Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Top 10 Greatest Chuck Berry Songs.

A week ago today, the great Chuck Berry passed away. He was one of the most influential icons of the music, as well as its first great singer-songwriter.

Of the scores of classics that would flow from his pen & guitar, these are the ten greatest.

10. "Too Much Monkey Business," Single A-Side, 1956; #4 R&B.

If rock & roll long has been the outlet of "awkward teenage blues," it was Chuck Berry who first made it that way. Although he was a married man in his early 30s by the time he was a major star, he could think like a teenager, & turn the woes of adolescence into poetry. "Too Much Monkey Business" was his breakthrough in doing so, articulating the every day trials of going to school, the monotony of low-paying jobs, the annoyances of billings & payments, the frustrations in pursuit of romance. He also filled the allegedly simple music with more words than anyone could cram into a verse until a Bob Dylan plugged in nearly a decade later. Before Dylan turned to folk, you know the young teenage rocker from Duluth was studying songs like this one.

9. "You Never Can Tell," Single A-Side, 1964; #14 Pop / #14 R&B / #23 UK.

The Lost Generation for the Rock & Roll Generation, as a couple of ex-pat Americans get married in France, swapping New Orleans for Orleans. The details of teenage life were still intact--the hi-fi phono, the coolerator with TV dinners & ginger ale--but this was also a signal of a changing of the guards, finding the young characters growing up & getting married; appropriately, it was released the year The Beatles invaded America, as rock was transitioning from its first to second generation. It also had a structure closer to a folk song than Berry's usual blues-based fare. Perhaps this is why it sounded as fresh in 1964 as it did in the famous twist contest scene in Pulp Fiction some 30 years later--its sheer timelessness.

8. "Sweet Little Sixteen," Single A-Side, 1958; #2 Pop / #1 R&B / #16 UK.

Three years before James Brown hopped onboard the "Night Train," Chuck Berry was using rock music to unite the country by calling out cities until they became one big dance party, all centered around a sweet little sixteen-year-old rock and roll super fan. The idea was too irresistible not to lift, & so Brian Wilson used it as the template of surf rock's national anthem, "Surfin' U.S.A.," replacing the cities with beaches & adding six-part harmony. Never one to miss a trick, Berry sued him over it & currently holds a songwriting co-credit. Yet Wilson is not one to hold a grudge--after Berry's death this week, he said that it was Berry who taught him how to write a rock & roll song.

7. "School Days," Single A-Side, 1957; #3 Pop / #1 R&B / #24 UK.

If "Too Much Monkey Business" found Chuck Berry first articulating the language of youth, "School Days" found him perfecting it. Built upon a now-classic call-&-response blues structure (which Berry would use for another major hit in the following decade, "No Particular Place To Go"), "School Days" was two songs in one: A lament of life in the classroom, followed by the freedom of the after-school juke joint. The escape to freedom was reinforced with lines like "As soon as three o'clock rolls around/You finally lay your burden down," shrewdly borrowing a phrase from the old spiritual "Down By The Riverside." But the finest lines come at the end, & they rank among the most iconic in all of rock phraseology: "Hail, hail rock & roll/Deliver me from the days of old!" With "School Days," these words were a self-fulfilling prophecy.

6. "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man," Single B-Side, 1956.

The party line is that rock didn't get political until the mid-'60s, when Bob Dylan brought the consciousness of folk into the music. But "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" shoots this narrative down. In the midst of the Civil Rights struggle, Berry wrote one of rock's slyest protest songs, & pulling off the rare feat of making it both funny & sexy. While the deeper layer of social commentary might have missed many of his white listeners, his African-American fans knew the song was code for a brown-skinned handsome man. Why else would the central character get "arrested on charges of unemployment"? Best of all was the final verse, which seemingly paid tribute to Jackie Robinson, winning the game like the brown-eyed handsome American hero he was.

5. "Promised Land," Single A-Side, 1964; #41 Pop / #41 R&B / #26 UK.

"This is the map, as 'The Poor Boy' sets out from Norfolk, Virginia, to discover the country: a journey that moves from poverty to wealth, from a bus to a plane setting down at LAX. All pop music that takes America as a subject—whether winding toward tragedy or toward an even sweeter harmony—runs off this mountain. Written when Berry was in prison; he needed an atlas to get the geography right, and when he requested one from the prison library, word went out that he was plotting an escape—which, of course, he was." -- Greil Marcus, "Promised Land: Thirty Records About America," Rolling Stone, May 28, 1998.

I got nothing to add, except, perhaps, I love his evocation of the old slave spiritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" at the end.

4. "Rock & Roll Music," Single A-Side, 1957; #8 Pop / #6 R&B.

The first great rock and roll song about rock and roll songs. In just two-and-a-half minutes, Berry characteristically covers A LOT of ground: He disses symphonies, clarifies his stance on modern jazz, and overlooks tangos; he praises the backbeat of the drums, the wailing saxophone, & the rocking piano; he goes across the tracks, way down South, a spiritual jubilee, & a honky-tonk jamboree; he dances, he gets shook up, he drinks home-brew from a wooden cup with a bunch of hillbillies. It all adds up to a sound that, like the sax player mentioned in the song, blows like a hurricane. No wonder The Beatles loved this song--& eventually turned it into one of their finest classic rock covers.

3. "Roll Over Beethoven," Single A-Side, 1956; #29 Pop / #2 R&B.

A changing of the guards. As a record, it was pioneering rock & roll, but as a message, it was pure punk rock. For centuries, great music meant Bach, Mozart, & Beethoven, but with everything else in the post-WWII era, music demanded to get bigger, louder, & more modern. More than any other song, "Roll Over Beethoven" extended the new generation's middle finger to the old generation's aesthetics, righteously declaring their own new music would unseat the old. & most astonishingly, it did--at least, as much as a new music can. Rock has taken over classical--&/or all other refined musics--as the mainstream default for listeners of all ages & generations. It was Chuck Berry who was more than just a leader of the new sound, but a modern arts visionary. Tell Tchaikovsky the news, indeed. 

2. "Maybellene," Single A-Side, 1955; #5 Pop / #1 R&B.

"Maybellene" is one of those records that simply changed everything. While Elvis gets credit for being the "hillbilly cat" who stepped into the blues with "That's All Right" in 1954, his song was a regional hit that never made it to the national charts, & is much better-known today. However, Berry's first record, "Maybellene," was one of the biggest hits of his career, & found that it was just as revolutionary for an African-American man to discover country. Built around the one-two country stomp of "Ida Red," Berry appears to have taken the refrain of a love song & wed it to the verse of a car-race song. While it shouldn't work--is Maybellene a car? A girl in his car? A girl in the other car? Someone else entirely?--it does, & all but single-handedly establishes the subject-matter of the car & the sound of the guitar as central to rock & roll music. When "Maybellene" came out, the piano & saxophone were still rivaling the guitar as its signature instrument. After "Maybellene," & the future Chuck Berry hits it enabled, the guitar was enshrined at rock & roll's core.

