The Band Featuring Rick Danko Play “It Makes No Difference”

The Band Northern Lights Southern CrossListen to this track by one-time clubhousing musical pioneers and last waltzing quintet mostly from Canada, The Band. It’s “It Makes No Difference”, a classic deep-cut from their 1975 album Northern Lights, Southern Cross, their sixth.

This track features the vocals of bassist Rick Danko, known these many years later as one of his defining moments as a performer. It’s hard to deny. The song itself is heartbreaking, coming from the point of view of a man bereft of joy having lost his love with no hope of regaining it, and when sung by Danko, his very soul along with it. This is all bolstered by writer Robbie Robertson’s lyrical guitar voicings, and Garth Hudson’s mournful lines on the saxophone.

Robbie Robertson wrote the song specifically with Danko in mind, knowing what the possibilities would be. After all, this song is probably one of the most direct and personal songs he ever wrote. So, what is it about Danko’s voice that brings it to life so effectively to the point where all other vocalists covering this song over the years haven’t come near to capturing?
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The Band Play “Chest Fever”

Music From Big PinkListen to this track by West Saugerties, NY house-renters and former backing group 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.

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The Band Play “Don’t Do It” Featuring Levon Helm

Levon Helm,1976 (Photo: David Gans)

Listen to this track by Canadian-American modern roots music architects The Band, here featuring the impossibly funky drummer-singer Levon Helm. It’s “Don’t Do It” as taken from the landmark 1972 live album Rock of Ages, a Holland-Dozier-Holland composition originally recorded by Marvin Gaye in 1964,  but utterly redefined here by Helm and his bandmates.

This version of the song was released as a single, scoring #34 on the Billboard top 100. More importantly, it would become a live staple for the group into the 1970s, featuring most prominently in the milestone farewell concert The Last Waltz as a closing number, and an opening number to Martin Scorcese’s film of the same name.

But, what makes the Band’s take on the song so special is largely down to Helm, on one of his most distinct vocal spotlights, weaving in and out with Rick Danko’s burbling bassline,  Richard Manuel‘s ‘rhythm piano’, Garth Hudson’s organic sonic colours, Robbie Robertson’s tearaway guitar stabs, and of course the horns, arranged by Allen Toussaint.

Among other things of course is that this song is one of the key documents that proves not only how potent the Band were as a live unit, and about their uniqueness in general. It also demonstrates something about Levon Helm as a musician. Read more

The Band Featuring Richard Manuel Performs “Whispering Pines”

the-band-brown-albumListen to this track by Americana architects The Band, featuring “rhythm pianist”, vocalist, and sometime songwriter Richard Manuel singing lead.  It’s “Whispering Pines”, his song that he co-wrote with guitarist Robbie Robertson as featured on the Band’s 1969 self-titled album The Band, sometimes called The Brown Album.

I recently finished reading Million Dollar Bash, by Sid Griffin, the story of how the band became the Band out of the ashes of the R&B backing band for Ronnie Hawkins and then Bob Dylan that they once were. It was during a 1967-68 recording stint , when four, and later all five, members of the Hawks rented a house and rehearsal space they named Big Pink in rural upstate New York.  It was here that they delved into the folk music  of decades and centuries past, with Bob Dylan on hand to serve as a catalyst, while also rehearsing new songs by Dylan, fresh off of Bob’s typewriter in the very house and in the very hour that they were being recorded. They in turn kept Bob on the straight and narrow in how to play in a band, after years of  his playing solo.

Soon, the set-up at Big Pink (and at Dylan’s house, and later Rick Danko’s house) came to represent an alternate way of making music that eschewed the constraints of the studio. This is a practice which is now commonplace, even if Dylan and the Hawks were pioneering spirits in its development. From The Cowboy Junkies recording their Trinity Sessions album at Holy Trinity Church in Toronto, to Bruce Springsteen releasing his 1982 Nebraska album based on homemade demo tapes, to Bon Iver recording a debut album in a hunting shed, the approach can be laid at the feet of the group which would eventually emerge two years later as The Band.

