Generally, the term super group is used when two or three members from two or three successful bands get together to form a new one. But in the 60s, The Band were a different kind of super group. Nowhere near household names, they were best known as The Hawks, the backing band for Ronnie Hawkins, and more notoriously, the backing band for Bob Dylan. But The Band was a bona fide supergroup. Five amazingly accomplished musicians, multi instrumentalists and songwriters. And a minimum of four of them more than up to the task of being the front man.
I’ve claimed to love The Band ever since I saw Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, but I recently realised that my claim might be a bit false, since The Last Waltz soundtrack is the only Band album I’ve ever listened to. And while I’ve listened to it countless times, I should probably dig a little deeper before I can legitimately claim to love them. So, digging deeper I am, starting with Music From Big Pink.
The Band eases us in with the melancholic Tears of Rage. But things kick into gear immediately after with the more melodic rock and roll of To Kingdom Come. The constant and pristine harmonies that are a signature of so many of their best songs are there. And as always, Rick Danko, Levon Helm and Richard Manuel prove that pristine doesn’t have to mean polished beyond belief. You can always hear the raw passion behind these vocals.
Listening to Music From Big Pink, I realised something, the Band’s most low profile member might be their biggest secret weapon. Danko, Manuel and Helm all get moments to shine, taking lead vocals. Robbie Robertson might not sing much, but his amazing guitar work puts him in the spotlight pretty regularly. But always up the back of the stage, is the unassuming Garth Hudson and his roaring Hammond organ. As Caledonia Message played out, I realised the best bits were his little flourishes. Minimal and perfectly placed, it’s something he always gets right, no matter what style of song The Band is playing around him.
Then comes probably the most well known song in The Band’s catalogue, The Weight. Letting the key singers all take a verse and chorus, it’s a real group effort where the parts all get a moment to shine, and the result ends up being so much greater than the sum of those parts. The same can be said for the eclectic weirdness of Chest Fever. Kind of dark and brooding, kind of funky, kind of rock and rolls, all awesome.
Possibly the second most famous song by The Band, the version of Wheels on Fire on offer on Music From Big Pink has a little more blues grit than the Bob Dylan lead arrangement on Dylan’s The Basement Tapes. And that bluesy grit is a definite improvement.
After listening to Music From Big Pink, I’m one step closer to be able to declare my love for this band. It’s more than enough to make me know that they’re deeper discography is well worth a listen. As well as the solo efforts released by various members in the years since.