1. "Johnny B. Goode," Single A-Side, 1958; #8 Pop / #2 R&B.

"The gateway from freedom, I was led to understand, was somewhere 'close to New Orleans' where most Africans were sorted through and sold," Berry wrote in his 1987 autobiography. "I'd been told my great grandfather lived 'way back up in the woods among the evergreens' in a log cabin. I revived the era with a story about a 'colored boy name [sic] Johnny B. Goode.' My first thought was to make his life follow as my own had come along, but I thought it would seem biased to white fans to say 'colored boy' and changed it to 'country boy.' As it turned out, my name was in lights and it is a fact that 'Johnny B. Goode' is most instrumental in causing it to B."

Chuck Berry's signature triumph is a recasting of The American Dream as a rock & roll fantasy, going to the deepest origin of American slavery and using a guitar as the gateway to the sweetest freedom. It is also, not coincidentally, his finest guitar playing; though countless Chuck Berry songs begin with a guitar intro, none drive it home like this one, such that the double (!) guitar solo in the middle feels like a homecoming followed by a victory lap. & while many of his original recordings sound almost loose & sluggish to modern ears raised on the tightness of The Beatles & Rolling Stones covers that helped to familiarize these songs for the last 50 years, "Johnny B. Goode" is an exception--it is a tight, rocking performance that never gets old, often covered but never improved upon.

It is not only Chuck Berry's greatest song, but the greatest rock & roll record of them all.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Top 10 Greatest Chuck Berry Covers.

As I wrote in my Last Thoughts On Chuck Berry, Chuck Berry's songbook is the rock & roll songbook. Only Bob Dylan is more covered than he is, but with 10 years on him, Chuck Berry's covers have the wider scope.

While I'm now listening to a lot of Chuck Berry, & a greatest list of his own best recordings is to come, I thought there was no finer tribute to his life & influence than the ways in which others have breathed life into his art. Hence this list, which attempts to fight through the countless Chuck Berry covers out there to make a definitive Top 10 list.

I tried to go by the quality of the recording (or in the case of The Sex Pistols, lack thereof), not who was doing it. I was very tempted by Bob Dylan's version of "Nadine," David Bowie's version of "Round & Round," & Jerry Lee Lewis's "Little Queenie," but ultimately left them all off because it would have been more about including those artists on the list, as opposed to their versions of Chuck Berry's songs.

Some of these songs were major career-defining hits, others were shelved outtakes or rough demos; some appeared at the dawn of an artist's career, others in the twilight. What they all have in common is a love for Chuck Berry--which is to say, a love for rock & roll itself.

10. The Sex Pistols: "Johnny B. Goode," Demo, c. 1975.

By the time The Sex Pistols emerged in the mid-'70s, the once-raw genre of rock & roll that Chuck Berry helped usher into the world had become lifeless & bloated. The Pistols helped to rebuild the genre by tearing it down to its studs, & here in a classic early demo later released on The Great Rock & Roll Swindle soundtrack, they take on Rock Version 1.0, wherein they attempt to play "Johnny B. Goode," the greatest rock song of all. SPOILER: THEY CAN'T. But if they sound like a bunch of no-talent snotty kids banging around in the garage that's the point. & even though they had yet to release their first single, singer Johnny Rotten's venom is already fully-intact, bluffing his way through the words like they were caustic nails. It was this same hellfire that helped to reignite rock for the next 35 years & counting.

9. The Band: "Back To Memphis," Studio Outtake, 1973.

As if anyone needed evidence of the range of Chuck Berry's appeal, look no further to one of the least-talented rock bands (above), followed by one of the most-talented ones here. Initially recorded for their 1973 album of classic rock covers, Moondog Matinee, this Berry super deep-cut was shelved in favor of a solid-but-unremarkable version "Promised Land." By the late 1980s, however, the reissue powers-that-be were reissuing this song on Band compilations everywhere, after dubbing in fake crowd fanfare to pass it off as a live performance. Here is the undoubted original studio recording, which shows why no one questioned the authenticity of the fanfare--it's the rare Band studio recordings that capture their contagious onstage energy.

8. Johnny Rivers: "Memphis," At The Whiskey A Go Go, 1964; #2 US.

This could be a sequel to "Back To Memphis" if it wasn't recorded nearly a decade earlier. It is also probably the most classic Chuck Berry song that no one realized was originally a Chuck Berry song. A down-home country ballad of a man pleading with a long-distance operator, it was remade into a minor rock classic with Johnny Rivers' live version here (it also interestingly inverts The Band's recording above in that instead of featuring a fake crowd on a studio recording, this is a real live recording that sounds like a fake one). & for those wondering how Johnny Rivers made a list with greater rock idols, perhaps he is a secret weapon of rock covers--when pressed for his favorite cover of one of his songs, Bob Dylan famously said Johnny Rivers version of "Positively 4th Street." So maybe his presence here isn't so strange after all.

7. The Beatles: "Roll Over Beethoven," With The Beatles, 1963; #68 US.

To modern ears, Chuck Berry's original versions can sometimes drag a bit, even when the singing & playing are top-notch ("Johnny B. Goode," of course, is an exception to this). Often, when you name a classic like "Roll Over Beethoven," people are actually thinking of The Beatles cover of it, not because it is necessarily better, but simply tighter, faster, & more modern. In one of George Harrison's earliest vocals, he tries his hand at this classic & announces the arrival of a second generation of rock & rollers. Within a few years, albums like Revolver & Sgt. Pepper would be hailed as artistic achievements that actually would rival Beethoven in a very real way. But here, they're still having fun in a track that was strong enough to kick off their second American album & even be a minor hit on this side of the pond.


6. The Rolling Stones: "Bye Bye Johnny," The Rolling Stones [EP], 1964.

It's not easy picking an early Rolling Stones cover of a Chuck Berry song; there were simply so many. "Carol" was strong enough to be released as a Top 10 hit in France, while "Around & Around" was a fine tribute recorded at Berry's own Chess Records. But their cover of Berry's little-known sequel record to "Johnny B. Goode" is the best to my ears, released on their first EP in 1963. It documents The Stones as raw & hungry, at once near-amateurish compared to the production values of their rival Beatles, yet able to provide a dense onslaught of sound that already full of toughness & swagger. Plus, lead guitarist Keith Richards already establishes himself as Berry's spiritual eager kid brother. They would record bigger & more popular Berry covers in the years to come, but the sheer sound of this one leaves the others in the dust.