Richard Manuel of the Band; pianist, sometime drummer, and considered to be the group’s lead singer even by Levon Helm and Rick Danko, both of whom took lead vocals on many of the Band’s most celebrated material.

And this approach was how this song, and the others that accompanied it, were ushered into the world, this time in a rented guesthouse as owned by Sammy Davis, Jr. of all people.  The clubhouse approach brought out possibilities for this group that, arguably, might not have been accessible while under normal studio-bound conditions.  For instance, the melody lines in “Whispering Pines” suggest a choral piece more so than a rock n’ roll ballad, helped along by Manuel’s gospel-tinged lead, and organist Garth Hudson’s churchy sonic colour palette.  This is clearly a mix that would have taken time and the right environment to render properly.  And Manuel, a troubled soul with what bandmate Robbie Robertson described as having a ‘hurt in his voice’, is in a league of his own at being able to achieve the subtleties.

Manuel as a vocalist was compared to Ray Charles even by his own bandmates, and later by many others.  Indeed, Manuel was a huge Ray Charles fan, and his ability to hit a similar soulful chord in everything he sang  was an element that got him hired into the Hawks to begin with.  And Manuel’s ability to bring this into what the Band was creating, that is, a musical stew that was far removed from the trends of the times, was considered to be his untouchable strength.

Manuel had a number of personal problems which sprung from his prodigious intake of alcohol and drugs.  While the Band was a growing concern from the late 60s to the mid-70s, it was this which stunted his ambitions as a songwriter, and even later as a vocalist.  The hints of spiritual turbulence to be found here in “Whispering Pines” is something of a window into Manuel’s soul. Like many , perhaps if he’d been born at a later time, when these kinds of problems were more recognized as such, he might have overcome.

But, sadly even after the Band reformed without Robertson in 1983 and when Manuel seemed to be making progress away from his own destruction, the darkness which seemed to plague him overtook him in March of 1986.  Richard Manuel hung himself in his Florida hotel room while on tour with his old bandmates.

One of his many professional and personal admirers was Eric Clapton, who had this to say about Manuel:

“I was madly in love with Richard… At the time, [1975] we had the same troubles. I felt insecure and he was clearly insecure, and yet he was so incredibly gifted….For me he [Richard] was the true light of the Band. The other guys were fantastic talents, of course, but there was something of the holy madman about Richard. He was raw. When he sang in that high falsetto the hair on my neck would stand on end. Not many people can do that.”

Read more about Richard Manuel on the official The Band website.


Bob Dylan Plays ‘Tell Me Momma’ At Manchester Free Trade Hall

Listen to this song by an electrified, and transformed Bob Dylan from his historic 1966 appearance at the Manchester Free Trade Hall.  It’s the rocking ‘Tell Me Momma”, the opening salvo of the second half of the program when he was joined onstage by the Hawks. The performance, and indeed the whole concert, had been bootlegged for decades (known by the misnomer “Royal Albert Hall Concert”), finally getting an official release with 1998’s The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live, 1966: The “Royal Albert Hall Concert”.

Dylan goes electric! I’m betting that the songs coming out of him from 1965-66 were from a place as mysterious to him as it is to us as listeners. It took the world a bit of time to catch up. Having said that, sales of his albums featuring ‘electric’ sounds didn’t seem to waver. He managed to create one of his most successful runs as a recording artist immediately up to and after these shows. By 1974, when Dylan and the Band (who had once been the Hawks) took to the road again, the boos of the past became the cheers of adulation those songs, and that sound, had always deserved.

Dylan ‘going electric’ is a high point in rock history, and what a rocky road it took to get to the place where it’s recognized as the artistic triumph that it was.  The crowd at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in May of 1966 were fans of the solo Dylan, singing his tried and true folk songs as he’d done faithfully up until Newport in 1965.  And to be fair, Dylan gave the audience what they wanted, within the confines of his own interpretation of those songs in his new paradigm, and pushing the limits of his audiences’ expectations of the songwriter.

