This Sunday Elder Music column was launched in December of 2008. By May of the following year, one commenter, Peter Tibbles, had added so much knowledge and value to my poor attempts at musical presentations that I asked him to take over the column. He's been here each week ever since delighting us with his astonishing grasp of just about everything musical, his humor and sense of fun. You can read Peter's bio here and find links to all his columns here.
Very early in my blogging career I had a column on The Band. This isn't surprising as I think they were the most important band from the sixties and seventies (and I know many, nay most, will disagree with that assessment but that's the fun of blogging).
That first column rather concentrated on what the various members did after the demise of the group, so today it's The Band as an entity. And when I say THE BAND I mean the original consisting of Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson.
The rockabilly performer Ronnie Hawkins put them together as his backing band over a couple of years in Canada and all were from that country except Levon.
They were known as The Hawks. Later they went out on their own using that name (and a couple of others). John Hammond saw them perform and recruited them to record an album with him. He recommended them to Bob Dylan who was looking for a group to back him on his first electric tour. They were generally referred to on that tour as the band (lower case).
When they recorded their first album "Music From Big Pink" they were surprised that the record company called them The Band (they really hadn't decided on a name themselves). That turned out to be the most appropriate name for a group in the history of rock.
By the time they recorded that album they were seasoned professionals with more than 10 years experience behind them. From it is the first of their famous songs, The Weight.
Their second album, just called "The Band", is the best album in rock history. That's the one with The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and Up On Cripple Creek, but I'm not going to play either of those.
Outside of Woody Guthrie, not many songs have been written about unionization. The Band did just that. It's also about bringing in the harvest. It's called King Harvest (Has Surely Come).
The album also contained probably the best song about ageing produced by relatively young men – they were in their twenties when they wrote and recorded the song Rockin' Chair.
After the first two albums, the critics liked to downplay their next album "Stage Fright". They were wrong; this is better than "Big Pink" and nearly as good as "The Band".
By this stage they were all disturbed about the adulation they were receiving, thus the name of the album. Also, after so many years as a tight group, brothers even, cracks were beginning to appear. I don't know if All la Glory is indicative of that, but it's the next song.
The influence of Bob came to the fore in the next song. He liked to throw biblical allusions into his songs, and The Band, or Robbie who wrote most of the songs, took that on board now and then.
I'm pretty sure there was no sacred harp in the bible, but I could be wrong. It's a good song, though: Daniel and the Sacred Harp.
By number four they seemed to have lost their mojo, as evidenced by "Cahoots".
Of course, a lesser Band album is better than just about anything else around. I surprised myself by selecting two songs from the album, the first of which is rather odd, Shoot Out in Chinatown.
The next is obvious (well, it is to me). They were living in Woodstock, New York, before that town got overrun by musical tourists. They were quite a few other musicians living there at the time as well. One of those was VAN MORRISON.
He dropped in a recording session one day and traded vocals with Richard Manuel on 4% Pantomime.
We'll skip over "Moondog Matinee", an album of cover versions of old songs they used to play when they were starting out, and return later to the next one, "Northern Lights – Southern Cross". That brings us to "Islands", the contractual agreement record – their last studio album.
It wasn't very good and the best song they recorded for it was left off. Fortunately, with reissues of the CD version with all the extras we got it. The song is Twilight.
The Band went out with a blaze of glory with a Thanksgiving dinner and concert that was one of the major events in rock history. The concert was filmed by Martin Scorsese and it produced the best rock concert film ever. Someone who was invited to perform but couldn't make it is EMMYLOU HARRIS.
However, she got together with the group and they recorded a song that appeared in the film. That song is Evangeline (originally known as The Last Waltz). The song is excellent, and that is an extraordinary achievement as they recorded it only minutes after Robbie had finished writing it.
Getting back to "Northern Lights – Southern Cross", an album that ranks with the first couple, there's an obvious choice.
Norma, the Assistant Musicologist and I agree the next song is their finest (and boy, that's saying something). I'll end with it, Acadian Driftwood.
This is the only distinctly Canadian song in their oeuvre. It's about the French settlers in that country after the English defeated the French in the 1750s. They had a choice of remaining and living under the English, returning to France or, as the song describes, moving down to Louisiana where there was an established community.
As of this writing, there are only two members left – Robbie and Garth.