Monday, September 29, 2014

Music From Big Pink - The Band

Music From Big Pink
The Band
Capitol ST 2995

I was watching Bob Dylan's show down in Irvine last year which was part of his Americana Tour and got to thinking that there was probably no more anonymous job in music than playing in Dylan's back-up band.  Bashful Bob keeps the lights down low when he plays and refuses to allow cameras to broadcast his set.  He has his boys all in matching outfits and doesn't bother to introduce them to the audience.  I could have run into any of them in the parking lot and would not have had a clue I'd been watching them on stage.  I guess playing with Dylan is its own reward.  I'd happily do it if I were good enough.  Near the end of his set, Dylan brought out Jim James and Jeff Tweedy and they all launched into a moving cover of the Band's "The Weight" which reminded me that there was at least one Dylan back-up band that wasn't anonymous at all.  The Band was widely revered in the Bay Area when I was growing up there and that was where they chose to end their career as documented in the film "The Last Waltz."  I remember all the hoopla about that show which puzzled me at the time.  I did not understand all the fuss about the group, I thought they were kind of boring.  The group was celebrated as being a return to the roots of rock when they came out with this album in 1968, a reaction against the excesses and pretensions of the psychedelic era.  I on the other hand adored the psychedelic era and disliked the unadorned simplicity of this music.  Although I still prefer psychedelic music to roots rock, I've come to admire this album as I've gotten older particularly after I became a fan of country and folk music which informs so much of their sound.  My copy of the record is a British import because I have a collector's fetish thing for imports.  I should have bought the domestic version though because that is a gatefold cover that has pictures of the band and the pink house that inspired the title of the record.  One of these days I'll pick up one.  This is my favorite album by the Band.  It opens brilliantly with "Tears of Rage" by Dylan and Richard Manuel (uncredited on my copy of the record.)  I love the version Dylan cut with the Band on "The Basement Tapes" but this is the definitive version of the song.  Manuel's tortured vocal is so powerful as he expresses the "King Lear" inspired lyrics of parent-child discord, so resonant of the generational conflicts that helped fuel the fires of the 1960s.  The Band somberly plays the tune like they are performing at a funeral, yet still imbue the music with passion.  They pick up the pace for Robbie Robertson's "To Kingdom Come" which features some sizzling guitar work from Robertson.  The lyrics feature the Biblical influence that permeates the imagery of the album but the song is largely a secular tale of moral ambiguity and karma.  Manuel's "In a Station" is a keyboard driven oblique love song.  I have no idea what Robertson's "Caledonia Mission" is about but is sounds pretty nice, a countryish tune with a forceful chorus.  Side One concludes with one of the Band's best known songs, Robertson's "The Weight."  I have to confess I disliked the tune as a teen.  I did not understand what they trying to say in the song and I was repelled by the roughness of the vocals.  I'm still not really sure what it is about, but I've come to admire the song as much as most people do.  The song offers a series of vignettes of small town Southern life liberally sprinkled with Biblical references that make the song seem deeper than it really is.  The powerful Gospel influenced music adds to the gravity of the song as well.  It is a great performance, but my favorite version of the song is the one by Aretha Franklin on "This Girl's in Love with You."  Side two opens with Manuel's "We Can Talk" which features Manuel, Danko and Levon Helms sharing the vocal.  The song sounds silly to me but it does benefit from a strong rhythm and blues style melody.  "Long Black Veil" was originally a hit for Lefty Frizzell who has my favorite version of it.  I'm not a big fan of the song, I think it is maudlin and contrived.  It is sung from the point of view of a dead guy who preferred to be executed rather than reveal that he'd been making love to his best friend's wife at the time of the murder he was convicted of.  The Band solemnly play the song at a lethargic pace that makes it even more oppressive to listen to.  Robertson's "Chest Fever" opens with a fancy organ solo that sounds like prog rock but fortunately that leads into a heavy riff that drives one of the hardest rocking songs on the album.  The song is about a guy with woman trouble.  The energy level plummets with Manuel's "Lonesome Suzie" which is a glacially slow ballad about an unhappy woman who needs a friend.  Manuel's plaintive vocal is the only thing I like about the song.  There are lots of covers of "This Wheel's on Fire" (listed as "Wheels on Fire" on the sleeve of my album) but this one is my favorite.  The song was written by Dylan and Rick Danko (who is uncredited on my record) and dates back to "The Basement Tapes" sessions.  Danko's vocal gives the song a feeling of urgency supported by the group's robust playing.  The lyrics are typically full of the evocative language and imagery of Dylan in the 1960s.  The record concludes with Dylan's "I Shall Be Released" which in the hands of the Band sounds like a gospel song.  Manuel's high quavery vocal is very effective and it gives the album an emotional finish.  In retrospect it was not a good omen for the future of the Band that three of the four best songs on the record were written by Bob Dylan.  I feel like they did their best work collaborating with Dylan.  On their own, their songwriting was their weakness.  They could play and sing great, but aside from their follow-up album "The Band," their albums were hampered by pedestrian songwriting, especially as Manuel's output diminished.  However on this album, the group is terrific.  The record is loaded with good songs and strong performances.  This album has aged very well, it still sounds like a classic album, heartfelt, authentic and full of integrity.  Recommended to fans of Wilco and Ryan Adams.

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