The first half of the program was focused on Dylan with his acoustic guitar, albeit singing in a new voice, and with a new appearance.  Checked shirts, short hair, and a down-home and earnest stage persona had been replaced by a wild mop of curls, shades, and an urbane wardrobe.  He had transformed himself  into a sort of beautifully wasted beat poet standing in the place of Woody Guthrie’s supposed heir apparent.

But, no one knew just how much things had changed until the Hawks joined Dylan for the second half of the show, and the band launched into the no-holds-barred rock n’ roll of “Tell Me Momma”.

No one had heard anything like this at the time, when the rules of rock music were only just being invented.  It wasn’t the first time that an artist outraged an audience by challenging their expectations, but it was certainly the first time in rock history when it had been done so dramatically.  The cries of ‘Judas’ , booing and jeering, and disgruntled concert-goers interviewed after this show and others are now a part of rock history as much as the performances are.

But what strikes me the most is the mystery of Dylan’s motivation.  What was it that made him stray from a path that virtually guaranteed him an audience and lifetime career, in favour of such an artistic risk?  I’m sure that his plugging-in wasn’t a completely spontaneous move.  After all, the British Invasion proved that electrified guitar music had an audience, and quite a significant one. There was money to be made in playing it.   But, nobody expected it from Dylan.

The change in artistic direction which is so much more common these days was virtually unheard of on this scale in 1965-66.  I can only guess what inspired Dylan.  And this is my guess: amazement.  I think that the songs coming out of Dylan amazed even him.  And perhaps in his head they demanded to be heard through pick-ups and amps, rather than through the PA systems of smaller theatres, coffee houses, and folk festivals.

I think Dylan did it for the songs.


The Band Say “Happy Thanksgiving and Goodbye” With The Last Waltz

Here’s a clip of The Band with Bob Dylan performing “Forever Young/Baby Let Me Follow You Down” from The Last Waltz, performed, filmed, and recorded 32 years ago today in 1976 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco.  The Band were saying goodbye to sixteen years on the road, one-half of the time since this appearance was filmed.  Guitarist Robbie Robertson would never play with his four Band-mates together again.

The Band and Bob Dylan of course shared a common history, in that they had accompanied him on his turbulent 1966 tour where he’d gone electric, scandalizing his folk  fan base by bringing along what many considered to be a second rate rock ‘n’ roll band playing second rate music.  One of the songs on that tour was the Reverend Gary Davis‘ “Baby Let Me Follow You Down”, which done here has the crowd enthralled instead of appalled.  It’s amazing how a decade can change someone’s mind.

Also, Bob and the Band had recorded an album together two years before this performance called Planet Waves.  One of the songs on that record was Bob’s “Forever Young”, written for his children.  Of course here, maybe it has farther reaching connotations.  By 1976, the last embers of the Sixties were pretty much going cold.  And the Last Waltz, although set up as a farewell concert to the Band, was in the end a farewell to that era too.  Many of those who appeared in the film would come face to face with middle age, and with a new generation of record buyers who had not grown up with them, and did not recognize their stature.  Others wouldn’t live much past the end of the era – Muddy Waters, Paul Butterfield, and Band singer and pianist Richard Manuel would all die within ten years after the film was released.  For them, it was a last hurrah in the spotlight.

Like most things in life, there was not a clearly demarcated passing of one era to another.  Many of the performers at the Last Waltz would make remarkable, career-defining music afterward.  Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Van Morrison, and of course Dylan are the most obvious candidates here.  Yet the spirit of the times out of which they emerged as artist would be a memory before the end of the decade.  In many ways, that what this film is from where I stand – a document of the end of a special era, giving way to a series of new eras, equally special, yet never the same again.

