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The Band

For roughly half a decade, from 1968 through 1975, the Band was one of the most popular and influential rock groups in the world, theirmusic embraced by critics (and, to a somewhat lesser degree, the public) as seriously as the music of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.Their albums were analyzed and reviewed as intensely as any records by their one-time employer and sometime mentor Bob Dylan.Although the Band retired from touring after The Last Waltz and disbanded several years later, their legacy thrived for decades, perpetuatedby the bandmates' respective solo careers as well as the en more

For roughly half a decade, from 1968 through 1975, the Band was one of the most popular and influential rock groups in the world, theirmusic embraced by critics (and, to a somewhat lesser degree, the public) as seriously as the music of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.Their albums were analyzed and reviewed as intensely as any records by their one-time employer and sometime mentor Bob Dylan.Although the Band retired from touring after The Last Waltz and disbanded several years later, their legacy thrived for decades, perpetuatedby the bandmates' respective solo careers as well as the enduring strength of the Band's catalog.

The group's history dates back to 1958, just about the time that the formative Beatles gave up skiffle for rock & roll. Ronnie Hawkins, anArkansas-born rock & roller who aspired to a real career, assembled a backing band that included his fellow Arkansan Levon Helm, whoplayed drums (as well as credible guitar) and had led his own band, the Jungle Bush Beaters. The new outfit, Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks,began recording during the spring of 1958 and gigged throughout the American south; they also played shows in Ontario, Canada, where themoney was better than in their native south. When pianist Willard Jones's left the lineup one year later, Hawkins began looking at some ofthe local music talent in Toronto in late 1959. He approached a musician named Scott Cushnie about joining the Hawks on keyboards.Cushnie was already playing in a band with Robbie Robertson, however, and would only join Hawkins if the latter musician could come along.

After some resistance from Hawkins, Robertson entered the lineup on bass, replacing a departing Jimmy Evans. Additional lineup switchestook place over the next few years, with Robbie Robertson shifting to rhythm guitar behind Fred Carter's (and, briefly, Roy Buchanan's) leadplaying. Rick Danko (born December 9, 1943) came in on bass in 1961, followed by Richard Manuel (born April 3, 1944) on piano andbacking vocals. Around that same time, Garth Hudson (born August 2, 1937), a classically trained musician who could read music, becamethe last piece of the initial puzzle as organ player.

From 1959 through 1963, Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks were one of the hottest rock & roll bands on the circuit, a special honor during atime in which rock & roll was supposedly dead. Hawkins himself was practically Toronto's answer to Elvis Presley, and he remained true tothe music even as Presley himself softened and broadened his sound. The mix of personalities within the group meshed well, better thanthey did with Hawkins, who, unbeknownst to him, was soon the odd man out in his own group. As new members Danko, Manuel, and Hudsoncame aboard -- all Canadian, and replacing Hawkins' fellow southerners -- Hawkins lost control of the group, to some extent, as they beganworking together more closely.

Finally, the Hawks parted company with Ronnie Hawkins during the summer of 1963, the singer's at times overbearing personality and egogetting the better of the relationship. The Hawks decided to stay together with their oldest member, Levon Helm, out in front, variouslyrenaming themselves Levon & the Hawks and the Canadian Squires and cutting records under both names. A hook-up with a young JohnHammond, Jr. for a series of recording sessions in New York led to the group's being introduced to Bob Dylan, who was then preparing topump up his sound in concert. Robertson and Helm played behind Dylan at his Forest Hills concert in New York in 1965 (a bootleg tape ofwhich survives, and can be heard), and he ultimately signed up the entire group.

