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Genre: Roots Rock
Preceded by: –
Followed by: The Band (1969)
I love albums that can take you to other places, albums that succeed to give you the opportunity to travel in space and time within one hour, without even having to move from your couch. Last time I travelled to Big Pink, which is not some new to inhabit planet from the far future. It’s also more than that big house near New York, Big Pink is that small town in the American South where The Band was playing that night.
Right after the needle touched the vinyl, the spots enlightened the stage and five genius musicians showed up, completely aware of their qualities and playing with some kind of distinguished serenity. In the back sits Levon Helm, behind his drums. He’s actually the only American in the band, being the son of a cotton farmer from Arkansas. There he joined The Hawks in 1959 before moving to Canada, where the rockabilly sound of that band was highly appreciated. There, in the environs of Ontario, Levon and singer Ronnie Hawkins recruited four Canadian musicians, all around 18-19 years old.
One of those guys was the singer of the opening track of tonight’s gig: ‘Tears of Rage’. His name is Richard Manuel, the band’s pianist but also gifted with this soulful voice (to be heard a lot more during this performance). He wrote this song together with some guy named Bob Dylan and succeeds to sing it even more desperately than Dylan did earlier on The Basement Tapes. It immediately brings you into the world of The Band, to Big Pink, where unbreakable family ties survive at all costs in a divided society.
During the second song, ‘To Kingdom Come’, the spotlight is aimed at guitar player Robbie Robertson. This song is one of the many he has written as a member of The Band, but it’s one of the rare ones on which he also performances the lead vocals. Robertson (although being the only one of them who isn’t a multi-instrumentalist) is a great shareholder of The Band’s success with his smooth guitar playing and having signed for some of the groups greatest classics. His guitar playing also sounds great on this song, which might bring you some visions of The Byrds.
The next song is sung (and written) by Manuel again, and his voice is the only memorable thing I remembered from it as ‘In A Station’ didn’t really astonish me at other points. But this was quickly forgotten when that mysterious bass player starts to sing the following song: ‘ Caledonia Mission’. His name is Rick Danko and I become an absolute fan of his voice within his first two lines. He originates from Ukranian ancestors and thanks to his car accident The Band could not promote their debut album (1968) with a concert tour until the next year, when they were already recording their second album: The Band. The song is actually also written by Robertson, who created a strange mix of country verses and a soul chorus, where the piano adds another dimension to the song.
The Band announces to play one more song before the break and this one completely blows me away. During this short break I decide I’ve just listened to the best song that was ever written. Robertson wrote it, based on his experience as a young Canadian in his twenties, arriving at the cradle of soul, blues, rock ‘n roll and what else more: Memphis. He realized that he’d ended up in the world of Levon Helm and as a great songwriter he luckily possessed the capacity to describe his images in a marvelous and poetic way. On top of that the song was extremely suited for the voice of Helm, the total impersonation of the main character in ‘The Weight’.
The weight is carried by a visitor of the little town called Nazareth, as Robertson is of course considering this ‘new world’ a holy destination in his life. He comes here just to pass somebody’s (Miss Fanny) regards but would never have thought that this would be such a burdensome task, ending up in some bizarre experiences. He arrives there very tired and they decline to give this man a bed, just like in Luke’s story about Mary and Joseph. After Carmen has dropped off nobody less than the Devil to keep him company, he also runs into Luke himself, who is arguing with Miss Moses about joining the civil rights movement. Luke is worried about what’s going on and asks the traveler to stay so he can take care of the young Anna-Lee. His vehicle subsequently breaks down but luckily there’s good old Crazy Chester who can fix it. He’s willing to do that, on the condition that the traveler looks after his wild dog, Jack. It all gets too much for him now so he hops on the first train (cannonball) to get back to Miss Fanny. AMEN! After Levon of course personally kicks off the song (Anna-Lee, Carmen and Crazy Chester were all real characters in his life, from the town with the perfect name Turkey Scratch), the lead vocals are shared during the rest of the song with Manuel and Danko. Brilliant.
After turning the record over, The Band returns on stage and immediately my attention is drawn to the mystical fifth guy, sitting like an old wizard behind his organ while playing a delicious intro of the first song: ‘We Can Talk’. This is Garth Hudson, the classically skilled member of the band. During the first years, this guy gave music lessons to the other guys for 10 dollars a week, only to prove towards his parents that his education was not wasted by joining that band. The song itself is basically one of the most catchy ones on the album, showing another great example of mixed vocals, with Danko, Manuel (writer of the song) and Helm sharing the lead vocals again.
Another nice intro is delivered by Hudson on ‘Long Black Veil’, after which the beautiful vocals of Rick Danko follow again. This ballad (guy falsely accused of murder) is a cover and was originally written by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin back in 1959. As you know The Band was prematurely built around this time, as they formed The Hawks from ’58 till ’63. They continued as Levon and the Hawks in 1964 before becoming Bob Dylan’s band the next year. As such they toured around the world, although Helm aborted halfway to go working on an oil rig for two years! After the tour Dylan moves to Woodstock in 1966 with The Band following him shortly afterwards. It was Danko who found the big pink house in the state of New York where he would live together with Manuel and Hudson.
But we don’t get time to dig further in history because I’m blown away a second time this night. Out of nothing (looking at a completely dark stage) a dramatic and bombastic organ sound rises up: this is a real showcase for Garth Hudson. The song is called ‘Chest Fever’ and is probably one of the rare Band songs that shows any kinship with psychedelic rock, which was booming around that time. It’s of course all about this pounding organ riff, being filled up with Manuel’s tearing voice (telling the classic story of a spurned man) and the distorted guitar playing by Robertson. This is a genius piece of music, which has to top the list of best tracks below even when it’s of course not the best one on the album, but ‘The Weight’ would be a little too predictable.
I need some time to recover from this and this time is offered by ‘Lonesome Suzie’, a decent ballad from Manuel which can’t really excite me. But the excitement returns when Danko starts singing ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’, a song he co-wrote with Dylan. The song is stuffed with all kind of bizarre sounds, with the organ and guitar producing oriental noises. But the real strength of the song are Danko’s vocals, who seems to be in an ecstatic form of hesitation during this track. It was tonight’s last boost of energy, as the gig is closed by the peaceful ‘I Shall Be Released’, a majestic song from Dylan, sung by Manuel in a breathtaking way. With this song we all pray to be released from our sins and say goodbye to the world of Big Pink.
So in the end, what makes this album such a great record? I guess it’s the diversity as well as the connectedness of the songs. First of all, all different members of The Band are portrayed as individual musical geniuses, as each one gets his moment to shine. In this way it often reminds me of The Beatles’ Revolver . But there’s also an apparent connection between all songs at the same time, telling you the story of the people of Big Pink. Not the big house, but the towns and villages that these guys from Canada discovered after following their own Moses to the promised land.