Greatest Hits (Remasters) by The Band

May 30, 2011

If you are not familiar with the music of The Band or, for some incomprehensible reason, you do not own any of their music, this 2011 remastered Greatest Hits album is a good place to start. The 18 tracks were taken from their seven studio albums issued between 1968 and 1977. While one can argue that certain other tracks should have been included, what is here forms a fine representative retrospective of their career.

This is the third time this particular album has seen the light of day. Also if you own their original albums or either of their box sets, 1994’s Across The Great Divide or 2005’s A Musical History, then this latest issue may not be necessary. Originally released during 2000, the songs have now been digitally enhanced and come across as crystal clear. The important addition is the original liner notes and accompanying booklet, which contains a 15 page essay about the history of the group and the included music.

The Band was composed of four Canadians: Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson, plus American Levon Helm. They formed as the banking band for the famous rockabilly singer, Ronnie Hawkins. They rose to prominence when Bob Dylan invited them to back him on his first electric tour. 1967 found them with Dylan, in the basement of a house called Big Pink. They recorded dozens of tracks with Dylan, but more importantly, began to develop their own unique sound, that can be best described as American rock and roots music. They released Music From Big Pink during 1968, which marked the beginning of one of rock’s legendary and critically acclaimed careers.

Music From Big Pink is an album I have visited many times during the past four decades. It is represented here by four tunes. There is the languid Bob Dylan/Richard Manuel ballad, “Tears Of Rage,” the positive vibes of “Chest Fever,” the harmonies of Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” and the soaring, “The Weight.”

Four songs also appear from their self-titled second album. The rustic “Up On Cripple Creek,” the fun vocal by Levon Helm on “Rag Mama Rag,” the poignant Civil War epic, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and the incisive lyrics of “King Harvest (Has Surely Come).”

Three tracks are taken from Stage Fright. The title track is propelled by Rick Danko’s vocal. “The Shape I’m In” is just an infectious romp from beginning to end. “Time To Kill” is another singers song as Danko and Manuel share the lead honors this time.

The last seven tracks come from four different studio albums. “Lie Is A Carnival” is one of those songs that grabs you and stays with you and features some funky brass, courtesy of Allen Toussaint. “Ain’t Got No Home” was a hit for Clarence “Frogman” Henry during early 1957 and they remains true to its goofy appeal. “Acadian Driftwood” was another Robbie Robertson lyrical masterpiece.

Today The Band is a part of music history. Rick Danko and Richard Manuel have both died, and it is doubtful if the three remaining members will ever reunite. They have left behind a wonderful legacy and catalogue of material. Greatest Hits is a sampling of their best.

Article first published as Music Review: The Band – Greatest Hits (Remasters) on Blogcritics.

Jubilation by The Band

March 30, 2009

Jubilation, released in 1998, was The Bands’ final studio album. The album was recorded at their old stomping grounds of Woodstock, New York. It was an album that was pieced together as all the members of the group would only appear on one track together. Despite this, Jubilation would be an excellent album and a fitting conclusion to their recording career.

The members would write eight of the eleven songs contained on the album, with most tracks being compilations. Yet, they would be personal and show a depth that had not been present since their early album releases.

“Book Faded Brown,” which leads off the album reaches the ears like an old acquaintance. It is a nostalgic song about family and friends and includes a sensitive vocal by Rick Danko. Garth Hudson underpins the sound with some of his excellent accordion playing. “High Cotton” is a wonderful return to their Music From Big Pink Americana days. “If I Should Fail” features another fine Rick Danko vocal. This story song is about persevering against the odds.

“Last Train To Memphis,” with Eric Clapton on guitar, presents Levon Helm at his grittiest and bravest. He was undergoing treatment for throat cancer but managed to get through the performances on this album. “White Cadillac” pays tribute to their old mentor, Ronnie Hawkins. “Kentucky Downpour” finds them abandoning their serious side and just having some fun. “French Girls” closes out the album. This sensitive instrumental by Garth Hudson would become the final Band song.

Rick Danko would die in his sleep on December 10, 1999. His death would end The Band’s career. Jubilation would close the circle on the groups thirty year existance. It would be a fitting title to describe the career of one of rock ‘n’ rolls greatest bands.

High On The Hog by The Band

March 30, 2009

High On The Hog was the second LP released by the post Robbie Robertson incarnation of The Band. While there are some pleasant moments, it would prove to be the weakest of their three late career albums.

The Band members would only write two original songs for this release and so would again cover other artist’s material to create the bulk of this album. Unfortunately, their choice of material would not be as wise as on their previous release, Jericho.

Robbie Robertson’s solo work would range from average to very good but would not be as critically acclaimed or commercially successful as his early work with them. Likewise Garth Hudson, Levon Helm, and Rick Danko would emerge as an excellent cover band but would suffer from the lack of Robertson’s writing expertise. I have come to believe that Robertson was a better songwriter in a group setting, but he and The Band would never re-unite and rock music would be all the poorer for it.

There were some very nice highlights to High On The Hog. “Back To Memphis” is a nice bluesy song and features a virtual wall of sound by Garth Hudson. The J.J. Cale song, “Crazy Mama,” was another song taken in a blues direction but has a nice rocking sound to it as well. Cale’s writing style was a good match for The Band at this point in their career. “I Must Love You Too Much,” written by Bob Dylan, is ramped up into a full rock ‘n’ roll version. Rick Danko provides a gorgeous vocal on “Where I Should Always Be.”

