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Can't Get It 

   Outta My Head


                 A Baby Boomer


                           Muses on The Music

Making a Masterpiece: The Band

If you’re a fan of The Music, AXSTV is a fun thing to have, generally. One of my favorite features of that cable network is its Classic Albums series, which breaks down the making of some of the benchmark LPs of the genre.

I’ve watched a handful of these specials, including Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (which I think I had seen previously on another network), The Doors and Rumors by Fleetwood Mac. But my favorite, perhaps because it is one of my all-time fave albums, is The Band, the second studio offering by the group of that name.

The Band was released in September 1969, not long before I started listening to Radio Free Madison, so that’s where I likely first heard it. Pretty sure it was my introduction to the Band; if I’d heard anything from Music from Big Pink, their first LP, I wasn’t aware of it.

It wasn’t long after that, that I had The Band on vinyl — one of a set of early album purchases that included Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and Moondance, the first two Led Zeppelin releases, etc. Those LPs I literally wore out — partly because of cheap stereo equipment, but largely because I played them a lot.

Particularly The Band. Something about the album caught my fancy, even though I was at that time trending toward harder rock and psychedelia — perhaps something in the genes. My mother was kind of country, influenced by the old-time music she heard her aunts, uncles and cousins play — what now might be called “mountain music” or Bluegrass, because her mother’s ancestors were all from the South.

Plenty of Southern influences on The Band — even though four of the five musicians who made it were from the North, as in Great White, i.e. Canada. Levon Helm, an Arkansas native, was the only exception, and his roots in Southern music heavily influenced the Band’s music.

Helm gets a lot of face time in the Classic Albums feature, sometimes sitting at the studio console with John Simon, the genius who produced and engineered the album and also played horns and keyboards, as the latter breaks down how the sounds were made; other times, Helm is just talking to the camera about where the music came from.

In either situation, Helm is totally charming, with his cornbread voice and “aw shucks” demeanor. He is also obviously having a lot of fun in the studio with Simon, animatedly playing and singing along with the tracks.

Rick Danko, the band’s bassist (who also played some other stringed instruments), does a lot of talking, too. But he appears uncomfortable, perhaps because he struggled with heroin addiction in his later years; the Classic Albums episode was recorded in 1992, and five years later Danko was busted in Japan for smuggling smack into that country.

Garth Hudson, who played keyboards and a LOT of other instruments for the Band, mostly lets the music do the talkin’. Hudson is a classically-trained musician who famously charged the other members for musical instruction, because his parents thought he was wasting the expensive music-school education they had paid for by playing in a mostly-rock band.

Hudson’s major contribution to the Classic Albums show is playing two different pieces on two different keyboards, one with the right hand, the other with the left — saying at the conclusion only, “and so on.” His contribution to the album was much larger — he is described as “the principal architect of the group’s sound.”

One of the bits of The Band that he designed was something that even not-so-big Band fans should be familiar with, what sounds like a jaw harp in “Up on Cripple Creek,” which (backed with “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”) was the group’s highest charting single, at No. 25. Simon explains that Hudson tweaked an electronic clavinet to come up with that rhythmic sound.

Also doin’ some ’splainin’ is Robbie Robertson, the Band’s lead guitarist, who gets about as much facetime as Helm. Robertson breaks down the sound of “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)," the album’s concluding song, showing how Danko’s loping bass line and Helm’s percussion drive the magic of the cut. (One that, 54 years after I first heard it, still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up — the imagery of the lyrics, emphasized by the change of pace, symbolizing the change of season.)

Robertson talks about how his first visit to Helm’s native Arkansas — a place where a number of American musical styles came together — influenced his musical development. The show includes comments by two pretty fair guitarists, Eric Clapton and George Harrison, praising Robertson’s feel for the guitar.

Robertson is also a pretty self-effacing guy, demurring about his pickin’ skills, and I think underplays his contribution to the band and the album. He wrote all the songs on the album, with co-writing credits to pianist and lead vocalist Richard Manuel on three of the 12 cuts, and to Helm on a fourth.

The music on The Band is great, and so is the musicianship — not too surprising, when you put together a bunch of multi-instrumentalists (except for Robertson) with a decade-plus of experience playing a variety of genres and styles. And the styles of the album’s songs are wonderfully varied: driving numbers like “Look Out Cleveland,” semi-funky stuff like "Up on Cripple Creek" and “Jemima Surrender,” mournful ballads like “Whispering Pines” and “Unfaithful Servant.”

But to me, it’s the words that Robertson (mostly) wrote, that carry the day. Stuff like that gem from “Up on Cripple Creek”: “Now me and my mate were back at the shack/we had Spike Jones on the box/she said ‘I can’t take the way he sings/but I love to hear him talk’”; the refrain line from “King Harvest,” “Corn in the fields/and listen to the rice/when the wind blows/ cross the water”; and, from “Whispering Pines”: “If you find me In a gloom/or catch me in a dream/inside my lonely room/there is no in between.”

The other Classic Albums shows I watched, in particular Dark Side of the Moon — a breakthrough in studio technique by a band that did a lot of that — and Rumors, get more down into the weeds of the production. As befits an album that emphasizes the voice, spirit and feel of the music, The Band episode leans more on the songwriting and musicianship — of a band that didn’t need much in the way of studio artistry.


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