group from their traditional sound; it also gave Hudson more flexibility in creating new textures for the group’s work together. “Forbidden Fruit,” is at its heart, a biblical epic and a rock ‘n’ roll song all rolled into one.

“Hobo Justice” is an acoustic rock song. Richard Manuel is the vocalist and he creates a soulful sound the runs counterpoint to the song’s structure.

“Arcadian Driftwood” was a brilliant creation by Robertson. It returned The Band to the earthy sound of Music From Big Pink and The Band. It was a mesmerizing history lesson presented through music. The harmonies of Danko, Helm and Manuel were perfect.

The other five tracks all had something to recommend them. “Ring Your Bell” features a sweet duet by Danko and Manuel. “It Makes No Difference” returned The Band to their traditional harmony sound. “Jupiter Moon” is almost a flight of fantasy. “Rags and Bones” features Robertson on acoustic guitar again but the highlight of the track is a perfect stereo mix. “Ophelia” is probably the best know song from the album and contains a subtle and delicate song structure written by Robertson.

Northern Lights, Southern Cross is a very representative album by The Band. It presents the joys and sadness of life within the context of the musical form. At the time of its release 33 years ago it left the listening public wanting more.

Moondog Matinee by The Band

March 27, 2009

1973 found The Band unable or unwilling to release an album of original material. The same situation in 1972 produced the excellent live album, Rock Of Ages. They would travel a different journey in 1973 and release an album of cover songs.

Moondog Matinee would take its name from an old Alan Freed radio show. The original intent was to return to their early rock ‘n’ roll days when they were known as Levon and The Hawks. Unfortunately, it did not reach fruition as they were now far from the sound of those days. What did result was an excellent album of unique covers by one of the best rock bands in the world.

The instrumental expertise of Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson drive the album’s music along. Robertson was an under the radar guitarist who was improving with each release. His solos were now confident as well as creative. Garth Hudson was one of the best keyboardists in rock music and his use of an organ sound to enhance, and at times, dominate a rock band was both unique and inspirational.

While The Band had four exquisite voices, it was Richard Manuel that came closest to being the lead singer. The Platters classic hit, “The Great Pretender,” is given a soulful vocal by Manuel. He was one of those rare singers who could take a song and make it a personal experience for the listener. The Leiber and Stoller tune, “Saved,” is taken in a gospel like direction by Manuel. He explores the textures of this song with just his vocal instrument.

The Band pays tribute to former contributor Allen Toussaint by giving his song, “Holy Cow,” a work-out. Rick Danko’s vocal leads the assault on this track. Danko also shows an ability to translate a straight rhythm & blues song, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” into a rock setting.

I have always thought the old movie song, “The Third Man Theme,” was an odd and ultimately brilliant choice for inclusion on the album. The original featured a zither. Here, Garth Hudson, turns his organ loose with interesting results.

Other songs of note include a rocking version of Chuck Berry’s, “The Promised Land,” a unique take on the old Elvis song, “Mystery Train,” which appears with some new lyrics and a funky “Ain’t Got No Home” with Levon Helm as the frog.

Moondog Matinee may have found The Band in a holding pattern in 1973, but the album proved a nice place to visit. It would end up as a unique release in The Band’s catalogue and remains interesting and very listenable today.

Rock Of Ages by The Band

March 27, 2009

The Band decided to release their first live album in 1972, which was probably a wise decision. Cahoots, released in 1971, was their fourth album of original material in four years and was a weak effort when compared to the classic status of Music From Big Pink, The Band, and Stage Fright. People have argued over the years as to which live album is better, Rock Of Ages or The Last Waltz. That argument is moot as both are excellent concert recordings and a reminder of just how brilliant they were in person.

Rock Of Ages was recorded December 28-31 during a series of concerts at the Academy Of Music in New York City. These concerts produced enough material for a double album release at the time. The Band seemed to be enjoying themselves as they were at the top of their game so to speak. The musicianship is technically excellent and the harmonies precise. They even bring Allen Toussaint’s horn section along to fill out the sound.

The Band leads off with the Marvin Gaye classic, “Don’t Do It.” Motown material was always a good match for their soulful side and their interpretation of this song is no exception. “Get Out Jake” is given a rousing version and is live music at its best. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is one of the songs that is enhanced by the use of brass. It is also a rare song that can work when stripped to its basics or with a virtual wall of sound.

The first half of the album is good but the second half contains some of the best live performances ever recorded. The poignancy of “The Unfaithful Servant,” the rousing “Life Is A Carnival” and the classics “Rag Mama Rag,” “The Weight,” and “The Shape I’m In” all take on new textures and structures when compared to the studio versions. Garth Hudson’s, “The Genetic Method,” has some wonderful improvisation on the organ and it is followed by the brilliant keyboard introduction to “Chest Fever.” Chuck Willis’ soul hit, “(I Don’t Want To) Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes” is presented as straightforward rock ‘n’ roll and it doesn’t get much better.