There were also some not so good moments contained on this release. There is an abysmal version of “Forever Young” which was a tribute to Jerry Garcia. It is just off kilter and ultimately one of the more depressing renditions of this often recorded song. “She Knows,” with a vocal by the deceased Richard Manuel, is not really a Band song. It was Hudson, Danko, and Manuel in a more informal setting and it would have better served Manuel’s memory to have left it off the album. The old Bruce Channel song, “Stand Up,” was an odd choice and the two Band originals, “The High Price of Love” and “Ramble Jungle” are average.

High On The Hog may be the weakest album in their catalogue. It would not end their career but certainly did not enhance it either. They would remain an excellent concert band selling out mid-level venues across the country.

Jericho by The Band

March 28, 2009

The Last Waltz, released in 1978, was supposed to be a chronicle of The Bands final concert. Robbie Robertson wanted then to be only a studio group. This did not work out and by 1979 the group had dissolved. Robbie Robertson went on to other projects and would never play or associate with his former bandmates again.

Garth Hudson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel would resurrect The Band in 1983. Interestingly, they would be a touring only group for a decade. Richard Manuel would commit suicide in 1986 but Helm, Hudson, and Danko would persevere. Jim Weider would replace Robertson on lead guitar plus Randy Ciarlante on drums and Richard Bell on keyboards would be brought aboard after Manuel’s death.

They would finally release another studio album in 1993. Without a principle songwriter, they would record a number of cover songs for their first new release in 15 years. Jericho may not have been of the caliber of their early releases, but it was in many ways a very satisfying album.The Band chose their material well. Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” is a superlative rendition. The Band proved that their 1993 incarnation could rock. Springsteen considered this track a definitive version of his song. Bob Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell” was the first Dylan song they had recorded since 1971. Hudson’s harmonica contributions propel this song in a very melodic direction. The Band veered from their usual sound with two straight blues tunes. “Stuff You Gotta Watch” by Muddy Waters and “The Same Thing” by Willie Dixon, with a fine vocal by Levon Helm, are nice counterpoints to the rest of the album.

Danko, Helm, and Weider did step forward and write several songs. “The Caves Of Jericho” is a song about a mining accident and the non caring attitude of the corporate world. Levon Helm provides a sincere lead vocal that makes this socially conscious song work. “Move To Japan” returns The Band to their rockabilly roots when they recorded as The Hawks.Two songs that revolve around Richard Manuel form the emotional center of Jericho. “Too Soon Gone” is a moving tribute to Manuel’s memory. “Country Boy” was the last song that would feature a Richard Manuel lead vocal. He recorded this song just before his death and it is a sad farewell to one of the unique voices in rock ‘n’ roll history.

Jericho would be a fine comeback album for The Band and give them new life. Look for a vinyl copy so you can truly appreciate the Peter Max cover.

The Last Waltz by The Band

March 28, 2009

The Last Waltz was originally released as an epic three record set in 1978. Five of the six sides were taken from what would be The Band’s farewell concert recorded at Bill Grahams Winterland Ballroom on Thanksgiving night of 1976. The final side was studio tracks.Robbie Robertson was tired of touring and convinced the other members of to become a studio only group, similar to the late career Beatles. They gathered together a cornucopia of their friends to assist them in their final concert. Martin Scorsese filmed it for release as a theatrical documentary film.

Robertson’s plan did not work out as planned for The Band. The album Islands was released in 1977. It was a hastily thrown together affair and fulfilled their obligation to the Capital Label. The Last Waltz was then released a year later. Robertson would never record or play with them again. Robertson may have planned The Band’s demise but the other members were not as enthused as several years later they would reform without Robertson and continue the group’s career.The Last Waltz, the album and the film, are two of the best chronicles of a rock concert ever recorded. While they vary in content, both are recommended as essential viewing and listening. The only downside to the album is that they are so good, it was tragic that they disbanded at the height of their powers.

Old mentor Ronnie Hawkins makes an appearance on “Who Do You Love.” The Band falls into their role as a back-up group and they roar through a primitive rendition of this old classic. Neil Young is on board with a performance of “Helpless.” I have always been a tad disappointed with Young’s performance as it lacks much of the fire of his solo concerts. I have come to the conclusion that he is better dominating a stage than sharing it. Neil Diamond was an odd choice and he provides an average and out of place “Dry Your Eyes.” Paul Butterfield gives scintillating backing on “Mystery Train.” Van Morrison is a good match for The Band and he shines on “Tura Lura Lural” and “Caravan.” Joni Mitchell, Dr. John, Muddy Waters, Bobby Charles and Eric Clapton all keep the revolving door of guest appearances spinning. The highlight of the concert at the time was a set by Bob Dylan. The Band and Dylan quickly fall into a groove that can only be accomplished after years of playing together. The Band would always bring out the best in Dylan and this was no exception. “Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” “I Don’t Believe You,” “Forever Young” and “I Shall Be Released” have never sounded better.

The album version of The Last Waltz just does not contain enough of The Band themselves. The movie restores a number of the missing performances that were recorded at the concert. What is included finds them in top form. “Up On Cripple Creek” is the definitive version of this song. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” takes on new life and makes one forget about the Joan Baez hit version. “The Shape I’m In” and “Ophelia” show the rocking and soft sides of the group. The Last Waltz is a wonderful document of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame band and of the rock genre in general. The Band would continue but never reach these heights again.

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.

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.