Whenever I stick on a Band album, It puts me completely at ease. They were treated as legend in the music press; while it seemed the ‘thing’ at the time was to ‘take LSD, hate your parents, and don’t trust anyone over 30’, The Band’s image was that of a virtuous group of guys out in a cabin in the country, making music that brought listeners back in touch with an older, simpler vision of America (the primary theme of the Brown Album), for people who, as longtime engineer John Simon put it “felt so out of touch with their country and culture, they felt like strangers even when they were in it”. This is surprising, seeing as the Band was all-Canadian, with the exception of Levon Helm, drummer, who also juggled lead vocals with pianist Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. Their often cryptic lyrics, packed with images of nature and often biblical references, also helped create this iconic image.
10: Last of the Blacksmiths (Cahoots, 1971)
Last of the Blacsmiths is a cold, cold song. Nothing like it exists on any other Band album. Thunderous piano and Rick Danko’s prominent bassline is broken up by a very strange bridge (you have to hear it to believe it), making this an interesting example of Robbie Robertson’s idiosyncratic songwriting. The pessimistic lyrics could also be an illustration of the frosty dynamic in the group at the time. A very interesting song from a somewhat forgettable album.
9: The Shape I’m In (Stage Fright, 1970)
The Band’s greatest albums were their first 2, but Stage Fright, while it doesn’t hold the same legendary status, is still a fine album. The Shape I’m In is a frantic, anxious songs, and is an example of their transition from a wholesome, rootsy rock band, to a more cynical, slick studio group. One of the best songs from their later era, supposedly about Manuel’s growing dependence on drugs and alcohol, and a great live version appears on Rock of Ages (1972).
8: I Shall Be Released (Music From Big Pink, 1968)
Originally written by Bob Dylan, the first recorded version appears on The Basement Tapes, but the band’s solo version is beautiful. A slow, soulful tune featuring stark, echoey piano and acoustic guiar, and Manuel’s charming high vocals penetrating the mix. A perfect end to what Roger Waters of Pink Floyd considers the “second most influential record in the history of Rock and Roll.” But who really cares what Roger Waters thinks.
7: When You Awake (The Band S/T, 1969)
The 4th track from probably the finest roots record cut, The Band’s self-titled from 1969, is one of the songs that is explored in most depth in the Classic Album documentary for it’s parent album (highly reccomended). It’s a story about things and ideas that are passed down in a family, and is a refreshingly relaxed follow-up to the Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, a more intense and impassioned track.
6: Stage Fright (Rock of Ages, 1970)
Bassist Rick Danko’s powerful, yet plaintive voice (which Eric Clapton supposedly found inspirational) fits the title track perfectly, without doubt the best on the whole Stage Fright album. The most enjoyable version, however, appears on Rock of Ages, the band’s 1972 double live album, where they’ve rarely been a tighter rock unit. Check out ‘Ol’ Brother Garth’s’ gliding keyboards on this one.
5: Jawbone (The Band S/T, 1969)
Richard Manuel’s Jawbone is one of the few tracks in their catalogue to be performed in an uncommon time signature, 6/4, making it an interesting transition from the energetic rock and roll of Look Out Cleveland towards Unfaithful Servant on the second side of The Brown Album.
4: Acadian Driftwood (Northern Lights – Southern Cross, 1975)
Chronicling the ”troubled history of Nova Scotia and Acadia” this absolutely sublime Robbie Robertson-penned song from the Band’s album from 1975 following a short hiatus, is an example of the laid back feel of Northern Lights – Southern Cross, due to their relocation to Malibu. “We had to escape Woodstock…”, says Robertson in the liner notes of my Capitol reissue CD. A good choice it was, too. According to the Rolling Stone Record Guide (Yep, that’s right), Acadian Driftwood ‘reaffirms Robbie Roberton’s status as one of rock’s greatest songwriters.’
3: To Kingdom Come (Music From Big Pink)
To Kingdom Come is one of the band’s least-known songs, packed with cryptic biblical references, it’s the exemplary example of their brilliant lyrics and songwriting. It sums up what Big Pink was all about.
2: Genetic Method/Chest Fever (The Last Waltz, 1968)
Garth Hudson, the secret weapon, is unleashed on this cracking rock song, his growling organ being the highlight. The lyrics make no sense, as the band are willing to admit, but it’s the lo-fi driving force of this track that makes it so special.
1: King Harvest (Has Surely Come), (Rock of Ages, 1972)
The final song on one of the greatest LPs of the 60’s is one of the funkiest in The Band’s catalogue, a story of a farmer frantically trying to save his crops, proud to be a ”union man” but ashamed of his current status (“just don’t judge me by my shoes…”). King Harvest is an impressive rock song, growing increasingly desperate as the song reaches its climax. The most fully realised version of the song appears on Rock of Ages, where Robertson’s guitar solo absolutely pops. Pure genius.
The Weight’s pretty good as well.