The 2001 CD reissue of Rock Of Ages is one of the few instances that I prefer a CD over the original vinyl. The Stevie Wonder song, “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever” plus live versions of “Up On Cripple Creek” and a spiritual “I Shall Be Released” are excellent and why they were left off of the original release remains a mystery.

The CD bonus tracks just keep getting better. Bob Dylan was a guest at their New Year’s Eve concert and the four songs he performed are included. “Down In The Flood,” “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” “Don’t Ya Tell Henry” and “Like A Rolling Stone” make up his short set. Even Dylan seems to be having a good time as he flubs the words to “Like A Rolling Stone” and it doesn’t seem to bother him.

Rock Of Ages remains a live testament to one of the great rock ‘n’ roll groups and a sad reminder of what can never be again.

Green Rocky Road by Karen Dalton

March 26, 2009

Karen Dalton, (1938-1993), was a folk singer who was part of the Greenwich Village scene in the early 1960’s. Bob Dylan called Dalton; “the female Billie Holiday,” because of the tone and texture of her vocals, but despite her musical relationships with him and Fred Neil, she would largely remain undiscovered. She was a primitive folk artist and did not write her own material, so by the mid-sixties the likes of Dylan, Phil Ochs, Peter, Paul & Mary and others had made her sound dated.

Karen Dalton also hated to record. She would only release two albums during her lifetime. It’s So Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You The Best, released in 1969, and the brilliant In My Time, released in 1971, were both commercial failures. The last twenty years of her life were a downward spiral of drug abuse, missed concerts, and broken relationships. She would be found dead on the streets of New York City in 1993.

Some lost recordings by Karen Dalton were unearthed several years ago. The album, Cotton Eyed Joe, was released in 2007 and featured a live concert recorded in 1962. Also contained on this rediscovered tape were the nine songs that comprise Dalton’s latest release, Green Rocky Road.

Green Rocky Road is not for the faint of heart. She does not sing about heroes and focuses on the hard side of life. The songs were recorded on a basic two track recorder. It was just Dalton’s voice, her 12 string acoustic guitar, and a long neck banjo. She did put some effort into the recordings as she overdubbed the guitar sound on top of the banjo. What Karen Dalton had in mind for these tracks will probably never be known.

Dalton would stay close to her folk roots. The old western song, “Green Rocky Road,” is given an authentic and simple presentation. The traditional folk songs, “Nottingham Town” and “Skillet Good and Greasy” are fine examples of American folk music circa 1962. The old classic “In The Evening” is given a fine and ultimately unique interpretation.

Today, Karen Dalton is remembered as a fringe folk artist which is sad considering the level of her talent. She seemed to have been in the right place at the right time and had talented friends, yet remains a face from the distant past. Hopefully Green Rocky Road will restore some luster to her career and enable her to find a place as an early and important figure in the field of American folk music.

Cahoots by The Band

March 26, 2009

Cahoots is one of the weakest albums in The Band’s catalogue. A weak Band album, however, is still a little above average. It may have been three straight years of incessant touring and recording but they appeared tired. Robbie Robertson again wrote or co-wrote all the songs on the album except for one Dylan tune but, the song was more uneven than in the past. They would not release another album of original material for four years.

Cahoots is a more scattered album. It does not have the personal darkness of Stage Fright or the brilliance of Music From Big Pink or The Band. In some way it can be considered almost experimental as they would strike out in a number of directions with mixed results.

“Life Is A Carnival” continued the trend of leading off each album with a superior song. The track was written by Levon Helm, Rick Danko, and Robbie Robertson. The quality of this group effort makes a person think that Robertson may have needed help at this point in his career. The group effort is representative of The Band’s best material. They also brought in Allen Toussaint to provide a horn background which proved to be a good match.

There are several other songs of note contained on Cahoots. The Band gives a credible performance of Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” The lyrical interpretation is right on and Garth Hudson contributes some creative accordion accompaniment. “4% Pantomime” features a vocal duet between Richard Manuel and Van Morrison. Manuel sounds engaged on this song and makes the modern day listener wish he had been more ambitious during this phase of their career. “Thinkin’ Out Loud” features classic vocal harmonies that are all too few on this album. “Where Do We Go From Here” could have been a career statement at this point in their life but it does feature beautiful vocals.

Songs such as “Last Of The Blacksmiths,” “Volcano,” “Shoot Out In Chinatown,” and “Smoke Signal” are not bad in any sense of the word, but just do not measure up to what The Band had produced on their first three albums. I believe that the song structures are fine but the lyrics are lacking in overall quality.

