Up a Creek 

The Band that rings like a bell

Wednesday, Apr 17 2002

We want things to fit, like square pegs in square holes. But there are no square holes. There are stones in shoes, bumps in roads, clouds in skies. It rains and pours, and each drop triggers a drum, a fretless bass, a guitar hero, a fiddle, a tuba, a brass band, otherworldly organs, three singers so earnest they sound as if they’re pleading for their lives. It‘s like a Disneyland treatment of Deliverance -- three hicks singing “It’s a small world after all” in such a way that you can‘t tell when one member of the trio lets off and the next one starts.

In The Band’s music, it is a small world: You hear bar-band rock & roll steeped in crotchety American folksongs, but you also hear authentic soul -- voices joining, musicians who just plain care. It‘s the best beer-commercial music of all time.

Last year, Capitol reissued The Band’s eight albums for the label. The Last Waltz, a 1978 album and film documenting their star-studded farewell concert, has just been re-released. When The Band‘s debut, Music From Big Pink, emerged late in 1968, it was already clear they had invented something unique. It was a vibe record in the guise of rock music -- a warm-sounding pastiche in which “feel” and songwriting were taken equally into account. At the same time, they are one of the most potent precursors of Americana, a broadly defined catch-all genre coming into prominence today. Only now does The Band’s music make sense, so let‘s explore their sound.

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Too excited to keep time, Levon Helm, the drummer-vocalist, injects speed into the group, but he also plays mandolin, bass, guitar . . . (The Band mix things up a lot.) His Arkansas accent comes out as yelps, growls, a gravelly thing. He sounds like the last Civil War soldier, one who has wandered too far north. There he entertains with old tales like this one: “In the winter of ’65We were hungry, just barely aliveBy May the 10th Richmond had fellIt‘s a time I remember oh so wellThe night they drove old Dixie down and the bells were ringingThe night they drove old Dixie down and the people were singingThey went la la-la-la-la la-laaah-la-laaah . . .”

Two more singers join in. Bassist Rick Danko’s high whine is mellow, quiet, kind of blank. His efforts ground the group in midtempo rock, but you‘ll be glad someone’s holding this ship together as the rest of the group skirts more dangerous seas. Such as Richard Manuel‘s voice. A sad man with dark eyes and a hollow face, he has a soulful sound he rides deep: “I’m a thief and I dig it!” “Oh, you don‘t know the shape I’m in.” “The storm has passedThere is peace at lastI‘ll spend my whole life sleeping.” Occasionally he has his way with the drums in an awkward, clip-cloppity Clydesdale style. (Where Helm always got ahead of himself, Manuel was always trying to catch up. They provide The Band’s loose yet locked-in rhythms and subrhythms -- rhythms that break up space in untoward ways.) On the early records, Manuel contributed many songs -- longing ballads composed on piano -- but by the third album, Stage Fright, he‘d stopped writing, and you can’t help but think it‘s because, goddammit, that song was never good enough, this life is never good enough. (He hanged himself in a hotel room on a reunion tour in ’86.)

Garth Hudson looks as if he walked off a mountaintop or slunk out from under a bridge. His bearded head is big and round like a lawn dwarf‘s or an M.I. Hummel figurine’s. Classically trained, and a bit older than his bandmates, he takes turns playing accordion, Clavinet, slide trumpet and sax. He is also a keyboard explorer who masters texture and leaves the songs . . .

. . . to Robbie Robertson, both the star and the silent one. Eventually he went Hollywood with his publishing money and cinema dreams. (In the ‘80s he concentrated on soundtracks; to quote a press release, he currently works at DreamWorks as a “creative plenipotentiary.”) Robertson was constantly discovering another piece of his multifaceted heritage so he could write songs about it. “Smoke Signals” deals with his Native American blood. “Rag & Bone” was inspired by his Jewish relatives from the Old Country, such as his grandfather. To quote Robbie: “He was an intellectual, but he made his living in Toronto as a rag man.” Robertson could have been describing himself.

An inimitable and prolific songwriter, Robertson was also a high school dropout who often distanced himself from music, perhaps bothered by the lack of credit musicians are given for their minds. In interviews Robertson comes off as a guy uncomfortable with his own unique genius, reminiscent of the kind of grown men who’ve learned all they know from throwing the I Ching, watching arty movies and reading Aldous Huxley books. He speaks glowingly of the religio-psychedelic writings of Carlos Castaneda and filmmakers such as Francois Truffaut, Akira Kurosawa and Luis Buñuel. Martin Scorsese, the young director in charge of The Last Waltz, became a close friend.

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