Band, The

views updated

Band, The

Band, The, folk-rock revivalists who brought a uniquely American sound to their music. Membership: Jaime Robert “Robbie” Robertson, elec./acous-tic/bs. gtr., pno., voc. (b. Toronto, July 5, 1944); Richard Manuel, kybd., drm., voc. (b. Stratford, Ontario, April 3, 1944; d. Winter Park, Fla., March 4, 1986); Garth Hudson, kybd., ace, brs., wdwnd. (b. London, Ontario, Aug. 2, 1942); Rick Danko, bs., fid., voc. (b. Simcoe, Ontario, Dec. 9, 1943); Levon Helm, drm., man., voc. (b. Marvell, Ark., May 26, 1943).

The evolution of The Band began when Levon Helm and several other Arkansans moved to Canada in 1958 to back Ronnie Hawkins as The Hawks. Having pursued an unspectacular career as a country musician, Hawkins turned to rock ’n’ roll, hitting with “Forty Days” and “Mary Lou” in 1959. One by one, Canadianed a stunning vs Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson joined the group. They recordersion of “Who Do You Love,” featuring Robertson’s psychedelic lead guitar work, but the group left Hawkins in early 1964 to tour East Coast clubs as Levon and The Hawks, under Helm’s leadership. In 1965, Robertson, Hudson, and Helm assisted white blues artist John Hammond Jr., in recording his So Many Roads album.

After the release of his first rock-oriented album, Bringing It All Back Home, Bob Dylan recruited the band while in NJ. in the summer of 1965. Helm, Robertson, and Al Kooper backed Dylan at his controversial Forest Hills concert in late August 1965. Without the recalcitrant Helm, the group toured as Dylan’s backup band from the fall of 1965 until the spring of 1966. Following Dylan’s much-publicized motorcycle accident, Levon Helm was summoned from Ark., and the group and Dylan retired to upstate N.Y. to rehearse and record the so-called Basement Tapes. Available for years only on bootleg albums of questionable legality, this material was eventually released officially in 1975.

While in upstate N.Y., the group, known simply as The Band, recorded their first album. Released in mid-1968, Music from Big Pink contained one Dylan song, “I Shall Be Released,” and two Dylan collaborations, “Tears of Rage” (with Manuel) and “This Wheel’s on Fire” (with Danko). It also included several excellent songs by chief songwriter Robertson (“The Weight,” “Caledonia Mission,” and “Chest Fever”) and Manuel (“We Can Talk” and “Lonesome Suzie”).

Making their debut in February 1969 at Bill Graham’s Winterland in San Francisco, The Band’s second album proved their commercial breakthrough and revealed a growing maturation of Robertson’s songwrit-ing talents. Generally regarded as the group’s masterpiece, The Band included his classic “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” as well as “Across the Great Divide,” “Up on Cripple Creek” (a major pop hit), and “Rag Mama Rag,” a major British hit. Their next album, Stage Fright, yielded only one minor hit, “Time to Kill,” yet contained several memorable cuts, including the title song, “The Shape I’m In,” and “Just Another Whistle Stop.” In 1970, Robertson began his outside musical activities, producing Jesse Winchester’s debut album. The Band’s Cahoots album contained several intriguing Robertson songs (“Smoke Signal” and “Shootout in Chinatown”) as well as the collaborative “Life Is a Carnival.” After the live Rock of Ages album, the group recorded the amusing Moondog Matinee, which consisted primarily of old rock ’n’ roll songs. In July 1973, The Band appeared before the largest crowd in rock history with The Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers at Watkins Glen, N.Y. Recordings from the show were eventually released in 1995.

In 1974, The Band again backed their old mentor and friend Bob Dylan for his Planet Waves album and his first tour since 1965. From the tour came Before the Flood, an album combining both Dylan and Band favorites. Subsequently, The Band’s first album of original material since 1971, Northern Lights-Southern Cross, was critically acclaimed as their best since The Band. Consisting entirely of Robertson songs, the album included “Acadian Driftwood,” “Ophelia,” and “Jupiter Hollow.”

