Posts Tagged ‘Music From Big Pink’

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A freshly minted reissue of The Band’s debut album, released as celebration of that record’s 50th birthday, was an absolute guarantee even before it was announced a few months’ back. It’s one of the most venerated rock records of the Woodstock era, analyzed to the level of work by Bob Dylan, the artist that this Canadian-American group backed for his first electric tours. And hearing it even today, the love for “Music From Big Pink” feels entirely justified. The Band crystallized a sound that groups like The Byrds and the Grateful Dead had been wrestling with for years: a muscular production informed by blues, soul, folk and country (a.k.a. the roots of American rock) that stayed true to all of the above genres and felt sharply original.

This new collection blows up the sound of Big Pink to THX levels via a stereo remix by beloved engineer Bob Clearmountain. To drive the point home, they’ve split the original LP up over four sides of vinyl to be played at 45 RPM. Clearmountain’s touch is surprisingly tasteful at times, emphasizing the album’s copious bottom end driven by Rick Danko’s fluttering bass lines, Levon Helm’s kick drum and the swarming organ parts played by Garth Hudson, while adding a healthy gleam to the whole thing. But when his hand gets heavy, it injects a feeling of sterility to some of the most vibrant sounds to come out of the ‘60s. And not just the strange injection of some studio chatter between a few tracks. “The Weight,” inarguably the best known song from this disc, feels pulled apart like taffy, losing much of the spirited energy of the original mix. The same goes for the two Dylan tunes (“This Wheel’s On Fire” and “I Shall Be Released”) that wrap up the album. Hudson’s clavinet interjections lose their quaint charm and become almost obnoxious and The Band sounds less like a band and more like a bunch of studio players seeking a paycheck instead of musical enlightenment.

The year 1968 is often regarded as the most turbulent time in our history as a nation. Pop culture of that year tended to reflect the rage felt by America’s youth over the developments of the day. This was well represented in the music found on albums like Electric Ladyland, Beggars Banquet, and through ground breaking musicals like Hair. But an album considered among many to be the best of the year, “Music From Big Pink”, was somehow able to indirectly capture that spirit by leveraging themes and musical concepts that are inherently “American.” This was done in a manner that was clever, thoughtful, approachably complex, and remarkably calm and measured.

Fifty years later the music found on “Big Pink” remains fresh and equally riveting. So it was only fitting that to celebrate this milestone, band member Robbie Robertson would lead a charge to use modern technologies to “revisit” the record and some of its better known outtakes. Working with legendary engineer Bob Clearmountain (Bruce Springsteen, Rolling Stones) he is about to introduce a remix that lifts the sonic quality of the record without sacrificing any of its integrity. The result is a musical experience that feels contemporary and clean with an expanded sense of dimension.

It’s been a busy year for Robbie Robertson. Just last month he auctioned off the 1965 Fender Stratocaster that he and Bob Dylan famously shared and that Robbie used on the “Big Pink”. Robbie listened in wonder as he described as only he can, how “Music From Big Pink”was put to tape and why it continues to influence scores of musicians. 

When this came out, records were still coming out in mono and stereo. And so these very definitive decisions had to be made. There was something exciting about that. Coming back to it, Clearmountain wanted to be extremely loyal to these recordings. He wasn’t interested in getting cute and putting special effects on things. He just wanted to give it more dimension and open it up in a way where you could hear more things, more detail than you ever could before. He nailed that. It was exciting all over again for me to revisit it with him.

When we went in to record “Big Pink”, we wanted to work at A&R studios in New York. That was known as the best sounding studio around and John Simon, our producer, really wanted us to work there. It had been the old Columbia Studio where some many great things were done. Phil Ramone at that time had taken it over and turned it around. So we go in and the engineers tell us where to set up and we do what they say because we want this to sound as good as it possibly can. We go into the first song and all of a sudden I have to stop everything. I said, “I’m sorry this doesn’t work for us at all.” They were like, “What do you mean? What’s wrong?” I said, “We can’t play like this. We need to see one another.” There are baffles, and I’m in one corner and he’s over there and we’re operating through headphones when we usually communicate the eye signals, and gestures, and looks. It’s a big part of our musical communication.