The hook-up with Dylan changed the Hawks, but it wasn't always an easy collaboration. In their five years backing Ronnie Hawkins, thegroup had played R&B-based rock & roll, heavily influenced by the sound of Chess Records in Chicago and Sun Records in Memphis.Additionally, they'd learned to play tightly and precisely and were accustomed to performing in front of audiences that were interestedprimarily in having a good time and dancing. Now Dylan had them playing electric adaptations of folk music, with lots of strumming andlacking the kind of edge they were accustomed to putting on their work. His sound was traceable to the music of Big Bill Broonzy and JoshWhite, while they'd spent years playing the music of Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley. As it happens, all of those influences arerelated, but not directly, and not in ways that were obvious to the players in 1964.

Ironically, in the spring of 1965, the group had just missed their chance at what could have been a legendary meeting on record with amusician they did understand. They'd met Arkansas-based blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson II, and jammed with the singer/blues harpistone day, hoping to cut some records with him. They hadn't realized it at the time, but Williamson was a dying man -- by the time the Hawkswere ready to return and try to cut some records with him, he had passed on.

Another problem for the group about working with Dylan concerned his audience. The Hawks had played in front of a lot of different audiencesin the previous four years, but almost all of them were people primarily interested in enjoying themselves and having a good time. Dylan,however, was playing for crowds that seemed ready to reject him over principle. The Hawks weren't accustomed to confronting the kinds ofpassions that drove the folk audience, any more than they were initially prepared for the freewheeling nature of Dylan's performances -- heliked to make changes in the way he did songs on the spot, and the group was often hard put to keep up with him, at least at first, althoughthe experience did make them a more flexible ensemble on-stage.

Eventually the group did get together with Dylan as his backup band on his 1966 tour, although Levon Helm left soon after the tour began atthe end of 1965. The group ultimately fell under the management orbit of Dylan's own manager, Albert Grossman, who persuaded the fourcore members (sans Helm) to join Dylan in Woodstock, NY, working on the sessions that ultimately became the Basement Tapes in theirvarious configurations, none of which would be heard officially for almost a decade. (Indeed, up to this time, only a single song, "Just LikeTom Thumb's Blues," done live from the tour just ended, on a 45 B-side, had surfaced representing the group playing with Dylan).

Finally, a recording contract for the group -- rechristened the Band -- was secured by Grossman from Capitol Records. Levon Helm returnedthe fold, and the result was Music from Big Pink, an indirect outgrowth of the Basement Tapes. This album, enigmatically named andpackaged, sounded like nothing else being done by anybody in music when it was released in July of 1968. It was as though psychedelia,and the so-called British Invasion, had never happened; the group played and sang like five distinct individuals working toward the samegoal, not mixing together smoothly. There was a collective sound to "the band," but it made up five distinct individual voices andinstruments mixing folk, blues, gospel, R&B, classical, and rock & roll.

The press latched on to the album before the public did, but over the next year, the Band became one of the most talked about phenomenonin rock music and Music from Big Pink acquired a mystique and significance akin to such albums as Beggars Banquet. The group and albumran counter to the so-called counterculture, and took a little getting used to, if only for their lack of a smooth, easily categorizable sound.Their music was steeped in Americana and historical and mythic American imagery, despite the fact that all of the members except Helmcame from Canada (which, in fact, may have helped them appreciate the culture they were dealing with, as outsiders). Robertson, Manuel,and Danko all wrote, and everyone but Robertson and Hudson sang; their vocals didn't mesh sweetly but simply flowed together in aninformal manner. Classical organ flourishes meshed with a big (yet lean), raw rock & roll sound and the whole was so far removed from theself-indulgent virtuosity and political and cultural posturing going on around them that the Band seemed to be operating in a different reality,to different rules.

During this same period, the group's past association with Bob Dylan -- whose name at the time had an almost mystical resonance withaudiences -- was mentioned in the rock press and also put right in the faces of listeners through a new phenomenon. Only a single trackfrom the group's 1966 tour with Dylan had ever surfaced, and that was an out-of-print B-side to an old single. But in 1969, the first widelydistributed bootleg LP, The Great White Wonder, featuring the then-unreleased Basement Tapes, started turning up on college campusesand record collectors' outlets. The quality was limited, the labels were blank, and there was no "promotion" as such of this patently illegalrelease, but it got around to hundreds of thousands of listeners and only heightened the mystique surrounding the Band.

