The Weight 45 by Jackie DeShannon

August 11, 2011

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.

Electric Dirt by Levon Helm

January 28, 2010

Levon Helm is now a grandfather, just about four months shy of seventy years old. Plus he is a cancer survivor. He was also the drummer and co-lead vocalist for one of the legendary bands in rock ‘n’ roll history. His vocals on such songs as “The Weight,” “Up On Cripple Creek,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” helped The Band become critically acclaimed while selling millions of albums, ultimately being inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1994.

He now spends most of his time at his Woodstock farm with occasional excursions for touring. He holds his own concerts called Midnight Rambles at the farm, attracting such artists as Elvis Costello, Garth Hudson, Norah Jones, Emmylou Harris, Donald Fagen, and Allen Toussaint. The public is cordially invited.

Dirt Farmer, issued in 2007, was his first studio release since 1982 and won The Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album. He returned in June of 2009 with Electric Dirt which became a commercial success, reaching number 36 on the Billboard album charts.

This is an album that tells stories of the land and the people who inhabit it. Helm’s mournful and soulful voice brings these stories to life through gospel, soul, rock, and blues. His voice seems to have recovered from his bout with throat cancer and is the perfect vehicle to covey these stories of joy, wisdom, struggle, and mortality.

He only co-wrote two of the eleven tracks but they are both very strong. I can say with a great deal of assurance that “Heaven’s Pearls” will make my list of top songs for the year. It is a rock song with a structured beat and its lyrics fit a man approaching seventy who has dealt with his own mortality. It is a reflective and philosophical treatise about accepting death which ultimately allows the listener, and hopefully the composer, to find peace. Helm’s other co-written song, “Growing Trade,” is an ode to the struggling small farmer.

He travels in a number of directions for the remaining nine tracks. Very few people could pull off The Staples Singers “Move Along Train.” His voice is made for this gospel tune and the use of female background singers provides a nice touch. Randy Newman’s “Kingfish” is right out of a New Orleans saloon and Allen Toussaint’s horn arrangements enhance the feeling. The Grateful Dead song, “Tennessee Jed,” is given a rousing and countrified rendition.

He goes in a straight blues direction with two Muddy Waters tunes. “Stuff You Gotta Watch” and “You Can’t Lose What You Never Had” were originally cut during the Dirt Farmer sessions but fit the style of this album better. Helm concludes on a joyful and inspirational note with “I Wish I Knew How It Feels To Be Free.”

Electric Dirt is a brilliant album from an old rock ‘n’ roll master. Let’s hope there are a lot more to come.

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.

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.