Thoughts on The Band’s self-titled album
“The Band changed everybody’s lives.” With these brief but powerful words, Rick Danko summed up the impact the successful self-titled album had on The Band. Also known as The Brown Album because of its cover, The Band was released on September 22, 1969. America and Harvest were both considered as titles for this sophomore record. Yet Capitol Records and Albert Grossman, the group’s manager, decided to call it simply The Band, which would end the confusion about their name.
Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, and Robbie Robertson recorded their second album at the beginning of 1969. They rented a house in the Hollywood Hills, previously owned by Sammy Davis Jr., and they used the pool house as a studio. Even though The Band was conceived in the sunny and modern California, it sounds like it was recorded in the Deep South, in another era.
The Band tells tales of a sepia world, a muddy world with horses and men in hats. The songs included in the album all have a common thread. They weave their way through a bygone America, even though Look Out Cleveland offers a glimpse of contemporary times. The chorus of Across The Great Divide, which open the album, sets the old-fashioned tone of The Band. Across the Great Divide/Just grab your hat, and take that ride/Get yourself a bride/And bring your children down to the river side. Vivid characters inhabit the songs, a point shared with Music From Big Pink, The Band’s first album released in 1968. Here, Crazy Chester and his dog Jack left the place to the hapless farmer from King Harvest (Has Surely Come) and his horse Jethro.
There was so much talent among the members of The Band. Rick expressed it perfectly: “People don’t understand how complicated The Band’s music is until they sit down and try to play it. It’s like rare jazz.” On the eponymous album, their strong musical skills are more obvious than ever. Rick played fiddle on The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and Rag Mama Rag — a song recorded as an afterthought. Levon was on mandolin on Rockin’ Chair, and Rag Mama Rag, while Richard took his place behind the drums on the latter. Besides, Rick, Richard and Garth played horns on a few songs throughout the album, with the help of producer John Simon.
The twelve songs of The Band give life to evocative characters; Ragtime Willie, Virgil Caine, Ollie, Little Bessie. Listening to the album is experiencing a whole range of emotions. There is the ecstasy of Jemima Surrender, and the line “I’m a thief and I dig it” sung deliciously by Richard Manuel on Jawbone. There is despair with Whispering Pines, melancholy with The Unfaithful Servant, and longing with Rockin’ Chair.
The talent of the singers, Rick, Richard and Levon, is beautifully showcased on this album. Rick has only three lead vocals on The Band: When You Awake, The Unfaithful Servant and Look Out Cleveland. Yet, the first two songs are gems on an album that contains a multitude. His quavering voice gives soul to the characters of these songs. Distinctive and poignant, Rick’s vocal contributions to The Band are some of his most acclaimed performances. The producer John Simon, who worked on Music From Big Pink and The Band, said: “Rick is actually a very studied singer. He expresses it in a very unique way, but he really is conscious of working with a microphone in an Appalachian tradition. I mean, he hears those old singers and knows how they do it.” Rick embodies the character of The Unfaithful Servant so convincingly that, for the time of the song, nothing else exists except his plaintive and beautiful voice. In 1997, in the documentary Classic Albums: The Band, Rick said, “The Unfaithful Servant, believe it or not, was one of the few songs I’ve ever recorded in my life, where it was done in the very first take.”
Levon Helm is heartbreaking with The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, a song about Virgil Caine, a distressed Confederate soldier. A delicate subject, but as journalist Jon Carroll wrote, Levon is the only drummer who can make you cry. On The Band, Levon has more lead vocals than on Music From Big Pink, since when most of the first album was written, he wasn’t back with the group yet. On The Band, however, he offers performances on Rag Mama Rag and Up On Cripple Creek, which would become fan favorites.
And like on the debut record, Richard Manuel shines here, with Rockin’ Chair and Whispering Pines. The first conveys nostalgia, while the second is filled with sheer loneliness. If you find me in a gloom, or catch me in a dream/Inside my lonely room, there is no in between. Richard composed the melody on a piano left behind in his house. In his autobiography, This Wheel’s On Fire, Levon recalled: “Richard and Jane Manuel’s house came with an old piano that had one key really out of tune. Richard used to work out his music on it. So when we were in California, he spent days re-tuning the studio piano so Whispering Pines would sound the way he wanted it.”
Reminiscent of an old America, yet timeless, The Band is a journey through a universe filled with one-horse towns and unfaithful servants. It carries us to Cripple Creek, and also in this anonymous town where we can smell the leaves from the magnolia trees in the meadow. Each song creates a universe of its own. Sophisticated and authentic all at once, The Band is soulful and shaped by the personalities of the musicians. They welcome us into their world, and we don’t want to leave it. They give us the feeling that we know them. Not only do we know them, but we love them — and we also love the characters they incarnate for the time of a song. Indeed, The Band changed the lives of Rick, Richard, Levon, Garth and Robbie, but it changed our lives as well.
Barney Hoskyns – Across The Great Divide
Levon Helm with Stephen Davis – This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band