5. The Yardbirds: "Too Much Monkey Business," Five Live Yardbirds, 1964.

Long before the likes of Cream, Derek & The Dominoes, & a sprawling solo career, Eric Clapton was a scrawny guitar hero in The Yardbirds. He was nicknamed "Slowhand" because he played his guitar so fast that he'd break strings & have to change them to the sound of a slow handclap; within months, "Clapton is God" graffiti began appearing in the London subway halls (much to Clapton's embarrassment). Before he left The Yardbirds for more greener (or rather, blues-ier) pastures, he left this searing document, taken from their sets at the Marquee Club. This song was their opener & they all but blow the roof off the top of it in the performance. While everything revolves around Clapton, I'm always most tickled by Keith Relf's vocals, solidly singing the words in verse, shouting them in another, & then dutifully reciting them in a detached sense of boredom that cuts to the teenage blues at the heart of the song. Before getting obliterated once again by those guitar solos.

4. The Million Dollar Quartet: "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man," Studio Jam, 1956.

Long before the likes of Bob Dylan, Chuck Berry was rock & roll's premiere wordsmith. Compared to contemporaries like Elvis or Fats Domino, Berry's songs were epics where the others' were merely three-stanza poems. Berry was a man who truly loved words & putting them together in memorable ways. One realizes this when listening to the famous Million Dollar Quartet jam session where Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, & Johnny Cash turned to Berry's "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man." For several takes, you can hear them collectively honing in on the song, different people remembering different parts of different verses, until it all comes together here. If one needs any further evidence of strongly Berry was on the rock founders' minds, look no further than the fact that aside from "Don't Be Cruel," this is the only rock song sung by The Million Dollar Quartet for the nearly 80-minute session.

3. Buddy Holly: "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man," Reminiscing, c. 1956; #113 US, #3 UK.

An opposite take on "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" by no less of a founding rock god. Precise where The Million Dollar Quartet was loose, & rocking where they were almost folksy, Buddy Holly's version of the song reshapes it into a driving rockabilly masterpiece (with a seeming tip of the hat to The Champs' "Tequila," although Berry himself loved a good Latin groove as well). & when the snare drum hits to emulate the high-fly being hit into the stands, it is a subtle use of sound effects that presages songs like "Penny Lane" by a decade. Although not originally released during Holly's lifetime, it saw the light of day just before The Beatles invaded America, even making the Top 5 in the Holly-loving UK.

2. Elvis Presley: "Promised Land," Promised Land, 1974; #14 US.

Elvis's last truly classic recording was also his first great cover of a Chuck Berry song. He had tried in overeager readings of "Maybellene" at the Louisiana Hayride & later in listless recitations of "Johnny B. Goode" in Las Vegas, but only his mid-'60s country take on "Too Much Monkey Business" was close to interesting, & only then because it was the only Elvis recording to feature the word "Vietnam." But in 1974, Elvis showed he still had something left to prove when he attacked Berry's "Promised Land." Perhaps it was because the song contained an idea as big as Elvis--THE Promised Land--that he was up for the challenge, but its rock star travelogue version of The American Dream never sounded better than in Elvis's telling. Cut at Stax Records, it provided Elvis with the last Top 15 pop hit of his lifetime, although it deserved to go all the way to #1.

1. The Beatles: "Rock & Roll Music," The Beatles For Sale, 1964.

The Beatles' cover of Chuck Berry's "Rock & Roll Music" is easily the greatest Berry cover of all time. It encompasses all of the key elements that can be found in the other songs listed above--a sense of rawness, of quality, of reinvention, of tightness, of fun, & of simple, irreverent joy. Like they already had with "Roll Over Beethoven" the year before, The Beatles took Chuck Berry's original & tightened it up, locking it together in a way that the original version merely suggested. The words were never the problem in Berry's original--it was that the music never matched their promise. The Beatles fixed all of that. With Lennon shouting his finest vocal this side of "Twist & Shout," the group shows that even in the wistful, post-A Hard Day's Night period of late 1964, they could still rock out with the best of them.

& in doing so, more than hold their own against none other than their idol, Chuck Berry.


Saturday, March 18, 2017

Last Thoughts On Chuck Berry, 1926-2017.

Years ago, I once read that Chuck Berry is the rock upon which rock & roll rests; to this day, I cannot think of a better way to put his influence.

Only The Beatles, Elvis, Dylan, & The Rolling Stones can rival him in influence, & of those 4, only Elvis is conceivable without him.

Simply put, Chuck Berry is rock & roll.

The depth, range, & influence of artists who have covered him is staggering: The Beatles, Elvis, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, The Sex Pistols, Jerry Lee Lewis, David Bowie, The Animals, The Kinks, The Band--& that's just off the top of my head & only counting songs that were officially released on official albums. Throw in live recordings, jam sessions, & bootlegs, & you'd have basically everyone ever.

His music is the blood that flows through the veins of rock & roll; take it away, & the history of the music dies.

The Beatles cut their teeth on his records. They paid credit both directly, with blistering covers of "Roll Over Beethoven" & "Rock & Roll Music," but also indirectly, when Lennon lifted the "Here come ol' flat top, he come groovin' up slowly" from Berry's "You Can't Catch Me" to begin his classic "Come Together." Lennon could be forgiven though; it was simply proof that by 1969, Chuck Berry was simply rock's second mind.

The Rolling Stones' first single was a cover of Berry's "Come On," while one of their early standout covers was "Carol." They also went to Chess Records, the temple where Chuck recorded, & laid down a great version of "Around & Around," which was also covered by The Animals that same year. (David Bowie cut a version of the same song seven years later; it was originally slated to go on the Ziggy Stardust album.) Did I write that Chuck Berry was rock's second mind by 1969? I take that back. By 1965, Mick Jagger took the line "I can't get no satisfaction from the judge" from Berry's "Thirty Days" & wrote what many consider to be rock's definitive anthem.

Those people are wrong, though. Rock's definitive anthem came seven years earlier when Chuck Berry released "Johnny B. Goode."

From the blazing guitar intro through the lyrics and the solo, no one could ever beat it, not even Chuck himself. It was the story of the American Dream told through the eyes of a young guitarist, highlighted by those two-note driving solos that Berry used build rock guitar's (which is to say, rock's) basic vocabulary. Any time you hear someone blasting out those double-note riffs, they are reaching for Chuck Berry's performance in "Johnny B. Goode."

Yet that said, "Johnny B. Goode" was not surprisingly the toughest Chuck Berry song to cover. Both The Beatles & Elvis made passes on it in live performances, but neither could come close. To best illustrate the point, listen to The Sex Pistols set it aflame in an early demo where they can't play it & Johnny Rotten doesn't know the words. They end up shouting "Go! Go! Go!" because it's all they can do. It's a pathetic mess, but in its own raw way, it blows away those versions by The Beatles & Elvis.

Elvis couldn't do a Chuck Berry song justice until he tackled "Promised Land" in 1975, & it was his last truly classic recording. Berry had written it in jail some fifteen years earlier & like "Johnny B. Goode" before it, it too told a version of the American Dream, only this time from East Coast to West, &, as Greil Marcus pointed out when he called it the greatest American song of all time (as in, song about America), rags to riches. It's like one big musical montage that ends with a phone call to the folks back home where it all began.

