Posts Tagged ‘Music From Big Pink’

(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