Music from Big Pink, which featured a painting by Bob Dylan on its cover, began selling -- slowly at first and then better -- and the groupplayed a few select shows. A second album, simply titled The Band, was every bit as good as the first. Dominated by Robertson's writing, itwas released in September of 1969, and with it, the group's reputation exploded; moreover, they began their climb out of the shadow of BobDylan with songwriting of their own that was every bit a match for anything he was releasing at the time. A pair of songs, "Up on CrippleCreek" and "The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down," captured the public imagination, the former getting them onto The Ed Sullivan Show inan appearance that's fascinating to watch on the official Ed Sullivan video release; the host comes out to embrace and congratulate them,obviously thrilled after the psychedelic and hard rock acts that he usually booked, to see a group whose words and music he understood.Meanwhile, "The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down" became a popular radio track and yielded a hit cover version in the guise of anunaccountably corrupted rendition by Joan Baez (in which, for reasons that only Baez may be able to explain, Robert E. Lee is transformedinto a steamboat) that made the Top Five.

Following the release of the second album, things changed somewhat within the group. Partly owing to the pressures of touring and thepublic's expectations of "genius," and also to the growing press fixation on Robbie Robertson at the expense of the rest of the group, theother group members remained familiar enough that their names and personalities were well-known to the public. The Band was still a greatworking ensemble, as represented on their brilliant third album, Stage Fright, but gradually exhaustion and personal pressures took their toll.Additionally, the huge amounts of money that the members started collecting, against hundreds of thousands and ultimately millions ofrecord sales, led to instances of irresponsible behavior by individual members and their spouses and raised the pressure on the group toperform. The members had always engaged in a certain amount of casual drug use, mostly involving marijuana, but now they had access tomore serious and expensive chemical diversions. Some private resentments also began manifesting themselves about Robertson'sdominance of the songwriting (some reality of which was questioned openly in Levon Helm's autobiography years later), and the fact that thegroup was now constantly in the public eye didn't help.

By the time of the fourth album, Cahoots, some of the glow of experimentation and easygoing camaraderie was gone, though ironically, thealbum was still one of the best released in 1971. The problem for the group became fulfilling all of the commitments involved in success,including touring and writing new material to record. By the end of 1971, they'd decided to take a break, cutting a live album, Rock of Ages,that was all fans had to content themselves with in 1972. The fact that their next album, issued in 1973, was a collection of studio versionsof the oldies that the group used to do on-stage, and numbers that they knew from their days as the Hawks, should have been a warning signthat not everything was well within the group. More troubling still was the fact that the renditions were so plain and flat sounding compared tothe music they'd cut on every prior album; it simply wasn't up to the standard that one expected of the group and the fact that they didn'ttour behind the record seemed to indicate that they were marking time with Moondog Matinee. The group did play one major show that year,at the race track at Watkins Glen, NY, before the largest audience ever assembled for a rock concert -- it was a demonstration of their placein the rock pantheon that the Band was booked alongside the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band.

The year 1973 was also where they let the other shoe drop on their association with Bob Dylan, cutting the Planet Waves album with himand preparing for a huge national tour together in 1974. That tour, in retrospect, seemed more a basis for cashing in on their associationwith Dylan than for any new music-making of any significance. In many critics' eyes, the Band was superior to Dylan in their performances,an idea borne out on much of the live LP Before the Flood that was distilled down from the two February 14, 1974, performances. Everyonemade a fortune from it, but the tour with Dylan also thrust the group right into the middle of the most decadent part of the rock world. A lot ofthe simplicity and directness of their music and lives succumbed to the easy availability of sex, drugs, and other diversions and theexpensive lifestyles they were all starting to maintain.