When Elvis had the famous Million Dollar Quartet jam session with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, & Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry was virtually the only rock on the menu that wasn't someone already in the room. The majority of the session leaned on gospel, country, & blues, but there was a hilarious stretch where they try to remember the words to "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" & piece it together in a gesture of love & admiration, with Elvis strumming away frantically on the acoustic guitar. Once they finally get it, Carl goes into a story about coming off of tour with Chuck Berry.

Chuck Berry touring was an interesting thing by the 1980s, where Berry would show up to a club with his guitar in hand, get his money, then go onstage & play with whatever band was there. Every band knows his songs, he rationalized, because his songs are the rock & roll songbook. A young Bruce Springsteen was in one of these bands in the 1970s; twenty years later, he would back Berry at the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame Concert in 1995. In the years in between, he released a live version of "Run, Run Rudolph," proving even Berry's Christmas songs were nothing to be ignored.

& then there are the Chuck Berry songs that lead to other songs. Brian Wilson so clearly lifted Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" for The Beach Boys' 1963 breakthrough "Surfin' U.S.A." that Wilson eventually had to give him a co-authorship credit; years earlier, rhythm & blues singer Richard Berry (no relation) used the pidgin English of Chuck's "Havana Moon" as a main inspiration for "Louie, Louie," later immortalized by The Kingsmen in a song that all but invented punk rock.

& then there is the popular memory. Back To The Future (Marty McFly playing "Johnny B. Goode" while the film's greatest line is spoken: "Hey Chuck, this is your cousin Marvin, Marvin Berry! You know that new sound you've been looking for? Well listen to THIS!") & Pulp Fiction (the twist dance contest scene, set to "You Never Can Tell") put Chuck Berry into motion picture history in a way that even his own Hail, Hail Rock & Roll documentary could not. When John Lennon & Yoko Ono cohosted The Mike Douglas Show in the 1970s, they jumped at the chance to have Chuck Berry on, & then jumped at the chance to play with him on stage (it serves as a reminder that for everything that Lennon's presence supposedly represented about the counterculture, he was still most wowed by '50s rock & roll). & when NASA shot a rocket into space representing human culture, Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" was among its artifacts. Saturday Night Live famously quipped that the first response from alien life has been received & it is: "Send more Chuck Berry."

& as some like to tell it, Chuck Berry's 1955 first hit single, "Maybellene," was the first rock & roll record of them all.

The one & only time I ever saw Chuck Berry was 50 years to the day after "Maybellene" was released, in August of 2005, at the nightclub he owned in St. Louis, Blueberry Hill, which oddly named after a Fats Domino song. Even odder was that, after much fanfare about this being the 50th anniversary of "Maybellene," he didn't even play the song. My sister & I had gotten there early, stood in line for a few hours, & sat in the front row. Even though he was in his 80s, he came out like a king & was rock royalty in a way I have only ever seen in person from his contemporaries like Jerry Lee Lewis & B.B. King--those pre-television legends who could really hold a stage.

With his son leading the band, Berry played 10 songs in 60 minutes, 9 of his classics & one Jimmy Reed cover. He was spry, sprightly, having fun, & basking in the glow, & during "Johnny B. Goode," he even duckwalked, to my astonishment. He closed with "Reelin' & Rockin'," never one of my favorites at that time, but a favorite ever since. His band shrewdly pulled up girls onstage to dance (of which my sister was thrilled to be among the first, invited up by none other than Chuck Berry, Jr.), which allowed him to sneak out the back behind the wall of dancing girls. It was the rock & roll equivalent of disappearing in a cloud of smoke.

Now Chuck Berry is truly gone. It may be cliche, but it seems like there is nowhere else to end but with the final verse of "School Day," yet another song that, like so many others, is so vital to rock's repertoire but escaped my stream-of-conscious words above.

As the man said:

Hail, hail rock & roll
Deliver me from the days of old
Long live rock & roll
The beat of the drums, loud & bold
Rock, rock, rock & roll
The feeling is there, body & soul

Chuck Berry is dead. Long live Chuck Berry.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Top 10 Band Songs.

The Band--guitarist Robbie Robertson, drummer Levon Helm, bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel, and organist Garth Hudson (all of whom sang except for Hudson)--remain one of the most influential bands of all-time, pioneering what has since become known as Americana; ironic since they are 4/5ths Canadian. But then again, it was their outsider status that made them see America as those within never could.

With about a half-dozen "Best Of"s lists out there for The Band, I figured I'd add my own. I could add another 20 songs, but 10 keeps it more manageable; regardless, honorable mentions go to "Yazoo Street Scandal," the stripped-down version of "Twilight," & the lovely "It Makes No Difference," the latter of which makes nearly every other list (& even tops one), but is left off because its alto-sax-&-guitar coda is endless & hasn't aged very well.

With that out of the way, let's get to the list.

10. "Bessie Smith," The Basement Tapes, 1975 (Album Track).

A beautiful ballad that is striking in its seeming desire to be taken literally: When the singer sings that they are going down the road to meet Bessie Smith, you believe him, even if he too has no idea what he'll do once he gets there; meanwhile, Hudson's sense of atmosphere--always The Band's secret weapon--has never been on better display.

9. "Stage Fright," Stage Fright, 1970 (Album Track).

From the seclusion of their beloved Big Pink home to the audience they never quite knew how to face, this is the closest thing The Band ever came to an autobiography, sung by Danko in his most earnest performance at the microphone.

8. "We Can Talk," Music From Big Pink, 1968 (Album Track).

As with rock & roll itself, gospel had always been a secret engine driving The Band, & here it comes to full fruition in the piano-&-organ testimony found here, filled with overlapping vocals & call-&-response; it also features Robertson's sharpest set of vocals, a panorama of milking cows in Sunday suits, flames turning to chalk, and whips buried in the grave.

7. "Ophelia," Northern Lights -- Southern Cross, 1975 (#62 US).

Perhaps the most haunting mystery of Hamlet is whether Ophelia commits suicide, & this song not only runs with it--with the great line "Ashes of laughter/The ghost is clear," it seems to answer it; also features their best use of the ubiquitous horns that appear in the latter part of their career, driving home an icon of Shakespearean tragedy into a joyous funeral band march of the Dixieland South.

6. "The Shape I'm In," Stage Fright, 1970 (#121 US).

The Band always treated this song like it was the hit that it never really was (hence it's the second song in both The Last Waltz & their classic Best Of LP), but no matter--it kicks like the man sprung free from jail it portrays, & features the tragic Richard Manuel singing the most eerily foreshadowing lines Robertson ever wrote him: "Out of nine lives, I spent seven/Now how in the world do you get to Heaven?"

5. "Ain't No More Cain," The Basement Tapes, 1975 (Album Track).

An old chain-gang spiritual with all four vocalists trading verses (the order is: Helm, Robertson, Danko, & Manuel) while Hudson plays some down-home accordion; this is The Band at their most relaxed, natural, demographic, & effortlessly American--which is to say, their most Band-iest.


