As is happening a lot these days, I've come late to the party on yet another fixture of my youth - The Band.
It's totally cliche, but a few weeks ago I was nursing a Labatt Blue in a local honky tonk listening to a friend's band; it was getting late, I was tired and thinking of leaving. But then the opening strains of The Weight wafted into my consciousness - the way they played it, it was like I was hearing it for the first time. Let me tell you, the impact of the individual elements of its nuanced intro are pretty remarkable when they creep up on you like that. It made me sit up and take notice. You rock, Fred!
Then I remembered that I had the DVD of The Last Waltz sitting at home ready for viewing. I'd never seen it, and truthfully my interest in seeing it was sparked largely by something Richard Thompson said last year on Elvis Costello's Spectacle, where Levon Helm was also a guest. RT said that when Music from Big Pink came out in 1968, roots music was unfashionable, but it showed him and others the way to develop music that had direct ties to one's own culture.
I remember clearly when The Weight came out - it sounded like nothing else out there at the time. Aspects of its musicality were intriguing, both in the singing and the instrumentation, but overall I wasn't pulled into being a Band fan. That's changed now. Something about The Last Waltz, which I watched twice, seized hold of me. I wanted all the back story on the group. I mourned the untimely deaths of Richard Manuel and Rick Danko.
I always thought of them as being a Canadian band, and certainly 4/5 of its members were. But the group's provenance came from Elaine, Arkansas, Helms' birthplace not too far from Memphis. Inspired as a very young child by the bluegrass great Bill Monroe, Helm started out on guitar, but the instrument of choice changed when he got a whiff of the drummer in the traveling tent show F.S. Walcott Rabbit's Foot Minstrels, and Peck Curtis, who drummed for Sonny Boy Williamson.
Helm, in an interview from The Last Waltz, explained that his middle of the country stomping grounds was where the convergence of bluegrass, country music, blues and show music has a propensity to transform itself into a genre all its own, "if it mixes there with the rhythm and it dances." He joined up with rocker Ronnie Hawkins, who although Arkansan had found the Canadian club music scene much to his liking and where four other guys from various parts of Ontario - Manuel, Danko, Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson - were destined to join in the party. Hawkins became known for identifying and grooming musical talents in Canada, and various iterations of his band, the Hawks, would be the proving grounds. (This was also the genesis of Janis Joplin's Full Tilt Boogie Band and the great guitarist Roy Buchanan.)
Soon enough they quit Hawkins, wanting to do their own thing with broader musical influences. Performing as either Levon and the Hawks or the Canadian Squires, they found a following. In 1964, they released their first single, Leave Me Alone. The ultimate follower, Bob Dylan, heard about them (there are various stories as to how - probably a research project unto itself), and asked them to be his backup band in 1965 as he prepared, in what would set off a firestorm of criticism, to amplify. Thus the group was in the hot seat when Dylan made his electric debuts on both sides of the pond. Helm had a bad reaction to the hostility that ensued and left the group for a while.
After Dylan's near fatal motorcycle accident in 1966, the whole lot of them repaired to Woodstock, New York, in the "Big Pink" house, including Helm. The music they made there was released nearly 10 years later as The Basement Tapes. (Here's You Win Again.)
In 1968, as The Band, they concocted something of their own, what would today be called roots music, the album Music from Big Pink. So began a not-quite-10-year run as a group of superstars who did music their way. The Last Waltz, while having a questionable focus on Robbie Robertson to the exclusion of the other members, and not nearly enough history for my liking, still was a crash course on a group whose striking vocals and harmonies, proficiency with their instruments and overall panache cannot be denied.
Although there are any number of songs that could be showcased from their oeuvre - and I have much yet to discover - I've picked one each that's stuck soundly in my head, in honor of their respective late lead singers, Stage Fright (Danko) and The Shape I'm In (Manuel).