The Band, circa 1969. (L-R) Levon Helm (mandolin), Rick Danko (fretless bass), Robbie Robertson (acoustic guitar), Garth Hudson (accordion) and Richard Manuel (drums).
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 old-time country and blues with rock and roll. The Band comprised J.R. "Robbie" Robertson (guitar), Richard Manuel (piano, drums, saxophone), Garth Hudson (organ, piano, accordion, 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.) Manuel, Danko, and Helm all sang, while Robertson was the unit's chief lyricist. 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.
Formed as The Hawks, they slowly came together as a backing unit for Toronto rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, first Helm, then Robertson, Danko, Manuel and Hudson. Eventually the group split from Hawkins over personal differences and recorded two singles, but found little success until Dylan requested their services for a tumultuous series of 1965 and 1966 concerts, marking Dylan's final change from folkie to rocker. These concerts saw them sometimes heckled by folk music purists and (Drummer/singer Levon 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.
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 Dylan compositions ("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"). A critical and commercial triumph, The Band, along with The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, established a musical template that later would be taken to even greater levels of commercial, if not artistic, success by such artists as The Eagles. Both albums were also hugely influential on their musical contemporaries, with both Eric Clapton and George Harrison citing The Band as a major inlfuence on their musical direction in the late 1960s and early 70s. Indeed, Clapton later revealed that he had asked to become a member of the group.
The tour following their second album was the first with The Band as headline act, and the resulting anxiety, especially felt by Robertson who undertook hypnosis to combat it, was an influence on their next work, the self-explanatory Stage Fright (1970), which was engineered by whiz-kid musician-engineer-producer Todd Rundgren. The album was probably 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.
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, including Ronnie Hawkins, poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Michael McClure, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Dr. John, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Neil Diamond. The concert was filmed 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.
As a solo artist, Robertson had the most successful musical career, both as a producer and writing movie soundtracks 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. 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 Levon 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.
- A web page dedicated to The Band (http://theband.hiof.no)