It surprises us The Band weren’t bigger than they were. A successful band, sure, but not up there with supergroups like The Who and Led Zeppelin.
With The Band you got great musicians, a good looking bunch, and fantastic concept albums like 1969’s The Band. Also known as… The Brown Album!
The Brown Album and The Band’s Concept
This is fantastic album. The Band’s second after Music From Big Pink (1968).
The band’s (and that name is going to create complications) pianist, Richard Manuel, took lead vocal duties for the album opener.
That was quite rare, as he was normally set with backing vocals only.
But The Band was like The Who with its approach to singers, a revolving door of them. Three capable of being lead singers in their own right.
The band (see, the name thing again) had the handsome Canadian bassist Rick Danko (1943-1999), an excellent singer with a really unique voice.
Obviously, Manuel was also a fine singer. But topping the lot was drummer Levon Helm, who’s brilliant voice became the lead for the band’s (!) material.
There was also Garth Hudson, just to add, although he didn’t sing. But he’s a multi-talented musicians who added the following to the album: organ, clavinet, piano, accordion, melodica, soprano, tenor, baritone saxophones, and slide trumpet. Not bad, eh?
But we have to stress, we can’t think of any band where the drummer is the lead singer.
You could argue Reni from The Stone Roses, but his contributions were always in the shadow of the real lead singer Ian Brown.
But for Helm, he began lead duties from track two. The really rather upbeat Ray Mama Rag, which is a catch ditty.
The album is well on the way to establishing itself by track two, but it’s from track three where the belief it’s a concept album ramps up.
Those came from Robbie Robertson, The Band’s guitarist and lead songwriter. Although not a singer, he seemed hellbent on trying to chip in live and can often be seen singing into a microphone on The Band’s live videos.
That’s despite the microphone being turned off, something the other members always did as they didn’t want him singing over his songs.
So that’s an ego thing there. But Robertson is a fine songwriter and brilliant guitarist, so we can’t knock him too much!
Especially when you see the quality of track three—The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. It isn’t just a moving anti-war statement, it’s a brilliant piece of song writing. Every bit as good as The Beatles.
And so poignant, the knowledge of the American civil war adding weight to the developing themes.
Robertson penned most of the songs on The Brown Album, showing a rapidly advancing maturity with his lyrics, with songs taking in people, places, traditions, of Americana in the 19th century.
It’s worth taking a look at the lyrics there, which channel that Americana with nods to Robert E. Lee and the civil war.
Like my father before me,
I will work the land,
And like my brother above me,
Who took a rebel stand,
He was just 18, proud and brave,
But a Yankee laid him in his grave,
I swear by the mud below my feet,
You can’t raise a Kane back up,
When he’s in defeat.
It’s also worth noting the song turned into a legendary live music moment in The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s 1976 documentary of The Band’s farewell gig.
This was essentially The Band’s farewell gig, although they did occasionally reunite in the ’80s and ’90s.
So, yes, the Brown Album peaks early with those three excellent numbers.
But the rest of the songs take in the sense of North American history, often with a thoughtful nod to the passage of time.
And The Band were all young men when they recorded the album in ’69.
What’s moving about that is a line from The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down:
In the winter of ’65,
We were hungry, just barely alive,
By May the 10th, Richmond had fell,
It’s a time I remember, oh so well.
Referring to 1865, that is. And there’s Helm singing about it in 1969. And now here we are, 2022, and shortly we’ll commemorate the 10th anniversary of Helm’s passing.
That’s the powerful thing about this album, we believe. It captures what it means to live in your era, before life advances on. Inevitably.
A Bit About The Band
Some of The Band’s songs were co-written with Bob Dylan, who The Band (that naming thing again) backed up from 1965-1967.
At the time, gigs were billed as Bob Dylan and The Band. Nudge… that’s where the name came from!
One of their most famous songs is The Weight, which was included in Easy Rider. As that film was such a smash hit, it did The Band a lot of favours.
By 1969, guitarist Robbie Robertson was the lad songwriter and emerged from Dylan’s shadow as he went off to do his solo work.
The Brown Album may have nodded towards Americana, but The Band consisted mainly of Canadians—only drummer Levon Helm was American.
There are plenty of songs they wrote you probably know, but didn’t realise they were responsible for.
For example, Bob Dylan and Rick Danko wrote This Wheel’s On Fire together (the song which was used in Absolutely Fabulous’ intro). Dylan recorded it with The Band in 1967.
A different version turned up in 1968 on Music From Big Pink. Danko took lead vocals on that on for fast-paced live numbers.
And it shows just how fantastic they were in 1976, really at the top of their game as musicians for their “farewell” gig.
Yes, then, we wrote this post to celebrate The Band. As we feel they don’t get enough credit for their musical contributions.
Sadly, only Robbie Robertson (78) and Garth Hudson (84) are left with us.
But we think this music has a timeless quality to it. And in 100 years from now, The Weight and many other numbers will still have the same resonance.
And that’s all thanks to an introspective group of plucky Canadians (plus one American) with some epic beards and great voices.