The first song we recorded for “Big Pink” ended up being the first song on the record, “Tears of Rage.” When I think about it now, it was a very personal thing and it’s just coming back to me now that the record company was saying, “You really want to start your record with a long slow song?” And we said “I guess, yeah!” In the studio we started to run through it a little bit and were kinda getting use to the sound in the room and the next thing John Simon says is, “Wow, I’m really liking this.” So we ran it down, we recorded it a couple of times and then John said we should come in and listen to it to see if there were any adjustments we wanted to make. We went into the control room and that was the first time we heard the sound of The Band. That was our sound. It was us for the first time witnessing it. We had made lots of music with Bob Dylan and with The Hawks. But this was a whole different flavour. 

To do a song like “Key to the Highway” and it not be a shuffle was almost illegal. We took it and turned it inside out. It was something that I was feeling at the time. I said to Levon (Helm), “How does this feel to you?” And I played the rhythm in the way we did it for him. He said, “Man, let’s give it a shot!” But we were quite aware of some blues enthusiasts who thought that doing in that way with that boldness was almost a sacrilege and I like that!

That record, “Music From Big Pink”, was like rebelling against the rebellion, and the rebellion was this loud psychedelia, everything on 11. This was about going the opposite direction and trying to get just as much emotion out of the music as possible.

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(L-R) Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko of The Band pose for a group portrait in London in June 1971. (Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns)

Fans of The Band celebrated the 50th anniversary of the band’s 1970 Stage Fright studio album in 2020, and to mark the ongoing celebration, Universal Music Enterprises has shared a previously-unreleased live version of the band performing their most well-known hit, “The Weight”.

This live take on the celebrated Music From Big Pink track was recorded during The Band’s June 3rd, 1971 show at London’s famed Royal Albert Hall. The previously-unreleased concert is set to be included in full on The Band’s upcoming Stage Fright 50th Anniversary Edition box set, due out on February 12th.

The song that perfectly encapsulates The Band’s deep arsenal of talented singers in Levon HelmRick Danko, and Richard Manuel came in at the three slot of the show as the group explodes out of the starting gate. Coming into London hot on the tail end of a 1971 European tour, this two-night run at the Royal Albert Hall was The Band’s first time back at the famous venue since backing Bob Dylan in 1966. Given the crowd’s vitriolic reaction to the newly-electrified demeanor of the iconic singer-songwriter five years prior, the group’s 1971 return was justifiably much more rewarding.

“Everybody was on their game. And it was such a great relief to come back to Albert Hall from the last experience of playing with Bob there, [Laughs]” Robertson said “When we played with Bob, we were on a ridiculous schedule on tour. I’m amazed that Bob, you know, could even pull it off physically. This time, the crowd was just over the top on enthusiasm and we were trying to give it back to them.”

Just when you think “The Weight” has reached peak exposure in the culture, Robbie Robertson’s 1968 song and its original recording by the Band — always manages to stage a comeback. During the past five decades, it’s repeatedly popped up in soundtracks, from Easy Rider to The Big Chill to the recent Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. In 2019, an all-star remake featuring Robertson, Ringo Starr and musicians from around the world generated millions of views. And next week, a new Band box set will revive “The Weight” again, this time by way of an excavated live version.

Starting with Music From Big Pink, Robertson has started the process of digging through master tapes and archives of each of the Band’s albums in time for their five-decade anniversaries. This year, the time has come for an upgrade of their third LP, Stage Fright. A 50th-anniversary edition of the album, out February 12th, will include a new stereo mix of the album, a few alternate takes, and a collection of hotel-room jams featuring Robertson, bassist Rick Danko, and pianist-drummer Richard Manuel.

