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The Band were a highly influential Canadian rock group specializing in blues, roots rock, and Americana music.
The Band first came together as the backup band for rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. Hawkins was born in Arkansas but found success touring Canada, and he hired the members of The Band one at a time between 1958 and 1963. The original composition of The Band was:
- Rick Danko (bass guitar, fiddle, vocals)
- Levon Helm (drums, vocals)
- Garth Hudson (keyboards, saxophone)
- Richard Manuel (piano, vocals)
- Robbie Robertson (lead guitar)
Danko, Helm and Manuel all sang lead vocal, sometimes harmonizing and sometimes separately. The Band members were also (apart from Robertson, who concentrated on guitar) accomplished multi-instrumentalists, trading roles as needed from song to song. Manuel and Robertson shared songwriting duties in the early years, but as time went on Robertson took over as principal songwriter (a subject of controversy--see below).
Ronnie Hawkins brought Helm, a fellow Arkansan, north to Canada to tour with him; all the other members of the Band were Canadians recruited locally. The Band left Hawkins in 1963 and struck out on their own, touring Canada as Levon and the Hawks and other names. The Hawks' big break came when Bob Dylan hired them to be his touring band for a series of concerts in 1965 and 1966. This was Dylan's first tour since transitioning from folk music to electric rock. Fans of Dylan's folk music reacted so badly to the change that Levon Helm, disturbed by the negative reception, quit the group and went home.
After touring on their own for a while the Hawks joined Bob Dylan at his retreat in Woodstock, NY. They made a series of recordings that circulated for years as very popular bootlegs before finally being released in 1975 as The Basement Tapes. Soon the group started recording their own songs as well. It was at Woodstock that they settled on the name "The Band". They had stopped being known as The Hawks and the record company nixed the idea of the "The Crackers" (crackers as in white guys), and after years of playing as "the band" for singers such as Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, they went with it as their official name.
Their first album, Music from Big Pink, was released in 1968. It did not sell particularly well--The Band was never a chart-topping group--but the group's roots rock / Americana sound proved highly influential. "The Weight", a Robbie Robertson song on the album, was included in the soundtrack for Easy Rider and became one of the group's most famous songs. In 1969 they played at the famous Woodstock music festival and accompanied Dylan at the Isle of Wight Festival in the UK. That same year their followup album, titled The Band, cracked the top ten and raised The Band's profile. "Up on Cripple Creek" became a minor hit single, while "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" would become a hit cover song for Joan Baez a few years later and remains another of The Band's best known songs.
Stage Fright appeared in 1970 and also reached the top ten. It was during this time that Robbie Robertson began to take over as principal songwriter. Music from Big Pink included equal songwriting contributions from Manuel and Robertson as well as other songs written by Rick Danko and Bob Dylan, but Manuel eventually dried up as a source of original music as he fell into alcoholism. Danko, Hudson, and Helm never had been prolific writers, and the songwriting thus devolved on Robertson. Later there would be a great deal of dissension over this. Helm engaged in a long and bitter feud with Robertson in which he charged that Robertson had stolen songwriting credits from him and other members of The Band. Robertson denied taking any credits he wasn't due, and in 2008 his daughter wrote a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times noting that Levon Helm still doesn't write his own material. The feud continued until Helm's death in 2012.
The Band released Cahoots in 1971; this record received less favorable reviews than their previous efforts. The Band then went four years without recording an original album as acrimony within the group increased. Instead they released the concert album Rock of Ages in 1972 to critical acclaim and commercial success. Next came a cover album, Moondog Matinee, in 1973. That same year The Band played the "Summer Jam at Watkins Glen" music festival along with The Allman Brothers Band and The Grateful Dead in front of over 600,000 fans. They also reunited with Bob Dylan, providing the instrumental backing on his Planet Waves album and then joining him for another tour, which yielded the concert album Before the Flood in 1974. Next came Northern Lights - Southern Cross in 1975. It was The Band's first album of original material in four years, and the only one for which Robertson was the sole composer. It drew critical praise but did not sell well.
