It wouldn’t be right to write about anyone but the Band for this blog’s first post.
Although I grew up listening the Band, mainly “The Weight” and “Up on Cripple Creek,” it wasn’t until I found a discard copy of Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train in my high school library and read his essay about the Band that I had to go out and find every scrap of song that they’d ever recorded. And I, who was always so indecisive, and could never decide who was my favorite band/singer, found my all time favorite.
I could write my own book about the Band, about all the things that I have heard in their music, about how they sound like no music or no band before or since, about how there is so much going on in every song that you can almost hear something new each time you listen, no matter how many 1000s of times you have listened before.
Each member – Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson – could play the hell out of at least five instruments, everything from the jew’s harp to the mandolin to the trombone.
As if it were not enough, the Band had not one, not two, but THREE guys who could sing, and not just sing, but bring their personality so completely to the song that you couldn’t imagine either of the other two singing it. My darling baby brother, who also grew up listening to the Band by fault of being born ten years younger than his sister, seems to have a different favorite singer every time we talk about the Band. Mostly, it’s a toss up between Levon and Rick for him. But then I’ll argue for Richard, or if he’s leaning toward Rick, for Levon, and the argument begins all over again…
I’ve never been able to choose my favorite. Here’s why:
Don’t Do It
When the Band covered this on their seminal live album Rock of Ages, it was already a warhorse, a Motown cover that they’d been playing live for years. Motown, however, rarely sounded as ragged or right as this. Levon sings this like his life depends on it. When he says he’s been trying to do his best, you suspect his best ain’t much, but that for him, that’s saying something, and you don’t care. If you are a woman who grew up anywhere from Kentucky on down, you know exactly what I mean.
Levon was the only American amongst the Band, the cracker amongst the Canadians. He brought all the southern soul to their sound, the honky-tonk and the chitlin-circuit.
Then there was Rick:
If Levon was the honky-tonker, the hell-of-a-feller in the Band, then Rick was the sidekick, the one who’s rippin’ and tearin’ hid a heart of gold.
I’ve always strongly suspected that Gram Parsons wanted to sound like Rick Danko. I’ll wear this word out, but there was a soulfulness about Rick Danko, a catch in his voice that told you that he was really just a wide-eyed kid who couldn’t believe his luck. No affectation.
On “Unfaithful Servant,” he knows he was wrong, and that there’s nothing he can do about it, and you believe it. The situation may be hopeless, but he’s not. After all, he sings, “life has been good to us all/even when that sky is a-rainin’.”
And finally, there’s Richard:
Across the Great Divide
Most of the Band’s members have said at one point or another that Richard Manuel was truly the soul of the band.
His voice was often compared to Ray Charles’; that warm, husky, bluesy sound is here in “Across the Great Divide,” but so is the country sound, and the touch of humor. As Richard pleads with “Molly” in the song, she’s holding a gun on him, but he doesn’t sound worried. He’s talked his way out of worse situations before.
In other songs, Richard Manuel would sing with desperation, with fragility, with anger and some of Levon’s bravado. Sometimes he sang every bit of that in the same song. But he always sang with heart. You always can always tell that he’s feeling every word sings.
See. I told you I could go on and on about the Band. I could write all night. But instead, I’ll leave you with this blog’s namesake.