4. "Don't Do It," Rock Of Ages, 1972 (#34 US, #11 CA).

Their finest performance (& second-biggest hit), which remakes a minor Marvin Gaye song into a rock & roll history lesson: With The Bo Diddley Beat at its base, they add shouted vocals, funky guitar riffs, bluesy piano triplets, & country harmonies, all topped with New Orleans-styles horn charts from none other than the late, great Allen Toussaint.

3. "Up On Cripple Creek," The Band, 1969 (#25 US; #10 CA).

The Band's biggest hit & funkiest track, chockfull of accurate geography, horse races, Spike Jones records, and adultery.

2. "The Weight," Music From Big Pink, 1968 (#63 US; #35 CA).

The Band's most famous song; a quasi-religious pilgrimage through America about the burden of sin & the price of obligation, featuring the Devil, Miss Moses, & Crazy Chester's Dog.

1. "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," The Band, 1969 (B-Side Of "Up On Cripple Creek).

The finest rock song about The Civil War ever written--all the more impressive that it was written by a Canadian (Robertson), albeit based on the stories of his Arkansas bandmate (Helm). Like all classic American Civil War epics--The Birth Of A Nation, The General, & Gone With The Wind--it told its tale from the Southern perspective, heightening the "brother against brother" narrative that we love to tell ourselves when the real narrative--SLAVERY--gets too ugly & disturbing. Of the many celebrated lines, such as Virgil Cane seeing Robert E. Lee or the bells ringing in the refrain, the one that always does it for me is "In the winter of '65/We were hungry, just barely alive." A casual listener would assume that this was 1965 (as the song was only recorded four years later), but in fact it is 1865.

& therein lies the magic of The Band: Their utter timelessness; & no song shows it better than this one, which could have been sung in 1965--or 1865.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Post-Trump Reality: The First 50 Days.

In the early morning hours of November 9, 2016, the presidential election was called for Donald J. Trump.

I began documenting Post-Trump Reality on Twitter, once a day, for the first 50 days of our new President-Elect. It started as a sort of existential weather report, but soon morphed to include thoughts, feelings, little stories, jokes, and news items. It is one concerned citizen's daily gut-check who happens to live in our nation's Capital.

I've collected them all here on Inauguration Day as an impromptu diary for posterity, or something like it:

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Band: King Harvest.

Ever since Donald J. Trump was elected President, part of me has been numb. I joked on my Twitter feed that I was going through the stages of Trump grief--denial, anger, depression, acceptance--but in truth, I have yet to get past denial. His election represents an America I do not know, an America that I can only fear from a distance.

I need an America that I could hold close, a refuge, a place that felt like home, an America I could crawl into. Punk rock was too harsh and the best of the political stuff was British. Bob Dylan was too omnipresent in my life, he was more like a constant than a place to which I could retreat. Elvis was too big; bands of people I knew personally were too small. So I went to the most American place I knew in rock music: The Band's self-titled second album. I have long considered it "The Great American Novel" of rock and roll.

I've been listening to The Band ever since. Technically, they are only 1/5th American--drummer Levon Helm is from Arkansas, while guitarist Robbie Robertson, bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel, and organist Garth Hudson are all from The Great White North--but it doesn't matter; more than any other band, The Band has been able to define that quintessentially American sound, that quintessentially American idea, better than anyone else this side of Bob Dylan, who was their early collaborator and, one imagines, American spiritual mentor.

As an outfit, The Band is both classic yet distinct--no other group in popular music can nail the way the way in which they could sound so simultaneously loose and tight. Helm is one of rock's finest and most thoughtful drummers; Danko's bass had a lilting, slippery sound that was the sonic equivalent of a paintbrush swishing its way across a canvas; Manuel's piano could be a Saturday night honky-tonk or a Sunday morning church service, pounding straightforward chords or adding lovely embellishments; Robertson's guitar often darted around the other instruments, sometimes blending back with chords and sometimes taking a brief spotlight with a stinging solo; Hudson was everywhere at once, his organ (and/or horns, accordion, keyboards, etc.) textures hanging like tapestries in the background, coloring the songs in ways that could only be felt.

No wonder they got away with calling themselves The Band.

* * *

The Band's music is a sweep that takes in the whole of rock and roll music. They began as the backing band for Ronnie Hawkins, a minor rockabilly singer who figured out that while he may be one in a million in America, in Canada, he was the only game in town. He went up with drummer Helm and, as his fellow Arkansas musicians drifted back down South, he replaced them with The Band That Would Be The Band. Eventually, The Band struck out on their own as The Hawks and earned a reputation as one of the hardest and toughest blues-and-R&B-based rock bands of the pre-Beatles era, playing an endless string of one-night stands up and down the coasts. When Bob Dylan was looking for a band to back him on his first electric tour, he reached out to them, and a legend was born.

Although they only played on one Dylan studio release--the minor hit "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?"--they accompanied him for his infamous world tour of 1966 (minus Helm, who didn't enjoy being booed), where they all but invented the modern rock sound; they also stuck with Dylan after the tour when they all moved to Woodstock (with Helm back in the fold) and dabbled in the bottomless still water pool of American folk music in the basement of their ugly pink house, lovingly called Big Pink. The recordings made there have long since been known as "The Basement Tapes," while around this same time, The Band became known officially as The Band.

Picked up by Dylan's manager, The Band was signed by Capitol Records in 1968, leading to their first album, Music From Big Pink, in July of that year. The record has gone down as one of the most influential rock albums of all-time. Like The Velvet Underground & Nico, it probably helps if you were there, but the lack of pretense, the slowness, the sense that this was a group of people listening to each other, blending instruments and voices, made it unlike anything else going on. There were no guitar solos, just winding songs that filled the American landscape with quasi-religious folk parables and wanderers, in a sound that was at once timeless yet new. A cover of Dylan's "Tears Of Rage" set the stage for an America that was lost within itself, but it was The Band's own "The Weight" that would deservedly become their most famous song. Although neither the song nor the album it appeared on was a big hit (stalling at #63 and #30, respectively), they stayed on the charts and the radio for months and months, serving as an essential midpoint between Dylan's John Wesley Harding and The Rolling Stones' Beggars Banquet as the way out of psychedelic rock.

The following year, The Band followed Music From Big Pink with The Band. It was their finest album and one of rock's true masterpieces. The 12 songs seemed to touch upon every side of American popular music--rock, country, blues, and folk; love songs, badman ballads, sea shanties, and work songs; songs sung from the perspective of married men, old-timers, children, and thieves on the lam; there were drums, fiddles, horns, and what sounded like a radioactive Jew harp; one can hear crooning, harmonizing, shouting, and yodeling. "Up On Cripple Creek" was the closet they got to a hit--#25 in the U.S. pop charts, but it got them on The Ed Sullivan Show and the cover of TIME--while "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," the finest pop song ever written about The Civil War, was their contribution to The Great American Historical Songbook. More than any other rock music I've ever heard, there was a stamp of timelessness that marked the music; it was as though you could put these songs into any era of American life and they would sound organic, they would ring true, whether on the prairie or the plains, East Coast or West Coast, on the 19th century frontier, in the turn of the century city, or through a modern-day computer. It was magic music that was Americana the way few have touched before or since.