Again busy outside the group, Robbie Robertson produced Neil Diamond’s Beautiful Noise album in 1976. Later that year, The Band announced their retirement after more than 15 years on the road. Only days after recording their final album as a group, Islands, they made their final appearance at Bill Graham’s Winter-land on Thanksgiving night, 1976. Billed as The Last Waltz, this final show featured performances by a number of stars and superstars of rock, from Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton to Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Van Morrison. Both a film and an album from the show were released the following spring.

Subsequently, both Rick Danko and Levon Helm recorded on their own, Helm initially with The RCO All-Stars (which included Steve Cropper, Paul Butterfield, and Dr. John), and later with his own group. Helm garnered an Academy Award nomination for his supporting role as Loretta Lynn’s father in Coal Miner’s Daughter. Robbie Robertson cowrote, produced, and costarred in the equivocal 1980 film Carny with Gary Busey and Jodie Foster. That year, Robertson began working as director Martin Scorsese’s musical supervisor, working on Raging Bull, 1983’s The King of Comedy, and 1986’s The Color of Money. In the meantime, Garth Hudson became Los Angeles’ premier sessions accordion player.

The Band reunited, without Robbie Robertson, for touring in 1983, augmented by the Cate Brothers Band. However, while on tour in Fla., Richard Manuel hanged himself in a motel bathroom in Winter Park on the night of March 4, 1986. Levon Helm continued his film work (Smooth Talk, End of the Line), whereas Robertson recorded Robbie Robertson and Story ville. Helm and Rick Danko toured with Ringo Starr during his 1989 American tour. In 1991, Danko, Helm, and Garth Hudson reunited as The Band with three others to tour and later record Jericho for Rhino Records. The Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. During the year, a number of Native American musicians billed as The Red Road Ensemble recorded the music, composed by Robertson, for the three-part, six-hour TBS cable network miniseries The Native Americans. In 1998, Capitol Records issued Robertson’s Contact from the Underworld of Red Boy.

One of the most popular bands in the U.S. between the late 1960s and mid-1970s, The Band was ironically manned by four Canadians and only one American. With only an underground reputation despite years of playing together, The Band achieved their first recognition as Bob Dylan’s backup band, later breaking through with the landmark Music from Big Pink and The Band albums. In refreshing contrast to psychedelic music, The Band featured a country-gospel sound supplemented by electric instrumentation and loose yet precise musicianship, combined with oblique vocal harmonies and incisive songwriting. Their songs frequently reflected an Americana of yore, as evidenced by the Robbie Robertson classic, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Following The Band’s dissolution with 1976’s The Last Waltz, the members pursued individual careers, reuniting without Robertson in the early 1980s.


Music from Big Pink (1968); The Band (1969); Stage Fright (1970); Cahoots (1971); Rock of Ages (1972); Live at Watkins Glen (1995); Moondog Matinee (1973); Northern Lights-Southern Cross (1975); Best (1976); Islands (1977); Anthology (1978); The Last Waltz (1978); Jericho (1993); High on the Hog (1996). Bob Dylan: The Basement Tapes (ree. 1967; rei. 1975); Planet Waves (1974); Before the Flood (1974). Rick Danko: Rick Danko (1977). levon helm and the rco all-stars:Levon Helm and The RCO All-Stars (1977). LEVON HELM: Levon Helm (1978); American Son (1980); Levon Helm (1982). ROBBIE ROBERTSON: Robbie Robertson (1987); Storyville (1991); Contact from the Underworld of Red Boy (1998). ROBBIEROBERTSON AND THE RED ROAD ENSEMBLE: The Native Americans (1994).


L. Helm with S. Davis, This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band (N.Y., 1993); B. Hoskyns, Across the Great Divide: The Band and America (N.Y., 1993).

—Brock Helander