Listen to this track by West Saugerties, NY house-renters and former backing group turned turned 20th Century music innovators The Band. It’s “Chest Fever”, a track as taken from their 1968 debut record Music From Big Pink.
The album was named affectionately after the house in which much of the group’s early material was written, now famously known in rock lore as one of the first “clubhouse” style recording set-ups that would produce their fruitful Basement Tapes sessions with Bob Dylan when they were still a nameless band transitioning out of their days as The Hawks.
Their work during these sessions showed that world-changing rock music didn’t have to be created in a professional studio while someone else’s clock is ticking. It would also allow them space to explore other musical avenues and modes of narrative, and to push the possibilities of what rock music could be for everyone while they were at it. It would set the tone for an approach that would carry over even when they came to record their debut in a formal studio setting, working with sympathetic producer John Simon, under their new name The Band.
This is a tune that would burn like a beacon on a landmark debut record, and distinguish itself among some of the best in the group’s catalog. It would also diverge from the carefully constructed approach to songwriting for which the Band is now known in distinct, unique ways.
With this track, The Band showed that rock music didn’t have to be confined to a small group of musical genres, just as the Band themselves proved that they hadn’t been limited by the studio clock on the wall. This one draws from J.S Bach’s “Fugue in D minor”, while at the same time not forgetting the blues, and mixing in a sort of funked-up gospel feel, with a New Orleans brass middle-eight section for good measure.
Beyond the passionately delivered duel leads of Richard Manuel (in your left ear) and Levon Helm (in your right), the song features some of Robbie Robertson’s most prominent (and dirty!) guitar work on the album, his playing generally downplayed as a lead instrument elsewhere. And Rick Danko’s bassline on this is one of my favourites of his, a perfect example of how he expertly used space and tension to subtly push a tune along.
A big part of the success of this piece is down to organist and multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson, who’s range as a musician demonstrated here is unparalleled and highly sought-after even today, almost fifty years later. It would be Hudson who had the classical training that would allow him access to strains of music that were perhaps not thought of as being immediately viable within a rock ensemble. But, it would be his skill of making connections between musical traditions, and across them too, that would be the rock upon which this song, and others, is based.
The characteristic introduction to “Chest Fever” would become known as his trademark for their live shows for years afterward, and given the name “The Genetic Method”. Each performance of that intro would be different, making it an aural account of musical strains that have followed humanity across eras and cultures, just before the four note motif of the main section of “Chest Fever” would be announced.
As such, it really stands outside of the usual M.O that the Band would take in writing and arranging material, steering away from their evocative narrative-based work, and embracing their more exploratory instrumental side. It would also touch on a more psychedelic edge to their work, a stream of music that they would otherwise avoid even at the height of that scene at the end of the 1960s. But even here, the otherworldly wooziness of this track still pre-dates that then-contemporary sound in any case.
Even after his days with The Band, Garth Hudson would be heard on a number of records as a sessioner, known for his ability to add atmosphere and colour to an arrangement. His lines can be heard on albums by Neko Case, The Lemonheads, Los Lobos, and Martha Wainwright, among many others.
Learn more about what he’s up to, including a full list of credits beyond his sterling work as a member of The Band at Garthhudson.com.
Also, have a read of this interview with Garth Hudson as he talks about his work on an all-star tribute to The Band, a recording which includes acts that have been influenced and inspired by his former group.
Furthermore, here is a video of Garth coming back to Big Pink and settling in the basement to reminisce about his time there with his Band-mates and frequent neighbour Bob Dylan.