Do you know and love The Band? If you’re a Millennial or a member of Gen Z—they might just be a name in the mists of history. But maybe not. If you listen to any Roots Revival or Americana music, any Porch-Rock, etc. (like maybe Kamikaze Hearts, Joe Pug, Trampled by Turtles, the great Sally Jaye, Nickel Creek), you can be sure that The Band’s influence is embedded in there somewhere—almost like a piece of emerald lodged in an Appalachian dulcimer.
They began by backing up rockabilly legend Ronnie Hawkins, and took the name ‘The Hawks’ in honor of their employer. Later, Bob Dylan, who once told Keith Richards that The Hawks could play better than the Rolling Stones, hired them as his backup band. They went around the world with Dylan on his corrosively controversial, but ultimately transcendent BLONDE ON BLONDE tour—and the experience shaped them as intensely as clay in a kiln. Let’s let Robbie Robertson, lead guitarist and principal songwriter for The Band, reflect on what it was like for The Hawks to be in the gravitational pull of Planet Dylan:
“We traveled all over the world, and people booed us everywhere we went. What a strange concept of entertainment! We’d go on to the next town, and they’d boo us again, and we’d pack up our equipment and go on to the next place, and they’d boo us again. All over the world! I’ll tell you what… it thickens the skin a little! After some of the places we played with Ronnie Hawkins, and some of the rough joints we played when we were young—places where it’s really a wonder anyone’s left alive—after that, this was supposed to be success! You can get a little sadistic in these situations, turn up the volume that little bit louder!”
Dylan put it in even stronger terms. When they played the Free Trade Hall in Manchester England, in May ’66—one former fan famously yelled out that Dylan was a ‘Judas’ for plugging in and turning his back on traditional folk-protest music. Dylan then literally turned his back and told The Hawks to “Play fucking loud!” Then there followed a magisterial, malevolent version of “Like A Rolling Stone”, that swept through the crowd like prowling cheetahs on a savannah filled with baby gazelles. As Robbie also said, “It was not light. It was not folky. It was very dynamic, very explosive, very violent.”
Robertson continued years later: “The only reason tapes of those shows exist today is because we wanted to know, Are we crazy? We’d go back to the hotel room, listen to a tape of the show and think, Shit, that’s not that bad. Why is everybody so upset?” But, upset they were. The blizzard of boos, catcalls, heckles, whistles, vulgarities, insults, actual thrown objects—as well as a seething undercurrent of barely held-back violence—might be somewhat understandable. Dylan and The Hawks tried to bring, what must have seemed like an early version of a kind of surreal punk rock to fans just waiting for Bob to get back to business, and continue to sing about miners in West Virginia and Jarrow. It all seems ridiculous today of course; but back then, people were very serious about not mixing important political folk music with the white-hot pink fluff of the dreaded rock and roll.
Ten years later, The Band played their final concert with the original five-man lineup: Robbie Robertson; Rick Danko, bass guitar and vocals; Levon Helm, drums and vocals; Garth Hudson, all manner of keyboards and other eccentric instrumentation; Richard Manuel, vocals, drums, keyboards, etc. It took place on Thanksgiving 1976 at the Winterland Ballroom in Frisco. Martin Scorsese directed it with seven 35mm cameras all rolling and whirring frenetically—footage that would eventually be assembled into, what most critics would say is, the finest rock concert film in history… Yes, The Band had earned all of the admiration, accolades and applause showered upon them. In between the Dylan tour and THE LAST WALTZ, they released six incredibly influential Top 30 studio albums, three gold and one platinum, and one personal favorite, the song “It Makes No Difference”— a lost love ballad, that is as satisfyingly perfect as maybe cake and cognac would be on a lonely winter’s night.
When you see THE LAST WALTZ this time, try not to remember the way The Band finally ended—with recriminations, stories about massive overdubbing on the film, accusations, sexual insults, public denunciations, drug problems, cancer, suicide, money problems, wandering into the wrong side of history (“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” —was that pro-Confederacy or anti? I still have not figured that out. I guess that’s what makes a great work of art.) Still, there was something about The Band when they were at their zenith: something mature and democratic and good and progressive and nostalgic and humorous and hopeful. Something that still shines like sunlight off of a station wagon parked in front of a Big Pink House in upstate New York fifty years ago.
THE LAST WALTZ. See it. Love it. And for a little bit of trivia, pick up the latest album from Shovels and Rope that the Colonial hosted at the beginning of the month. There’s a tribute-song on it called “The Last Hawk” which is about the mystery-man, most valuable player of The Band, Garth Hudson. With his mountain-man beard, his girth and his shyness (which I thought made him a perfect candidate for the title The Harpo Marx of Rock and Roll!) he is and was, a fascinating pop-culture personality.