And yet, up through when The Band was recorded, The Band themselves had not appeared on stage. Ever the single unit, they deferred live engagements after Danko was injured in a car wreck and wasn't able to perform. When they did finally emerge from the depths of Big Pink and their recording studios, it would alter their course forever. The conventional wisdom is that facing their audience--that is, the real America, after spending their creative time holed up in their own America--was startling, and led them to see the land for something closer to what it was, as opposed to how they imagined it. While this may seem a bit extreme, there is a definite shift in The Band's career from The Band to everything that followed, and the harbinger was the title of their third album, Stage Fright.

While Stage Fright is an excellent, underrated album--and technically, a slightly bigger chart hit than The Band--it is not nearly as rich as the two albums that preceded it. In Helm's autobiography, much is made about Robertson getting sole songwriting credit for nearly everything on The Band (Helm holds the songs were written collaboratively), but on Stage Fright, the songs are written entirely by Robertson himself. Oddly, Helm has since disavowed large parts of his autobiography, including his feud with Robertson, but again, there is a tangible shift in material, regardless of the source. The singing feels less organic, the lyrics try harder, the music sounds slick as opposed to off-handed. There are still great songs--"The Shape I'm In" would become a Band standard for the rest of their career, and the title track "Stage Fright" was quite effective--but there were just as many near-missed or attempts. A naturalness was gone from their music.

Still, The Band soldiered on. It is said that Robertson took over The Band in order to save it, and their fourth album, Cahoots, seems to confirm it. Again, nearly all of the songs are by Robertson but the vignettes and character sketches now sound strange; for the first time, the album was not a hit, influentially or commercially. Tellingly, only one song from Cahoots--"Life Is A Carnival"--was included in their following live album, Rock Of Ages, a double-LP that found The Band remaking their catalog with a horn section to a rousing success. Though largely forgotten today, it was chosen by Rolling Stone as Album Of The Year, and contained their second--and to date, last--Top 40 hit, their masterful remake of Marvin Gaye's "Don't Do It," which made it to #34. "Don't Do It" is the rare rock and roll recording to tell the history of the music--built around the Bo Diddley Beat, stopping for funky breakdowns, and containing doo-wop-esque longing harmonies, this was a four-and-a-half minute history lesson posing as state of the art rock and roll. It kicked off Rock Of Ages in true style, the rest of which was largely comprised of cuts from their first three albums. The album's closer, a cover of Chuck Willis' "(I Don't Want To Hang Up My) Rock And Roll Shoes," was selected as a follow-up single; it bottomed out at #113.

As implied by "Don't Do It" and "Rock And Roll Shoes," it seemed The Band's most exciting way forward was to go backwards. 1973 brought Moondog Matinee, a cover album of old rock and R&B tunes The Band played while cutting their teeth with and without Ronnie Hawkins. A version of Helm singing "Ain't Got No Home," originally by Clarence "Frogman" Henry (who, like Ronnie Hawkins, is still alive, by the way) was a minor hit at #73, but far better was Manuel's take on Bobby "Blue" Bland's "Share Your Love With Me," which could only be heard within the grooves of the album. Much like Music From Big Pink tapped into a larger turn away from non-psychedelic rock, Moondog Matinee can perhaps best be heard alongside contemporary nostalgia albums like David Bowie's Pin-Ups and John Lennon's Rock And Roll.

And then, just as they were reaching the end of their rope playing rock covers as Levon & The Hawks, The Band once again teamed up with Bob Dylan and revitalized themselves. They backed Dylan on his first(!) #1 album, 1973's Planet Waves, and then backed him on a split Dylan/Band tour in 1974, summed up on the live Before The Flood. They regrouped the following year to record their last great album, Northern Lights--Southern Cross, definitely their finest work since Stage Fright and possibly since The Band. Although they recorded it as continuing creative outfit, hindsight has proven it to be a worthy studio farewell.

The following year, Robertson decided it was time to retire The Band from the road, and so for the bicentennial Thanksgiving, they staged The Last Waltz, a grand concert featuring The Band, a horn section, and their famous friends from along the way (Ronnie Hawkins, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, and a bunch of others), which was filmed as a documentary by Martin Scorsese and released as a triple-LP live album by Warner Brothers. Once again, the vast majority of music by The Band was at least half a decade old, and while the performances were solid, they were nothing compared to the Rock Of Ages double album from only four years before. Among the finest new interpretations though was a version of "The Weight" with The Staples, who brought out the gospel leanings implied in the song all along.

Oddly, The Last Waltz wasn't intended to be the retirement of The Band as a working band, only as a touring one. And so, the following year, The Band released what was to be the last studio album of the classic lineup, the disappointing Islands. It sounded like the roundup of leftovers that it was, most of it being recorded before The Last Waltz project began. Not long after, Robertson left the group, leaving Helm, Danko, Manuel, and Hudson to continue on through Manuel's death in 1986--even releasing a few albums with a new guitarist and keyboardist in the '90s--and end with Danko's death in 1999. Helm continued performing Band songs until his death a few years ago in 2012; only Robertson and Hudson now remain of the classic lineup.

* * *

The Band is one of those groups that should be easy to anthologize, but in reality prove to be much trickier. The main problem is that they are primarily an album band, as opposed to a singles one. Couple that with the fact that their first two albums far exceed all of their other work, and you've got problems of balance and representation. And with only two bonafide Top 40 hits, non-single "standards" in the context of the group regularly appear on compilations, which were either fan favorites or concert staples, such as "Chest Fever" and "King Harvest (Is Sure To Come)."

In 1976, The Best Of The Band appeared, which contained most of the songs you'd expect along with the non-LP non-hit single "Twilight." To this day, it is the only single-disc collection you can get that actually contains their two Top 40 hits. Two years later saw the double-album Anthology, which filled the story out and added a few cuts from Islands, the dismal "Right As Rain" and the wonderful "Livin' In A Dream." It also omitted both the non-hit "Twilight" as well as the hit "Don't Don't Do It" from The Rock Of Ages album, but began the long tradition of putting "Acadian Driftwood" from Northern Lights into The Band canon.

Both The Best Of The Band and Anthology were issued on CD; they were soon joined by others. In 1989, The Band received their first compilation of the CD era with the two-CD To Kingdom Come: The Definitive Collection (long out of print, though it can still be found on iTunes). Aside from a previously unreleased version of Chuck Berry's "Back To Memphis," it contained almost all of the usual suspects, plus a few rarities: The unreleased studio cut of "Endless Highway" and the studio version of "Get Up Jake," which had only been released as a live recording on Rock Of Ages. It also contained their lovely Christmas song, "Christmas Must Be Tonight."

