Authored by Nicholas Jenkins
History is apt to throw up curious ironies. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the definitive album in the “Americana” style should have been produced by a band, 4 out of 5 of whose members haled from Canada and not the U.S.A. I speak of course of the Band’s second studio effort, released in September 1969, a true gem of its kind, and my choice for album of the month this May.
I was first drawn to this album by the cover and then by one of its standout tracks “Up on Cripple Creek”. It is fair to say the cover is totally lacking in all pretension. In the centre is a black and white photograph of the Band’s five members stood side by side, staring ahead like sullen mules. Looking at them, one could be forgiven for supposing the very first “Lockdown” occurred in 1969, so in need are these five musicians of a decent haircut and shave. Framing the photograph is a plain brown (perhaps the least commercial of all the colours) background. At the top is emblazoned the name of the album and the name of the group: “the Band”.
The subject matter on “Up on Cripple Creek” is equally lacking in pretension. The song relates the thoughts and happenings of a truck driver and his down to earth lover, “little Bessie”. But if the album cover was startling in its artlessness, the music-making in this track is anything but. What stands out immediately is Garth Hudson’s funky clavinet playing during the verses (a whole three years before Stevie Wonder’s Superstition) which he interchanges masterfully with organ during the choruses. Levon Helm’s funky backbeat drumming and folksy vocals are similarly delicious. As always, the Band’s members meld together on this song to create a truly unique and delectable sound.
Garth Hudson (left) and Levon Helm (right)
Once I heard that track, I was hooked and my appreciation for the album has only grown in the proceeding months. It is full of compelling story telling, thanks in large part to Robbie Robertson, the Band’s main songwriter. One prime example of this is the song “the night they drove old dixie down”. Here we have a poor white Southerner’s account of the end of the American civil war and the Confederacy’s downfall. This is a difficult song to praise at a time when the impetus seems to be to “cancel” certain aspects of American and European history which are troubling to our modern sensibilities. This song, however, is of course not written in support of the Confederacy’s cause but is rather an attempt at capturing an ordinary man’s perspective at a pivotal moment in American history.
They say history is written by the winners, in this song, we have the story from the perspective of the vanquished. We hear first-hand about the harsh winter of 1865 when food supplies were scarce, about the humiliation of defeat and about the bells that rang all evening announcing that final calamity. I think Levon Helm’s delivery helps takes the song to another level, his vocals are extremely affecting and authentic. The rest of Band contribute brilliantly, and the overall effect is deeply moving.
All five members of the Band
Another impressive song is “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)”. The song structure is interesting here: alternating an eery and muted chorus section, with a lively, jolting verse section. The song relates (again from a first-person perspective), the fate of a down on his luck sharecropper as he struggles on despite his situation. Richard Manuel’s vocals convey brilliantly the desperation of the narrator, while Robbie Robertson’s wiry guitar-work fits the disquieting feel of the song well.
Overall, I consider this to be a truly great album, melding American styles from country to blues, folk to gospel. The arrangements are original, the lyrics always interesting, and the musicianship compelling. There is no tendency for any one individual member to showboat or wallow in their own virtuosity. Moreover, the album has a consistency of themes that make it a truly satisfying whole. I am very happy to nominate it for AOTM and as I am to once again contribute to this most august segment.