Also included is the never-before-released Live at Royal Albert Hall, June 1971, which carries additional significance. The previous time the Band had played at that austere venue, in 1966, they were known as the Hawks and were backing Bob Dylan on his controversial European tour. The last two shows of the tour took place at the hall, where, as at other shows, some in the audience were less than thrilled by the sound of Dylan backed by a plugged-in band — and let their frustrations be known by way of booing and yelling.

By 1971, though, things had changed: “The Hawks had been booed there last time out,” wrote Levon Helm in his memoir This Wheel’s on Fire. “Not this time. Take my word for it — pandemonium. They were on their feet and dancing from the first notes.”

Naturally, Live at Royal Albert Hall, June 1971, includes a version of “The Weight.” The song was also in the news last December when Dylan sold his song catalogue to Universal Music Publishing for a reported $400 million — a deal that, to the bafflement of some, included all the original Band songs from Music From Big Pink(The Band had signed with Dylan’s publishing company, Dwarf Music, back in 1968.) 

Very quietly, for six years, a band had been brewing. Recruited as the Hawks by Arkansas rockabilly veteran Ronnie Hawkins, the quintet had notched years as road warriors playing Canadian and U.S. clubs and casinos, further seasoned by combat duty on Bob Dylan’s tumultuous 1966 tour, Still in their 20s (save for keyboard polymath Garth Hudson), they looked and sounded decades older; the black and white portrait on the album jacket. It was sort of hip to know who they were outside of Toronto.

Few game-changing albums open as quietly as Music From Big Pink, the 1968 debut for The Band. A languid but brief motif of single Telecaster notes wheezing through a Leslie speaker staggers in on top of weary, muffled drum beats, anchored by gospel piano chords. And then Richard Manuel begins singing, his soulful, broken-hearted voice breaking as it climbs:

“We carried you in our arms on Independence Day
And now you’d throw us all aside, and put us all away
Oh what dear daughter ’neath the sun, would treat a father so
To wait upon him, hand and foot, and always tell him ‘no’?”

The antithesis of a conventional, radio-friendly earworm, “Tears of Rage,” written by Manuel and his erstwhile boss, Bob Dylan, was a lagging dirge of inventoried betrayal and lost innocence against brooding organ. A mournful duet of soprano and baritone saxophones punctuated later verses,

They came home to Woodstock with Dylan and put down firm roots for two-years. It was Dylan’s “out of touch” year and they began to spawn this music, this hybrid that took its seeds in the strange pink house. Whereas the Dylan “sound” on recording was filled with Bloom-fielding guitar, Kooper hunt and peck organ and tinkly country-gospelish piano, a fortunate blending of the right people in the right place etc., the Big Pink sound has matured throughout six years picking up favorites along the way and is only basically influenced by the former.

The Dylan tracks on Big Pink already carried the Band’s DNA from their gestation in the Saugerties, N.Y., house that conferred the album’s title, an acknowledgement that the very essence of the group’s ensemble style had been pared away and rebuilt from its foundations as a result of the collaboration.

On “The Weight,” Levon Helm, the group’s lone American, recounted a journey that seemed part pilgrimage, part parable, part shaggy dog story written by guitarist Robbie Robertson. The music itself was at once plainspoken and deliberate, Hearing three distinctive voices build the vocal harmonies on the choruses evoked a brotherhood that itself emerged as part of the album’s mystique and the Band’s identity.

Robbie Robertson makes an auspicious debut here as a composer and lyricist represented by four tunes. Two are stone knockouts: “The Weight” probably the most commercial item in the set with a most contagious chorus that addicts you into singing along… “take a load off Fanny, take a load for free, take a load off Fanny and… you put the load right on me…” “To Kingdom Come” starts out smashing you in the face with weird syncopations and cascading melody lines and then goes into that same groovy bring-it-on-home chorus that earmarks “Weight.”