And then The CD Box Set Era came. By the mid-1990s, very major artist needed one, and just in time for the 1994 Christmas Season there came Across The Great Divide, a three-disc retrospective in a big box with a big booklet. This was the collection that broke the mold. The first two discs were the standard run-through of their hits and classics, but the third contained rarities, including some of their much-talked about but at-that-point-impossible-to-find Levon & The Hawks material. The disc played like an alternate history of The Band, and did so marvelously--some Basement Tapes material, live tracks including a cut from The Woodstock Festival, the non-hit "Twilight" single, and highlights from The Last Waltz. If hindsight has shown that some material was AWOL (the much-maligned "Time To Kill," which was a minor hit at #77, as well as the other non-hit, non-LP single, "Georgia On My Mind," which has yet to appear on an American compilation), it was one of those rare collections that felt like the whole story, even if it wasn't.

With the new millennium--or, more tellingly, The Beatles' 1--every major rock artist needed to put out their single-disc CD of essentials, and The Band was no exception. Somehow, a Band album called "Greatest Hits" had eluded them up to this point, and so, The Band's Greatest Hits was born. (OK, The Band's Greatest Hits came out only 13 days after The Beatles' 1, so it was probably already in the works; either way, I bet Captiol was kicking themselves for letting a quarter century go by since their last official single-disc best-of.) It remains the default best-of to buy with all of the major classics ("The Weight," "Up On Cripple Creek," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"), many of the minor hits ("The Shape I'm In," "Life Is A Carnival," "Ain't Got No Home," and FINALLY, "Time To Kill"), as well as those fan-favorite standards-in-the-world-of-The-Band ("Chest Fever," "King Harvest," "Acadian Driftwood"). And yet. For an album called Greatest Hits, it leaves off half of their Top 40 hits, which is to say, "Don't Do It," from Rock Of Ages. This is truly mind-boggling when one considers that they did include "The Saga Of Pepote Rouge," a perfectly-fine song, sure, but is clearly there if only to represent Islands. Any review of this album you read should be docked one star for this inexcusable error.

By 2005, Across The Great Divide was long out-of-print and the good people of Capitol Records simply did not know what to do. So for some reason or another (The 40th Anniversary of The Band teaming up with Dylan? The 30th Anniversary of "Ophelia" scraping the charts?) they released A Musical History, a deluxe five-CD, 1-DVD boxed set that featured 102 sound recordings, 9 live videos, and one hard-cover book. It sought to be the final word on The Band, and it essentially was. For the first time, their entire story was told from The Hawks to Dylan's backing band to The Band, with over 30 rare or previously unreleased recordings. For the diehard Band fan (and what other kind of fan is there, really?), it was amazing; for anyone else who was less interested (or less financially padded) there was a single-disc best-of CD that mixed hits and rarities to tell an abridged version of the story. The latter picked out most of the larger set's essential rarities, the twin victories being Robertson's solo run-through of "Twilight" (which sounds like a demo, even though it was apparently was recorded after the single version) and Danko's lovely "Home Cookin'," a casual team effort with a natural sound that so often eluded the group after Rock Of Ages.

Now, as with any major band attempting to make a definitive boxed set, there are some issues. The main one for me is that hard-to-strike balance between too much and too little, especially in the case of an act like The Band, whose first two albums are near flawless (and have all but one song represented in some form or another on A Musical History between them--sorry, "Jawbone"). It's always great to hear undeniably outstanding music, but as a document, it staggers the flow of the listening experience. There is also the case of length. I love The Band, but 5 full discs can get a bit unwieldy even for someone like me. I'm happy to have it, but it's hard to get through as a front-to-back listening experience. Furthermore, since then, there have been more recent one-disc overviews Opus and Iconwhich fall somewhere between a "best of" and a "finest songs" collection; of course, both contain "Up On Cripple Creek" but not "Don't Do It."

So what's a Band fan to do?

* * *

I spent weeks trying to come up with a definitive Band collection, which I have termed my "King Harvest" project. It has resulted in three different Band collections: A one-disc, two-disc, and three-disc version, in the spirit of Greatest Hits, To Kingdom Come, and Across The Great Divide, respectively. The goal was to find a line between quality and history, with an eye on listenability.

To guide my approach, I took an inventory of all the above-mentioned compilations, plus an additional dozen of the international vinyl, cassette, and CD era. Many were European, Japanese or Australian. My only condition was that the album had to contain the original studio versions of "The Weight," "Up On Cripple Creek," and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"--so long as these original recordings were included, any collection was game. I see those as the bedrock of any decent Band collection.

So of the 20 Band compilations I surveyed, there are 20 songs that appear on 7 albums or more:

1. The Weight [20]
2. Up On Cripple Creek [20]
3. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down [20]
4. The Shape I'm In [19]
5. Stage Fright [19]
6. Life Is A Carnival [18]
7. Ophelia [17]
8. It Makes No Difference [15]
9. I Shall Be Released [15]
10. Rag Mama Rag [14]
11. Tears Of Rage [13]
12. Chest Fever [13]
13. Don't Do It [Live] [12]
14. King Harvest (Has Surely Come) [11]
15. When I Paint My Masterpiece [10]
16. Acadian Driftwood [9]
17. Time To Kill [8]
18. Across The Great Divide [7]
19. Ain't Got No Home [7]
20. Mystery Train [7]

As it so happens, all 20 songs do not fit on a single album. The Top 17 do fit on one album, with one to spare--I keep going back and forth between giving the 18th spot to "Ain't Got No Home" (which is one of their eight Top 100 hits) or "Across The Great Divide" (which is the better song); thankfully, the overrated "Mystery Train" is too long to fit as an 18th spot with these other songs. For the moment, I'm favoring history over quality. I call this...

The Real Greatest Hits, One-Disc Edition:

1. The Weight
2. I Shall Be Released
3. Tears Of Rage
4. Chest Fever
5. Up On Cripple Creek
6. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
7. Rag Mama Rag
8. King Harvest (Has Surely Come)
9. Time To Kill
10. The Shape I'm In
11. Stage Fright
12. Life Is A Carnival
13. When I Paint My Masterpiece
14. Don't Do It [Live]
15. Ain't Got No Home
16. Ophelia
17. Acadian Driftwood
18. It Makes No Difference

But as lovely as the idea of a "Greatest Hits" album is for The Band, their lack of hits and rich history make them a unique candidate for a Beatles' Anthology-style mix of hits and history. This is what makes A Musical History so compelling; it is also what makes The Best Of A Musical History another near-miss like the Greatest Hits album. 

