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.

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