Cahoots remains interesting in places but is not a classic The Band album. What it did provide was a place for them to stop and re-orientate themselves before proceeding on with their rock ‘n’ rock hall of fame career.

Stage Frieght by The Band

March 26, 2009

Stage Fright was The Band’s third studio album. It featured darker lyrics and textures and fewer harmonies as Robbie Robertson moved his guitar out front on many of the tracks. He would write or co-write all ten songs and provide the musical vision for the album. The reviews for Stage Fright were less positive than for Music From Big Pink and The Band yet the album has held up well over the years. It contained very personal music rather than the American based myths and legends that graced The Band’s first two releases.

Richard Manuel would co-write two songs with Robertson and provide the lead vocals on a number of tracks. While Manuel would continue to contribute to The Band’s sound, he would never write another song. In many ways his personal descent had started and several of the songs contained on Stage Fright can be interpreted as chronicling the beginning of the problems that would ultimately take his life.

“Strawberry Wine” is a brilliant creation. Levon Helm provides the vocal and Garth Hudson drives the song along with his keyboards. It is lyrically a song about a drunk who wants to be left alone, yet the song comes across as a joyous romp. It was part of Robbie Robertson’s genius that he could write songs for the other members of the group on which they could shine.

“Sleeping” was co-written by Manuel. The song is about loneliness and staying out of the limelight but retains a subtle romantic underpinning. Whether this is a story about his life is unknown but it fits in many ways. “The Rumor,” which closes out the album, features a soulful lead vocal by him. It is a wistful and poignant song which is ultimately about hope. “The Shape I’m In” features another Manuel lead vocal but this time he is in rock mode, which is a place he would not visit enough during his career with The Band.

“Stage Fright” is a story song and can almost be considered biographical in that Robertson was never comfortable on stage. “Just Another Whistle Stop” features some of his tasty guitar chops. “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Shop” presents a slice of life on the road. “Daniel and The Sacred Harp” is another story song at which The Band was so proficient. “Time To Kill” is a straight rock song that allows his guitar playing to step forward.

Stage Fright may not have been as endearing as Music From Big Pink and The Band but it was still a very good and personal stop in the creation of The Band’s musical legacy.

“The Band” by The Band

March 24, 2009

Music From Big Pink, released in 1968, was one of the best debut albums in rock ‘n’ roll history. So what was The Band to do as an encore? The answer was to release one of the best rock albums of all time.

The Band’s sophomore effort, simply titled The Band, was just about a perfect rock album. The Band continued to build on the song structures and textures established on Music From Big Pink. They would take almost mystic folk traditions and through a subtle rock ‘n’ roll styling and beautiful vocals would create a sound that was different from anything else that was being released in 1969. Even today, The Band’s sound remains unique and instantly recognizable.

The Band, also called The Brown Album at times, was comprised of 12 chapters in a creative ongoing story. People, places, myths, traditions and ballads would be set to music with preciseness and beauty which would enable each song to be distinctive yet part of a well crafted whole.

The lead track, “Across The Great Divide,” is a song of emotional distance yet is presented in a positive way through the beauty of the story telling lyrics and wonderful harmonies. “Rag Mama Rag” is a quirky, fun song complete with mandolin, violin and Garth Hudson’s stellar organ work. Hudson did not have the vocal capacity of the other members of The Band but his keyboards would be the instrumental glue that would bind their music together. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” could have been written in 1869 as it tells a story of the Civil War. Joan Baez would take this song and strip it down to its basics and have a huge hit.

Robbie Robertson would show his guitar virtuosity with some brilliant fills on “When You Awake.” The harmonies on the chorus would accentuate the beauty of the group’s combined voices. “Up On Cripple Creek” would be a rare single hit for The Band. A sensitive lead vocal by Levon Helm would lead toward the forceful harmonies that would drive the song. Richard Manuel would take the vocal lead on the haunting “Whispering Pines.” It was a song of multiple textures that could be explored as the song progressed.

The Band raises their energy level during the second half of the album. “Jemima Surrender,” “Look Out Cleveland” and “Rockin’ Chair” show that The Band could rock when they put their minds to it. “Rockin’ Chair” does not feature any drums on the track. Regular drummer Levon Helm switches to the mandolin and Garth Hudson picks up the accordion to create a memorable sound. The ballad, “The Unfaithful Servant,” featuring Rick Danko’s lead vocal and “King Harvest (Has Surely Come),” brings The Band back to a full group setting and closes the album in style.Rolling Stone Magazine would rank The Band as one of the “50 Best Albums of All Time.” Today, 39 years after its release, it remains a timeless creation and a lasting testament to one of the best rock groups to ever enter a recording studio.