In 1976 Robertson, who had grown tired of touring, convinced the rest of The Band to retire from live performances. The idea grew into a farewell concert in which The Band would play along with other artists that they admired and had influenced them. That idea further developed into a feature film of the concert, to be made by hot young Hollywood director Martin Scorsese. The concert, called "The Last Waltz" and held in San Francisco on Thanksgiving night 1976, featured the Band playing their own music as well as playing alongside guests that included Dylan, Hawkins, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton and Van Morrison. The Last Waltz album was released in 1978 along with Scorsese's film of the same name. It has been regarded ever since as one of the best concert films ever made. Levon Helm was embittered by the experience, however, charging that Robertson pushed the whole project in an effort to launch himself into a movie career, and that Robertson manipulated his good friend Scorsese into presenting Robertson as the frontman of the band. (The film does indeed include quite a bit more commentary, and in-concert camera time, from Robertson than from any of the other Band members.)
The plan was then for The Band to keep making records as a studio-only outfit, a la The Beatles in the late '60s. (Even before The Last Waltz the Band had released Islands, a collection of B-sides and leftovers meant to get them out of a record contract.) However, for various reasons — including the aforementioned intra-band fallout over The Last Waltz — this didn't happen, and after 1978 the original lineup never played together again. Robertson never returned to the group, instead releasing a few solo albums (his song "Broken Arrow" became a big hit for Rod Stewart) but spending most of the rest of his career as a film soundtrack composer, including a long professional relationship with Martin Scorsese as music composer and arranger of Scorsese's films.
The Band re-formed in 1983 with Jim Weider on guitar in place of Robertson. However, seven years out of the public eye (and possibly Robertson's absence) led to the group playing considerably smaller venues than they had in their glory days. In March of 1986 Richard Manuel hanged himself in his hotel room after The Band had played a show at the Cheek to Cheek Lounge in Winter Park, Florida. He had relapsed into severe alcoholism as well as cocaine use following a period of sobriety in the early 1980s. The Band continued to play with other musicians replacing Manuel. In 1990 they played at a concert in Berlin along with other acts to commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 1994 Danko and Hudson performed with Robbie Robertson when The Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Helm, still feuding with Robertson, did not attend.
The Band released three new albums in the 1990s, their first original material in twenty years. However, The Band finally ended for good when Rick Danko died of a heart attack in 1999. Hudson and Helm continue to record and perform. Helm won a battle with throat cancer that almost cost him his voice, then triumphantly returned from illness with the Grammy-winning albums Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt, before a reoccurrence of the cancer led to his death in April of 2012.
Their complete discography is:
- Music from Big Pink (1968)
- The Band (1969)
- Stage Fright (1970)
- Cahoots (1971)
- Rock of Ages (1972) (live album)
- Moondog Matinee (1973)
- Planet Waves (1973) (with Bob Dylan)
- Before the Flood (1974) (live album with Bob Dylan)
- The Basement Tapes (1975) (with Bob Dylan)
- Northern Lights - Southern Cross (1975)
- Islands (1977)
- The Last Waltz (1978) (live album with studio material). Originally a double album, later expanded into a 4-disc box set.
- Jericho (1993)
- High on the Hog (1996)
- Jublilation (1998)
The Band provides examples of:
- Alliterative Name: Robbie Robertson
- The American Civil War: "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"
- Badass Beard / Badass Moustache: Look at that picture!
- The Band Minus the Face: Public reaction after The Band reformed.
- Canada, Eh?: All of the members came from Canada, except for Arkansas native Levon Helm.
- Christmas Songs: "Christmas Must Be Tonight"
- Clear My Name: "I Shall Be Released"
- Coat Full of Contraband: "Life Is a Carnival"
- Cover Album: Moondog Matinee
- Deal with the Devil / Rock Me, Asmodeus: "Daniel and the Sacred Harp"
- Deliberately Monochrome: The first two albums are accompanied with old-timey looking black and while photos of the group.
- "I picked up my bag/I went lookin' for a place to hide/When I saw Carmen and The Devil/walkin' side by side."
- Did Not Do the Research: Robertson's songs "Acadian Driftwood" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" are beautiful, moving portraits of victims of lost wars, but his allusions to historical events are shaky. "By May the 10th" actually was over a month after Richmond fell. And the expulsion of the Acadians from Canada happened at the start of the Seven Years War, not after the end as a result of "what went down on the Plains of Abraham".
