Richard Manuel wrote many of the songs on the debut, but here the most consistent name is that of Robbie Robertson. We’ll likely never know if Robbie’s adoption of the songwriting was genuine or underhanded, but there’s no question that the voice of The Band was a combination, with Richard’s plaintive tones countered by Levon Helm’s redneck yowl. These are nicely balanced on side one, with the near-majestic “Across The Great Divide” giving way to the ribaldry of “Rag Mama Rag”. Everybody knows “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by now, its sad salute leading into the hope of “When You Awake”. “Up On Cripple Creek”, with its bouncy wah-wah clavinet returns the fun, but Richard’s stirring lead on “Whispering Pines” puts him back in charge.
Side two is a little more unpredictable, with even more obscure lyrics and complicated melodies. “Jemima Surrender” follows a dirty riff through a good groove before “Rockin’ Chair” takes us to the seaside. So when they all let loose on “Look Out Cleveland”, it’s a great reminder that these guys could really rock. “Jawbone” is just plain odd, with a trick opening and a nearly impossible-to-follow meter if you’re trying to clap along. “The Unfaithful Servant” (excellent lead vocal by Rick Danko) seemingly sends us back to another era, its graceful piano and acoustic guitar ringing in somebody’s parlor, while “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” details what’s happening out in the fields. It’s an excellent display of their dynamics.
This is another one of those albums that people say is perfect, and they’re entitled to their opinion. It’s very good, and it’s solid, but most of all it’s mysterious. More than anything, it influenced other musicians, who would strive to recreate the same sense of community on their own records. But even The Band would find how ego and other distractions would make such a democracy impossible. We’ve gone back and forth about what rating to give it, simply because we don’t personally feel compelled to play it all that often, but somehow anything less doesn’t make sense. (The latest remastered CD gets points for including “Get Up Jake”, a later B-side recorded during these sessions, alongside some intriguing alternate takes and/or mixes.)
The Band The Band (1969)—4
2000 CD reissue: same as 1969, plus 7 extra tracks