The story of The Band is one of triumph and tribulation. Exploding onto the scene with their sea-changing debut, Music From Big Pink, and its similarly revelatory self-titled follow-up, the group set an immeasurably high benchmark for musical quality from the outset.
In a career spanning nearly a decade – excluding their formative years on the live circuit and later reformation sans guitarist Robbie Robertson – the work of the group’s first two years of activity would cast a large and looming shadow over everything that would follow. In the case of The Band, lightning managed to strike twice, pitting the group in perpetual contention with the ghosts of their former selves.
In fairness, those initial albums would stand as a nearly impossible feat for any artist – from The Beatles to Bob Dylan himself – to follow, let alone replicate. Setting the bar so high so early is seldom a recipe for continued success. This, paired with the trappings of fame and excess which were to follow, seemed to doom The Band to a downward trajectory before the 1970s even got underway.
This isn’t to imply that the rest of the group’s discography is without merit, however – quite the opposite. The overwhelming response to their early work effectively kneecapped any objective assessment of their later work. But while the curse of comparison certainly hasn’t done these later projects any favors, the perception of something being missing in them is no mere case of confirmation bias.
It is important to consider the changes incurred following the release of the group’s second album. Music from Big Pink and The Band were essentially composed in seclusion, with the sidelining of bassist Rick Danko following a 1968 car accident preventing them from touring the former. At this point, the pernicious influence of the industry and outside world had not yet seeped into what has frequently been referred to as a brotherhood. This would change the following year when The Band embarked on their first headlining tour.
By the time sessions for the band’s third album, Stage Fright rolled around, substance abuse issues had taken a toll on several members. Drummer/vocalist Levon Helm is said to have undergone a substantial shift in demeanor during this time, with his usual high-energy spirit diminishing to such a degree that it was allegedly not unusual to find him sleeping during recording sessions.
In the 2019 documentary, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band, Robertson points to this period as the breaking point in his long-standing friendship with the drummer, citing the latter’s drug use as the catalyst.
Disputes over songwriting credit have long been a central issue in the mythology of The Band. The release of Stage Fright in 1970 saw Robertson taking on the role of primary writer for the group in an increased capacity. While he had always been the most prolific of the bunch, Stage Fright saw Robertson credited with authorship for every song on the album. Helm and Danko each notched a single co-writing credit, while Manuel claimed two.
Many listeners have cited Robertson’s increasing creative presence as the source of the tonal shift and perceived wane in quality of The Band’s work. While this was certainly a contributing factor, one must also consider the decreased participation by other members of the group, particularly that of vocalist/pianist/drummer Richard Manuel.
Some forget that Manuel earned four writing credits on the seminal Music from Big Pink, equivalent to that of Robertson. Three of these were solo credits, with the Dylan-assisted “Tears of Rage” being the only co-write. The presence of Manuel’s narrative and musical voice throughout the album was essential in establishing the colorful dimension which distinguished it from anything which came before or would come after.
The precocious, cartoon mischief permeating songs like “In a Station” and “We Can Talk” stand in stark contrast to the surrounding material. This includes Manuel’s own “Lonesome Suzie,” a dreary, hazy ballad depicting a fragile, shaken soul that was likely more autobiographical than Manuel would have cared to admit.
Widely regarded as the soul of The Band, there was a mournful undercurrent to Manuel’s musical contributions, as evidenced in the reticent melancholy of tracks such as “When You Awake” and “Whispering Pines” from The Band, and “Sleeping” from Stage Fright. Manuel’s prolificity as a writer would diminish along with his physical state, however, and releases after 1970 would be devoid of any contributions from him altogether.
With the majority of his cohorts routinely preoccupied, it was often left to the overly ambitious but increasingly disillusioned Robertson to man the ship. Despite the popular narrative, The Band’s output during the 1970s hardly faltered, and though it failed to reach the peaks established by the group’s best work, there was plenty to love about those records.
Titles that come to mind include “Life Is A Carnival,” “The River Hymn,” and “It Makes No Difference.” Even 1977’s Islands, essentially an afterthought of a project compiled from pre-existing, unreleased material as a means of satisfying contractual obligations, contained a number of gems in its tracklist. These include “Right as Rain,” the holiday-themed “Christmas Must Be Tonight,” and Manuel’s stirring take on the Ray Charles’ classic, “Georgia.”
By the mid-1970s Robertson, by his own admission, had run out of things to say, and was growing tired of purportedly bearing the responsibility of keeping a professional group functioning. As such, the guitarist engineered the passive dissolution of the group, culminating in their “farewell concert appearance,” The Last Waltz.
In life as well as death, members of The Band have been haunted by the legacy established during their peak. The enduring significance of Music from Big Pink and The Band notwithstanding, to disregard the galloping tension of Stage Fright, the hollowed-out rootsiness of Cahoots, the layered complexities of Northern Lights – Southern Cross, or even the weightless irreverence of Islands would be doing a disservice to one of the most impactful and fascinating outfits in the history of popular music.
Photo: The Band (Getty Images)