- Distinct Double Album: The Basement Tapes, Rock of Ages, Before the Flood, The Last Waltz
- Epic Instrumental Opener: "The Genetic Method", the organ improvisation Garth Hudson would use in concert to segue into the Epic Riff of "Chest Fever". The original recording of "Chest Fever" began with an organ solo, and over time, Garth would draw it out longer and longer and get funkier and funkier until eventually the intro became its own separate piece.
- A Good Name for a Rock Band / Exactly What It Says on the Tin
- ...supposedly thanks to Executive Meddling; according to Levon Helm, they originally wanted to be The Crackers and weren't completely happy to find themselves credited as The Band on their first album.
- Greatest Hits Album: Several, despite the group's lack of hits. The Band: A Musical History is a comprehensive collection of the original lineup's work.
- Hobos: "Hobo Jungle". It seems a hobo jungle is a real thing.
- Intercourse with You: "Jemima Surrender"
- Keep Circulating the Tapes: The Basement Tapes floated around for years as bootlegs before an authorized version was finally released. There are also bootlegs of the Last Waltz concert that feature the original live recording without the later overdubbing.
- Large Ham: Robbie Robertson, all throughout The Last Waltz.
- Live Album: Rock of Ages, Before the Flood, The Last Waltz
- Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Listen to the lyrics of "Up on Cripple Creek" and Bessie starts to sound like this.
- "W.S Walcott's Medicine Show"
- Mondegreen: A fairly simple one, and easily made due to the difficulty of distinguishing the back-to-back f-sounds. It really is "Take a load off Fanny" and not "Take a load off Annie".
- Murder Ballad: Their cover of "Long Black Veil".
- New Year Has Come: Rock of Ages was recorded, in part, at a New Year's Eve 1971 show. (Garth Hudson incorporated "Auld Lang Syne" into his long organ intro for "Chest Fever", right as the clock stuck midnight and 1972 began.)
- No-Hit Wonder: Despite being recognized as one of the most influential groups of their era, The Band never had a song crack the top 20 in the United States. Even in Canada they never had a single make the top ten.
- Non-Appearing Title: "The Weight"
- Not Christian Rock: "The Weight", "Daniel and the Sacred Harp", others.
- One-Woman Song: "Ophelia", "Evangeline"
- Performance Anxiety: "Stage Fright" (duh)
- Putting the Band Back Together: Minus the lead guitarist.
- Protest Song: "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)"
- Read'Em and Weep: "It Makes No Difference"
- Record Producer: The first two albums were produced by John Simon, who also played instruments on several tracks and essentially functioned as a sixth band member. The Band produced the rest themselves beginning with Stage Fright (although they were "assisted" on that album by engineer Todd Rundgren).
- Refrain From Assuming: It's called "The Weight", not "Take a Load Off, Fanny".
- Revolving Door Band: Various musicians filled the voids left by Robertson and then by Manuel.
- Rockumentary: The Last Waltz. The concert segments are brilliant, as are the studio performances, but the interview segments of the film suffer from too much Robertson and Scorsese completely misses the seething tension within The Band. The Last Waltz seems to have inspired Rob Reiner's satirical masterpiece This Is Spinal Tap, with Reiner's clueless Marty DiBergi being an obvious No Celebrities Were Harmed goof on Scorsese.
- Self-Titled Album
- Seven Years War: "Acadian Driftwood"
- Shaped Like Itself: "Forbidden fruit/It's the fruit that you'd better not taste"
- Signature Song: "The Weight"
- Step Up to the Microphone: Robbie Robertson sings lead vocal on "To Kingdom Come", "Knockin' Lost John" and "Out of the Blue". An unusual example in that Robertson wrote most of the group's material but almost never sang lead.
- Inverted in concert, where according to Helm they'd often leave Robertson's microphone turned off.
- A Storm Is Coming: "Look Out Cleveland"
- Take That: Helm's vituperative autobiography, This Wheel's on Fire, filled with invective directed at Robertson.
- Textless Album Cover: Music from Big Pink
- Vocal Tag Team
- We Used to Be Friends: Helm and Robertson were a particularly nasty example of this trope.
- Woodstock: They were at both the 1969 and 1994 editions.