Hudson’s pitch-bending Lowery organ and Manuel’s piano provided the ensemble’s foundation throughout, with Hudson and producer John Simon adding horns . Vocally, the arrangements highlighted Manuel’s lyrical growl, steeped in Ray Charles’ protean influence, Rick Danko’s buoyant yelp and Helm’s Arkansas drawl; gospel’s call-and-response interplay capped by wide intervals rather than the close harmonies of most bands. Robertson stepped up as a lead singer on just one of his compositions, “To Kingdom Come.”

Individually what makes up this album is Robbie Robertson whose past discography includes “Obviously Five Believers” on Blonde on Blonde, the “live” version of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and the much ignored Dylan single, “Crawl Out Your Window.” Rick Danko, on bass and vocals, is one of the more outgoing people in the band, he can be depend upon to give you a lot of good matured shit whenever you see him; he of the new breed in bass players, the facile freaks like Harvey Brooks, Jim Fielder and Tim Bogert. He is only different from these three in his tasteful understating. Bassist Rick Danko also steps up with his own Dylan co-write on “This Wheel’s on Fire,” decorated with twinkling keyboard accents on a cheap Roxochord keyboard Hudson had hot-rodded with a telegraph key, while the set’s third Dylan contribution, “I Shall Be Released,” further extends the scriptural atmosphere.

Richard Manuel is affectionately called “Beak” or was at one time; a deft pianist with a strong feeling for country-gospel big pink music. A strong contributing composer: “Tears of Rage,” “In A Station,” “We Can Talk,” and “Lonesome Suzie.”  “We Can Talk” offers a hearty mid-tempo rocker framed between Manuel’s rollicking piano and Hudson’s organ arpeggios as the three singers traded overlapping lead vocal lines through lyrics that nodded to the era’s political turmoil with a playful allusion to the group’s Canadian majority. As impressive as that song remains, however, it’s as a balladeer that Manuel would be most compelling. “Lonesome Suzie” is a tender, sympathetic portrait of romantic rejection and abject loneliness that implies Manuel’s own inner pain, while “In a Station” is a hushed reverie that sonically and lyrically evokes a borderland between waking and dreaming.

Garth Hudson is one of the strangest people I ever met. If Harvey Brooks is the gentle grizzly bear of rock and roll then Garth is the gentle brown bear. He is the only person I know who can take a Hammond B3 organ apart and put it back together again or play like that if it’s called for. While backing Dylan on tour he received wide acclaim for his fourth dimensional work on “Ballad Of A Thin Man.”

Levon Helm is a solid rock for the band. He is an exciting drummer with many ideas to toss around. I worked with him in Dylan’s first band and he kept us together like an enormous iron metronome. Levon was the leader of the Hawks. If Big Pink consciously rode the throttle to focus on the quintet’s collective sound, they did flex their power on “Chest Fever,” a semi-nonsensical paean to a wild lover that builds upon Hudson’s formidable intro, itself a virtuosic goof on Bach’s Toccata in D minor that would metastasize over the years into a concert highlight.

John Simon, a brilliant producer-composer-musician, finally has this album as a testimonial to his talent. The reason the album sounds so good is Simon. He is a perfectionist and has had to suffer the critical rap in the past for what has not been his error, but now he’s vindicated.

Music From Big Pink set its hooks into fans gradually but deeply. Musicians, on the other hand, were stunned by the Band’s musicianship, songcraft and democratic spirit, inspiring artists from both sides of the pond to search such fellowship, with Eric Clapton and George Harrison just two of the more prominent acolytes. The rich roots music sensibility underpinning the album with folk, gospel, blues and country elements meanwhile planted vital seeds that buttressed the imminent rise of country-rock, as well as the subsequent emergence of Americana at the turn of the millennium.

These are fiery ingredients and results can be expected to be explosive. The chord changes are refreshing, the stories are told in a subtle yet taut way; country tales of real people you can relate to (the daughter in “Tears of Rage”) the singing sometimes loose as field-help but just right. The packaging, including Dylan’s non-Rembrandt cover art, is apropos and honest (there’s that word again). This album was recorded in approximately two weeks. There are people who will work their lives away in vain and not touch it.

Released: 1 July 1968