One of the great forgotten treasures, and when they came blasting out of my car radio this evening they brought a smile to my face, as they always have managed to do over the years.
They were Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel, and they were “The Band”, a name bestowed upon them as first the back-up band to Ronnie Hawkins and then of course to Dylan, went he first went electric. In the late 60’s they went out on their own and recorded the back to back classics, “Music From Big Pink” and ” The Band”. The two consist of some of the great classics of that era.
I think my first knowledge of the band came a few years after their release at the advent of album-oriented radio and WNEW-FM in New York. I remember the shock to learn that Joan Baez’ classic “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” wasn’t actually her’s but written by Robertson and recorded by The Band two years earlier. I believe that was my introduction to this great band. Those two albums contained such classics as the aforementioned, The Weight, Chest Fever (first heard as the flip side of 3 Dog Night’s smash single “One”), This Wheel’s on Fire, Up on Cripple Creek, Rag Mama Rag, and many more.
Tonight the song that made me smile and bring be back into time was “W.S Walcott’s Medicine Show” and it brought me back to what I think was the spring of ’73 and The Band was about to explode. Until then a fave of rock radio they hadn’t been reknown for their own work as of yet, as bountiful as it had been. I recall the night well, May/June warm summer night and sitting in front of my house with the guys, 38 years later I believe it was Mark Shapiro, Phil Green, Brian Harnik, Seth Kadish, maybe Joey Nierenberg, maybe a couple of others when we saw that The Band was playing the Commack Arena that night. We decided to take the 90 minute drive and see what tickets we could get, lo and behold the arena still had seats in about the 15th row and in we went (an occurrence that would never happen again) for 2 hours of an amazing live show, and I believe many fans were made that night out of our little group of friends. Just months later the Band would be the “opening act’ at the legendary Watkins Glen Jam featuring the Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers Band. At an upstate NY auto track the concert drew 600,000 fans and from all accounts the opening act blew both of these legendary live bands off the stage…I say accounts because I wasn’t there, although I tried. I was working in the Catskills as a lifeguard and me and my fellow guard Mike Waskowitz decided we wanted to go and off we went, out to Rte. 17 trying to hitch a ride to the show, about 3 hours away. And out there we stood for 2 hours, without any luck, until we decided it wasn’t meant to be.
In the next two years the band would reach the heights that they deserved, opening the New York Academy of Music (which would become NY’s #1 concert venue) and the live recording would become the great 2 record set known as “Rock of Ages”, which I highly recommend for anyone who wants to hear these guys at their creative best. Sadly their days weren’t to last too long as the band would call it quits just two years later….but they went out on one of the highest notes ever. On Thanksgiving Day 1976 the Band held its farewell show at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. They say you can judge a man’s character by the quality of his friends, so I would suppose you could judge a band’s greatness by the friends who show up to say goodbye to them. And saying goodbye on Thanksgiving Night was the following, Bob Dylan, Ronnie Hawkins, their former bosses, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Dr. John, Muddy Waters, Emmylou Harris, Ronnie Wood, Paul Butterfield, Neil Diamond, among others. The concert film that was recorded that evening was directed by none other than Martin Scorcese and is recognized as possibly the best concert film ever. Rent it now, if you have never seen it, it is remarkable.
For all intent and purposes that was the end of The Band, a short but fruitful period of great music, great memories for me and great moments in time I will never forget. I think I will go listen to Stage Fright now….my favorite Band song.
I’ve been in a classic rock mood of late, so the RMN have been “classic” just a matter of time before I get around to writing about some more contemporary music.