For me this is what makes this clip, and the movie itself so compelling.  It’s as if they knew that the moment they were in was an important one.  They knew that they had to preserve it for posterity.   And thank god they did!

Happy Thanksgiving!


The Band Perform ‘Up On Cripple Creek’ on Ed Sullivan

Here’s a clip that actually changed my life – well, it made me more of a music geek than I had been previously. I know; hard to imagine. It’s the Band appearing on the Ed Sullivan show in 1969, promoting their single ‘Up On Cripple Creek’ from their (arguably) best album, The Band.

That weird, frog-like sound is organist Garth Hudson playing a clavinet through a Leslie Speaker, in turn connected to a wah-wah pedal. It’s not a jew’s harp, as some people have written in the past.

The BandI saw this for the first time while I was living in England, specifically in Cricklewood, North London in Ebbsfleet Road. The house was made up of a bunch of displaced persons – some from Liverpool, another from Austria, and me the lone Canadian. I’d heard of the Band loosely, but I’d not really seen them perform or known much about them. In some ways, it was an inevitable discovery for me because a) they are generally more renowned in England for whatever reason and b) four-fifths of them are (were) Canadian, each member actually from my home province of Ontario. Only Levon Helm, the coolest singing drummer in the world, is an American. He’s from Arkansas.

I’d heard ‘Cripple Creek’ before on the radio, plus ‘The Weight’ and ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’. But, In watching this in the dingy front room of our spacious, yet slovenly, flat in North London, something happened. I realized just how funky, loose, and sexy this tune was. And I noticed what great players these guys were, that they could create this weird amalgam of country, New Orleans funk, and rock music with a pop appeal so effortlessly. I went out and bought a greatest hits that day at Tower Records in Piccadilly Circus. Their entire catalogue was to follow.

Big PinkAt this point in their career as a group when this clip was filmed, they’d been doing shows since the early 1960s, first backing Ronnie Hawkins (cousin of ‘Susie Q’ writer Dale Hawkins), and by very bravely backing Bob Dylan on his ’66 electric tour, the one where they were booed by folk purists every night. They were the Hawks then, closely followed by a stint as Levon & the Hawks, and then (unbearably) as The Canadian Squires. But by the next year, they’d gone to upstate New York very close to Woodstock, which was an artist’s community before the hippies got there, in order to write their own music. Three of them – Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson – rented a house which soon became known as ‘Big Pink’.

Levon Helm, who had quit the group mid tour as he couldn’t see why being booed every night was a good career move, rejoined them when it became apparent that songwriting was beginning to be fruitful. Robbie Robertson was the writer, pulling together some of their jams, and writing a few numbers with Richard Manuel. Bob Dylan was a frequent house guest as he was also a neighbour, and they recorded what is now known as The Basement Tapes (actually recorded in the basement of Big Pink), which was given an official release in 1975. Their first album was Music From Big Pink in 1968, featuring some of their strongest songs in ‘The Weight’ and the J.S Bach-Gets-the-Funk number ‘Chest Fever’.

They were also visited by George Harrison and Eric Clapton, both of whom were in awe of them and would quit their respective bands (the Beatles and Cream) afterwards, partially in an effort to pursue similar sounds in their own solo careers. George called them ‘the best band in the world’. Eric wrote songs with bassist Rick Danko and appeared in the film about the Band’s last concert together (and about the end of the 60s era) by Martin Scorsese, The Last Waltz.

They were viewed as something as an enigma after their first album came out, since they were making music that seemed to run contrary to the psychedelic music being made at the time. This was warm, homey, physical music. This is no dreamy, head music. You can smell the sweat off of it. You can hear the creak in its floor boards. It is homemade, like a witches brew. It is sensual. Many bands – mostly alt-country and Americana bands – have been compared to The Band. But, there has never been anything to match them, to approach reproducing the recipe of those five guys together.

Listen to me gush!

Anyway, everyone. Rent the Last Waltz and tell me what you think.