The Band

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The Band. (L-R) Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson

The Band was a Canadian-American rock and roll band. They began their career backing rock'n'roll singer Ronnie Hawkins as The Hawks, but shot to fame after leaving Hawkins and being selected as Bob Dylan's backing group for his watershed 1965/1966 World Tour. After renaming themselves "The Band", they became highly influential in their own right, as progenitors of country rock and helping to repopularize traditional American musical forms.



Their music fused many elements (primarily old country music and early rock and roll, though the rhythm section often had a funky punch reminiscent of Motown, and Robertson cites Curtis Mayfield and the Staple Singers as major influences), but, at its best, The Band's music was an organic synthesis of many musical genres which became more than the sum of its parts, and never felt pieced together.

The Band comprised Robbie Robertson (guitar); Richard Manuel (piano, harmonica, drums, saxophone); Garth Hudson (organ, piano, clavinet, accordion, synthesizer, saxophone); Rick Danko (bass guitar, violin, trombone); and Levon Helm (drums, mandolin, guitar, bass guitar) Excepting Robertson, all were multi-instrumentalists; each person's primary instrument is listed first. There was little instrument-switching when they played live, but when recording, the musicians could offer all manner of subtle aural colors and textures to enhance songs. Hudson in particular was able to coax an impressive range of timbres from his Lowery electric organ; on the choruses of "Tears of Rage", for example, it sounds startlingly like a mellotron.

Producer John Simon is cited as a "sixth member" of The Band for producing and playing on Music From Big Pink, co-producing and playing on The Band, and playing on other songs up through The Band's 1993 reunion album Jericho.

Manuel, Danko, and Helm all sang in The Band; each possed a distinctive voice: Helm's gritty, southern voice had more than a hint of country, Danko sang in a soaring tenor, and Manuel alternated between fragile falsetto and a wounded baritone. The singers regularly blended in unorthodox, but uncommonly effective harmonies.

Robertson was the unit's chief songwriter. This role, and Robertson's resulting claim to the copyright of most of the compositions, would become a point of much antipathy between the group's members, especially Robertson and Helm.


The Hawks gradually came together as a backing unit for Toronto rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins: Helm first, then Robertson, Danko, Manuel and Hudson.

By 1963, the group split from Hawkins over personal differences. They recorded two singles, but found little success until recommended to Dylan by singer John P. Hammond. With Dylan, they played a tumultuous series of 1965 and 1966 concerts, marking Dylan's final change from folkie to rocker. They were an electrifying live ensemble; Dylan famously described their "thin wild mercury sound" as the one he'd been seeking. These concerts saw them sometimes heckled by folk music purists (Helm was so bothered by the negative reception that he quit the group temporarily, instead working on an oil rig).

Following Dylan's motorcycle accident the group retired with him to Woodstock, where they recorded a much-bootlegged and hugely influential series of demos, subsequently released on LP as The Basement Tapes, and picked up their new name after seeing such tongue in cheek monikers as "The Honkies" and "The Crackers" rejected by their label.

In 1965, they met blues singer and harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson. They wanted to record with him, offering to become his backing band. Williamson died not long after their meeting, however, leaving rock music one of its greatest might-have-beens.

Their first album proper, Music From Big Pink (1968) (named after the Woodstock house in which they had once lived) was widely acclaimed, including three songs written or co-written by Dylan ("This Wheels On Fire", "Tears Of Rage", and "I Shall Be Released") as well as Robertson's own classic "The Weight", whose use in the film Easy Rider would make it their best known song.

After the success of Big Pink the band left Woodstock for Los Angeles where they recorded their followup, The Band (1969). From their deliberately rustic appearance on the cover, to the songs and arrangements within, the album stood in stark contrast to the prevalent hippie culture of California and trendy psychedelic music. The Band featured songs that evoked oldtime rural America, from the civil war ("The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down") to unionization of farm workers ("King Harvest Has Surely Come").

These first two records were produced by John Simon, who was practically a group member: He aided in arrangements, and played occasional instruments (piano or tuba).

Rolling Stone magazine lavished praise on The Band in this era, giving them more attention than perhaps any other group in the magazine's history.

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The Band, circa 1969. (L-R) Levon Helm (mandolin), Rick Danko (fretless bass), Robbie Robertson (acoustic guitar), Garth Hudson (accordion) and Richard Manuel (drums).

A critical and commercial triumph, The Band, along with work by The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, established a musical template (sometimes dubbed country rock) that later would be taken to even greater levels of commercial, if not artistic, success by such artists as The Eagles. Both Big Pink and The Band were also hugely influential on their musical contemporaries, with both Eric Clapton and George Harrison citing The Band as a major influence on their musical direction in the late 1960s and early 70s. Indeed, Clapton later revealed that he had asked to join the group.

The tour following their second album was the first with The Band as headline act. The resulting anxiety was especially felt by Robertson who undertook hypnosis to combat it; an influence on their next work, the self-explanatory Stage Fright (1970), which was engineered by whiz-kid musician-engineer-producer Todd Rundgren.

Stage Fright was arguably The Band's last classic work, with subsequent records being increasingly disappointing for most fans, although each included a number of classic songs (e.g "It Makes No Difference") that rank with the best of their work. The best of their later albums is the live recording Rock of Ages (1972), recorded at a New Year's Eve 1971/1972 concert and featuring the line-up, bolstered by the addition of a horn section, in exuberant form.

In 1974, The Band reunited with Dylan for a concert tour; it was hugely popular (perhaps the most profitable tour by any recording artists to that time), and resulted in a live album, Before the Flood.

By 1976, seemingly tired of the constant workload, they retired from touring with a massive Thanksgiving concert on November 24, featuring a horn section and a stellar list of guests, appearances by Hawkins, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Dr. John, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton and Neil Diamond, with brief readings by poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Michael McClure. The concert was filmed by Martin Scorsese, and was subsequently combined with interviews, as well as separately-recorded soundstage performances with country singer Emmylou Harris ("Evangeline") and legendary gospel-soul group The Staple Singers ("The Weight"). Released in 1977 as The Last Waltz and directed by Martin Scorsese, it was accompanied by a triple-album soundtrack. After one more studio record, however, featuring a version of "Georgia On My Mind" for Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign, the band split.

All the Band's members remained active in music to some degree, though Robertson had the most successful musical career. He became a music producer and wrote movie soundtracks (including acting as music supervisor for several of Scorsese's films) before a highly praised comeback with a Daniel Lanois produced, self-titled solo album in 1987. Helm received many plaudits for his acting debut in Coal Miner's Daughter, a biographical film about Loretta Lynn, while the remaining members interspersed session work with occasional solo releases.

In 1983, The Band reformed and recommenced touring, though without Robertson. On one of these tours, on March 4, 1986, Manuel committed suicide in his Florida hotel room. It later emerged that he had suffered for many years from chronic alcoholism — according to Helm's autobiography, in the later stages of his illness, Manuel was consuming eight bottles of Grand Marnier per day. It would be another seven years before the reformed group recorded an album, Jericho (1993). Like its successor High On The Hog (1996), the musicianship was immaculate, but many fans noted that some of the spirit that had made them great was missing. A third album, Jubilation (1998), fared similarly. On December 10, 1999 The Band lost another member, when Rick Danko passed away, aged 56, in his sleep.

The Band were inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1989 and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.






Albums with Bob Dylan


This Wheels On Fire (ISBN 1556524056) - Levon Helm with Stephen Davis - a complete, but by no means impartial, account of the group's history.

External links

fr:The Band nl:The Band pl:The Band sv:The Band


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