Music From Big Pink by The Band

March 24, 2009

Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and Levon Helm were all members of rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins backing group from 1958-1963. They moved on to become Bob Dylan’s backing band for two years (1963-1965). Dylan would introduce them as The Band during his concerts. The year 1967 found them in the studio with Dylan as he recovered from a motorcycle accident. These recordings would become known as The Basement Tapes.

The Band had paid its dues and in 1968 released their debut album, Music From Big Pink. It has become accepted as one of the most creative and respected debut albums in history. It was a mystical, earthy and a lyrically superb creation. The skills and talents of four Canadians and one United States citizen coalesced into a quintessential American rock ‘n’ roll album.

Music From Big Pink was a well-crafted album. It featured four strong voices and precise musicianship. The songs painted pictures through the use of words and sounds yet retained a quality that would ingrain itself in the unconscious and emerge as elemental truths.

This album would find Robbie Robertson becoming a songwriter of merit. He would pen two enduring classic rock songs for this release. “The Weight” is almost hypnotic as it draws the listener into the musical experience. “Chest Fever” features one of the best organ intros in rock history by Garth Hudson which propels the song to classic status.

Richard Manuel would write several songs for the album as well. His wonderful song, “In A Station” is a counterpoint to Robertson’s work. It takes The Band in a soulful and almost mournful direction. “Lonesome Suzie” would find Manuel turning the group in a blues direction.

“Long Black Veil” was an old folk song that was a country hit for Lefty Frizzell in 1959. The Band would move it in a rock direction and through harmonies and subtle backing instruments would make the song into a novel in miniature. It would solidify The Band as interpreters and creators of the American experience.

The Dylan influence was very strong on Music From Big Pink. “Tears Of Rage” was written by Dylan and Manuel in 1967. The Band would present the song much slower than Dylan and feature a keyboard/guitar base. “This Wheel’s On Fire” was written by Bob Dylan and Rick Danko and appeared on Dylan’s, The Basement Tapes. The Band presents the song in up-tempo mode as almost straight rock ‘n’ roll. The Band takes Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” and interprets it as gospel. There would always be an underlying spiritual element to the work of The Band and “I Shall Be Released” is a shining example of this quality.

Music From Big Pink would introduce The Band to the world. It would show their versatility as the album would contain rock, blues, folk and gospel. It remains a shining example of what rock ‘n’ is all about.

Pickin’ Up The Pieces by Poco

March 23, 2009

I have always felt that Poco deserved better. The group formed in 1969 and was among the earliest proponents of the fusion between country and rock music. Poco’s commercial problem was they were just a little too country for the rock market and a little too rock ‘n’ roll for a country audience. It would be the Eagles who would take this sound and find worldwide acceptance. Still, Poco would produce a number of creative and unique albums during the course of their 40-year career.

Poco was formed from the remnants of the Buffalo Springfield. While Neil Young and Stephen Stills would go on to superstardom, Richie Furay and Jim Messina would follow their own musical vision and form Poco. Their first recruit was multi-talented instrumentalist Rusty Young who played the pedal steel guitar, dobro and banjo. Drummer Grant Grantham quickly followed and he would become a key component to their vocal harmonies. Randy Meisner was the original bass player but would leave before the release of their fist album. He would be replaced by Timothy B. Schmit who would oddly replace Meisner again as a member of the Eagles.

Poco’s debut album, Pickin’ Up The Pieces, would be a masterpiece and would begin to establish a new musical genre. Young’s pedal steel and dobro would combine with Furay’s and Messina’s rock sensibilities to create a brand new sound for their tight harmonies.

“Just In Case It Happens, Yes Indeed” is a good introduction to the Poco sound. The interplay between Messina’s electric guitar and Young’s dobro was unique in 1969 and remains creative today. The instruments strain against each other yet ultimately merge into a unique sound. “Nobody’s Fool” takes the group in the same direction. Richie Furay’s plaintive vocal plus the harmonies soar above more interplay between Messina and Young.

There are a number of other highlights contained on Pickin’ Up The Pieces. George Grantham may have been the drummer but it was his voice that was the underpinning of the group’s harmonies. “Tomorrow” finds Grantham providing a rare lead vocal which is just superb and makes the listener yearn for more. “Short Changed” is about as rockish as Poco would get. Young and Messina provide a dual guitar backing for the combined vocals of Furay and Grantham. “First Love” is just wonderful vocal harmonies.

Pickin’ Up The Pieces remains a must listen nearly 40 years after its birth. The gentle vocals, the competent musicianship and the explorations of country and rock music which ultimately meld together are an important artifact in the evolution of popular American music.