By the end of 1974, the Band had expended much of the good will they'd built up from their first four albums. Another album, Northern Lights-- Southern Cross released in late 1975, was a major comeback and restored some of the group's reputation as a cutting-edge ensemble,even encompassing elements of synthesizer music into its writing and production. Around this same time, Levon Helm and Garth Hudsonmade a belated contribution to the history of Chess Records (in light of their near-miss with Sonny Boy Williamson a decade earlier) whenthey worked with Muddy Waters, cutting an entire album with the blues legend at Helm's studio in Woodstock, NY. The Muddy WatersWoodstock Album, although ignored at the time by everyone but the critics, was the last great album cut by the label or by Waters at thelabel, and his best album in at least five years.

It was too late to save the Band as a working ensemble, however; the members were all involved in their own interests and lives and thegroup stopped touring. The inevitable best-of album in 1976, ahead of what proved to be their final tour, marked the unofficial end of theoriginal lineup's history. One last new album, Islands, fulfilled the group's contract and had some fine moments, but they never touredbehind it and it was clear to one and all that the Band was finished as a going concern. The group marked the end of their days as an activeunit with the release of the film (and accompanying soundtrack LP set) The Last Waltz, directed by Martin Scorsese, of their farewellconcert, which was an all-star performing affair pulling together the talents of Ronnie Hawkins, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, VanMorrison, and a dozen other luminaries drawn from the ranks of old friends, admirers, and idols of theirs. Robertson and Helm pursuedmusical and film careers, while Danko tried to start a solo career of his own.

Capitol Records kept repackaging their music on vinyl with an Anthology collection and a second best-of LP, as well as a pair of CDrecompilations, To Kingdom Come and Across the Great Divide, in the '90s. As it turned out the members, apart from Robertson, weren'tquite as ready or willing to close the book on the group, in part because they saw no reason to and also because several of them provedunable to sustain profitable solo careers (Robertson, having written most of the songs, had a steady income from the publishing as well asthe record sales). The other members of the group reunited at various times -- in 1983, four members of the Band, with Robertson replacedby Earl Cate of the Cate Brothers on guitar, reunited for a tour that yielded a full-length concert video and a healthy audience response. Thedeath of Richard Manuel in 1986 cast a dark pall on any future reunions, of which there were several -- Robertson issued his first solo albuma year later, which included a tribute to Manuel ("Fallen Angel").

This was as close as the guitarist would get to a Band reunion, however, which became a bone of contention among onlookers and themembers. Robertson publicly questioned what the meaning of The Last Waltz had been and would never participate. And as the group'smajor songwriter and principal guitarist, he was their most famous member, but he almost never sang significant vocal parts on theirrecordings (indeed, it is said that one reason their set from Woodstock was never issued was because his mic was live and his voice tooprominent). Other guitarists could build on his work well enough, and the rest of the group had made significant contributions to virtuallyevery song they ever did, so the reunions made sense. In 1993, the Band released Jericho, their first new album in 16 years, which receivedsurprisingly good reviews. High on the Hog followed in 1996 and two years later, they celebrated their 30th anniversary with Jubilation. Thedeath of Rick Danko in his sleep at his home in Woodstock on December 10, 1999, the day after his 56th birthday, seemed to call an end tofuture activities by any version of the Band. « hide

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19 Votes
High On The Hog

19 Votes

22 Votes

27 Votes
Northern Lights - Southern Cross

50 Votes
Moondog Matinee

32 Votes

42 Votes
Stage Fright

92 Votes
The Band

318 Votes
Music from Big Pink

316 Votes
Live Albums
Live at Watkins Glen

2 Votes
The Last Waltz

58 Votes
Rock of Ages

35 Votes
The Last Waltz (Complete)

53 Votes
Greatest Hits

1 Votes
The Best of the Band

6 Votes
To Kingdom Come: The Definitive Collection

3 Votes
The Last Waltz [DVD]

29 Votes

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