The Band, The Capitol Albums 1968-1977 - album review: Pioneering rockers who changed the course of popular music

Download: The Weight; I Shall Be Released; The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down; King Harvest (Has Surely Come); The Shape I’m In; Life Is A Carnival; Don’t Do It; It Makes No Difference; Share Your Love with Me

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The Band’s recording career was all too brief – but marked by the kind of ambition to which rock’n’roll rarely aspires. Of course, it helped being what George Harrison, who knew whereof he spoke, acknowledged as “the best band in the history of the universe”, a judgement supported by this box of vinyl remasters. The Band hit peaks here that are the equal of anything in popular music: the gut-wrenching “It Makes No Difference”, the dramatic “King Harvest”, the numinous “I Shall Be Released”, the Buñuelian enigma that is “The Weight”, and many more.

In 1968, sailing against the zeitgeist of psychedelia, their debut, Music from Big Pink, was the kind of landmark release by which cultural sea-changes can later be measured: a work of obvious maturity and technical excellence, great emotion, and no little mystery. For one thing, there was no photo of The Band themselves on the sleeve of the British release, just a ridiculous, naïve painting by the group’s mentor, Bob Dylan. 

These spooky, compelling stories seemed to exist outside of time: they could have been written yesterday, or they could have been unearthed from old pioneer hymn books, so well did they adopt the mood and characteristics of the American oral tradition. One song, “The Weight”, was used the following year in Easy Rider, where its burnished antiquity stood out like a sore thumb against the movie’s paranoid-heroic youth  fixation. The same was true of the album, whose songs, stalked by doubt and uncertainty, suggested some rustic Cassandra bearing a sandwich-board of doom through the shiny, new city.

That mood deepened with the antique leanings of their eponymous follow-up masterpiece, on which songwriter Robbie Robertson evoked a lost history of Civil War unrest, labour disputes,  domestic treachery, boomtown bordellos and back porch reveries. The band’s instrumental  palette had broadened to take in all manner of horns and keyboards, mostly courtesy of weird-beard sax/organist Garth Hudson, a musical genius among road-hardened rockers, but the most immediately arresting thing about the album was the vocals: Levon Helm’s good ol’ boy drawl summoned forth all the wounded pride of a  defeated South on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”; Rick Danko’s Appalachian whine wrung tears from “The Unfaithful Servant”; and Richard Manuel’s cracked soul falsetto on “Whispering Pines” was that of a fallen choirboy.

Subsequent albums suffered slightly by comparison, but the live triple-album Rock of Ages confirmed the instinctive interplay wrought by years of roadhouse shows, with the tricksy, interlocking lines of Allen Toussaint’s horn arrangements knitting beautifully into The Band’s country-funk grooves. By turns rollicking, heart-breaking and euphoric, these performances have the smooth, weather-beaten feel of driftwood, and seem to seep the entire history of rock’n’roll from every phrase. As, too, does their covers collection Moondog Matinee, featuring customised versions of R’n’B favourites from “Mystery Train” to “Share Your Love With Me”.

Sadly, by 1977, disparate drug habits, personal acrimony and terminal road-weariness led to The Band’s dissolution. But in under a decade, they had irrevocably changed the course of rock music, instigating a questing fascination with musical roots that continues to this day: quintessentially, Americana before that term was coined – and so much more fun than it implies.