I consider those 9 songs that make 15 Band compilations or more the center of The Band Canon--"The Weight," "I Shall Be Released," "Up On Cripple Creek," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "The Shape I'm In," "Stage Fright," "Life Is A Carnival," "Ophelia," and "It Makes No Difference"--along with the live version of "Don't Do It," as the 10th, as it comprises one half of their Top 40 hits. With this in mind, the one-disc version of the King Harvest project is built around those 10 songs, with key other songs, live performances, and outtakes added around them to comprise a full portrait of both hits and history. Determining the scope was a bit more of a challenge. I initially intended to take things back to Ronnie Hawkins, then see it through Levon & The Hawks and Bob Dylan before reaching the "modern" Band, but while that is historically instructive, the essence of The Band lies in the decade that covers their 1967 Basement Tapes recordings through their final 1977 studio recordings for The Last Waltz. In this one-disc overview, only The Band is represented with 3 songs; all other studio albums are represented with 2, with the exception of Moondog Matinee and Islands, which have a single song apiece.

King Harvest, One-Disc Edition:

1. Ain't No More Cane
2. Katie's Been Gone
3. The Weight
4. I Shall Be Released
5. Tears Of Rage
6. Up On Cripple Creek
7. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
8. Rag Mama Rag
9. King Harvest (Has Surely Come)
10. The Shape I'm In
11. Stage Fright
12. Slippin' & Slidin' [Live]
13. Life Is A Carnival
14. Endless Highway
15. Don't Do It [Live]
16. Share Your Love With Me
17. Ophelia
18. It Makes No Difference
19. Twilight [Song Sketch]
20. Livin' In A Dream

In many ways, the 2-disc version is the crown jewel of this project. Is it any wonder that Across The Great Divide is long out-of-print while To Kingdom Come is still available on iTunes? 40 songs allows for a very strong sampling of The Band's catalog; there are 6 songs from The Band, 5 songs each from Music From Big Pink and The Basement Tapes, 4 songs each from Stage Fright, Cahoots, and Rock Of Ages, 3 songs from Northern Lights--Southern Cross, and 2 songs each from Moondog Matinee and Islands, plus a small lion's share of rarities that derive from A Musical History. "Mystery Train" was originally slated to make the final cut, but its length and funkier sound broke up the flow of the pure Band Americana to my ears. I also feel like 2 songs is more than enough to cover Moondog Matinee, and the best songs to do it is the Top 100 hit "Ain't Got No Home" and the finest song on the album, "Share Your Love." Band purists may balk, but that's how I hear it. After much deliberation, these 40 songs capture the essence of The Band.

King Harvest, Two-Disc Edition:

Disc 1:

1. Ain't No More Cane
2. Katie's Been Gone
3. The Weight
4. I Shall Be Released
5. Tears Of Rage
6. To Kingdom Come
7. Chest Fever
8. Yazoo Street Scandal
9. Orange Juice Blues (Blues For Breakfast)
10. Bessie Smith
11. Up On Cripple Creek
12. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
13. Across The Great Divide
14. Rag Mama Rag
15. Whispering Pines
16. King Harvest (Has Surely Come)
17. Time To Kill
18. The Shape I'm In
19. Strawberry Wine
20. Stage Fright
21. Slippin' & Slidin' [Live]

Disc 2:

1. Life Is A Carnival
2. When I Paint My Masterpiece
3. 4% Pantomime
4. The River Hymn
5. Endless Highway
6. Don't Do It [Live]
7. Caledonia Mission [Live]
8. Get Up Jake [Live]
9. The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show [Live]
10. Loving You (Is Sweeter Than Ever) [Live]
11. Ain't Got No Home
12. Share Your Love With Me
13. Ophelia
14. Acadian Driftwood
15. It Makes No Difference
16. Twilight [Song Sketch]
17. Home Cookin'
18. The Saga Of Pepote Rouge
19. Livin' In A Dream

And last but not least, here's King Harvest, Three-Disc Edition.

This is the true harvest of King Harvest, with 7 songs from Music From Big Pink, 8 from The Band, 5 apiece from Stage Fright, Cahoots, and Rock Of Ages, plus revealing alternate takes, outtakes, and demos that fill out the story. After all, in its own way, the studio version of "Don't Do It" is just as marvelous as the more familiar live version, while songs like "Endless Highway" and "Loving You (Is Sweeter Than Ever)" have become virtual Band standards, even though they were never released while The Band was a functioning unit. King Harvest has it all, with the 21 tracks from the crucial 1967-1969 period in "To Kingdom Come"; 20 tracks covering the solid 1970-1972 period in "Stage Fright", and 19 tracks covering the underrated 1973-1977 period in "Twilight", for a total of 60 tracks in all. No Ronnie Hawkins, no Bob Dylan, only The Band, in a much more digestible compilation than the wonderful but overwrought A Musical History. Hear them step onto the center stage as one of the most influential bands of all-time in "To Kingdom Come," retreat back from the spotlight in "Stage Fright," and then search for a way home in "Twilight." It is an epoch contained in a band, or rather, The Band.

* * *

The Band: King Harvest [1967-1977]

Disc 1: To Kingdom Come [1967-1969]

1. Ain't No More Cane On The Brazos
2. Katie's Been Gone
3. Ruben Remus
4. The Weight
5. I Shall Be Released
6. Tears Of Rage
7. To Kingdom Come
8. In A Station
9. Long Black Veil
10. Chest Fever
11. Yahoo Street Scandal
12. Orange Juice Blues (Orange Juice For Breakfast)
13. Bessie Smith
14. Up On Cripple Creek
15. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
16. Across The Great Divide
17. Rag Mama Rag
18. Whispering Pines
19. Rockin' Chair
20. The Unfaithful Servant
21. King Harvest (Has Surely Come)

Disc 2: Stage Fright [1970-1972]

1. Time To Kill
2. The Shape I'm In
3. All La Glory [Early Version]
4. Strawberry Wine
5. Daniel & The Sacred Harp
6. Stage Fright
7. Slippin' & Slidin' [Live]
8. Don't Do It [Studio Version]
9. Life Is A Carnival
10. When Paint My Masterpiece
11. 4% Pantomime
12. The Moon Struck One
13. The Rhythm Hymn
14. Endless Highway
15. Don't Do It [Live]
16. Caledonia Mission [Live]
17. Get Up Jake [Live]
18. The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show [Live]
19. (I Don't Want To Hang Up My) Rock & Roll Shoes [Live]
20. Loving You (Is Sweeter Than Ever) [Live]

Disc 3: Twilight [1973-1977]

1. Ain't Got No Home
2. Share Your Love With Me
3. Mystery Train
4. Going Back To Memphis
5. Ophelia
6. Hobo Jungle
7. Acadian Driftwood
8. It Makes No Difference
9. Twilight [Single Version]
10. Georgia On My Mind
11. Christmas Must Be Tonight
12. The Saga Of Pepote Rouge
13. Livin' In A Dream
14. Forbidden Fruit [Live]
15. Twilight [Song Sketch]
16. Home Cookin'
17. Out Of The Blue
18. Evangeline -- w/ Emmylou Harris
19. The Weight -- w/ The Staples