Tag Archives: Music From Big Pink

Give Some More to the Bass Player, Part 3: Across the Great Divide by The Band

It would be hard to think of another bassist who contributed more to popular music but who is less copied than Rick Danko.

The bass player’s job is to provide low end, supporting and reinforcing the harmony. At its simplest, this means playing the root note of each chord the other band members play, usually in time with some element of the rhythm the drummer is playing (usually the bass drum pattern).

How was Rick Danko different, then? Danko’s bass provided low end, sure, and it supported and reinforced the harmony, but what was unique about Danko in the context of rock ‘n’ roll and roots music is that he played around Levon Helm’s drums rather than locking in with him. The bassists to whom he is most comparable are reggae players, not rock players.

Danko’s lines often took the form of syncopated little melodies or riffs that sometimes, but not always (and definitely not as a rule), connected with Levon’s kick drum. This technique was already in place when The Band signed to Capitol, and is nowhere to be heard in the group’s work as Bob Dylan’s backing band. In effect, Danko cooked it up in Big Pink after the end of the tour with Dyan in 1966 and had it ready to go when the group cut its first album, Music from Big Pink.*

To Kingdom Come, the second track on Big Pink, is a song I’ve written about before. Then I was talking about Robbie Robertson’s wonderful guitar solo. But the song is also notable for Danko’s idiosyncratic bassline.

danko-ing

Those of you who can’t read music or tablature will need to listen to the recording to hear what Danko is doing here. He’s playing a game of hide and seek with the kick drum, playing little off-beat runs, beginning his grace-note slides on the strong beat and hitting the root note on the off. It’s brilliant, and utterly unlike anything any of his peers were doing in 1969.

He’s on similarly great form on Across the Great Divide, the opening track of The Band’s self-titled second album.

The song is a Fats Domino-style rock ‘n’ roll tune with a triplet feel carried by Richard Manuel’s piano (Levon Helm doesn’t really spell out the triplets on the drums, instead merely suggesting them). Underneath that, Rick Danko plays this:

Danko

There are so many Danko-isms in this line that it practically constitutes one big Danko-ism in itself, but let’s actually itemise them: the rests straight after the initial root G and A notes; the rest in the middle of the third bar where you might expect a third C note; the descending triplet run in the fourth bar; and the triplet run from G up to B in the first bar of the verse sequence. This in six bars of music.

As I said up top, Danko’s style was so his own – it came out of who he was and was so much a response to what his band mates did musically – that no one within rock music has ever really picked up from where he left off. You can listen to elements of what he did and hear relations in reggae, in funk, in jazz and in country music, but ultimately Rick Danko was a one-off, and one half of what is possibly the finest rhythm section in popular music.

*I’m not actually a huge Basement Tapes buff, but it would be fascinating to listen to them with an ear to whether Danko was debuting ideas and techniques that would become part of his style when playing Band material.

case/lang/veirs

My apologies for the lack of posts recently. Currently in the midst of another gruelling end-of-quarter slog

The moment on Atomic Number, the first song on case/lang/veirs, in which the singers break into wide-mixed 3-part harmony is heartstopping. After a verse of trading lines over picked acoustic guitar and lo-fi, barely-there percussion, three voices come together and time stops for a second. Harmony can do that.

case/lang/veirs – the keenly anticipated collaboration between Neko Case, kd lang and Laura Veirs – has a bunch of moments like this; Atomic Number is merely the most breathtaking of them. lang’s Honey and Smoke has a middle eight where the rhythm of the vocal melody is so cleverly written you feel like applauding. Veirs’s Best Kept Secret, about her friend the guitarist Tim Young, is sweet and joyous. lang sings the hell out of Blue Fires and the gorgeous Why Do We Fight. Since I first heard this album a couple of months ago, I’ve come back to all these songs frequently, and if you’re a fan of anything that any of these artists has done before, I’d recommend this record unhesitatingly. You’ll undoubtedly get something from it.

And yet.

Since case/lang/veirs was announced, the comparison that has continually been raised is Trio, the record that Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris made together in 1987. What I can’t help benchmarking it against, though, is Sweetwater by Tres Chicas (a little known 2004 album I’ve written about here before).

After I bought Sweetwater, I couldn’t stop listening to it, and promptly bought Tres Chicas’ second album too. When I heard that one, I didn’t love it nearly as much, despite the presence of such brilliant songs as All the Shade Trees in Bloom, Slip So Easily and Only Broken.

Why was that? Sweetwater was a bit messy, a bit raw, but it was the sound of three friends – Caitlin Cary, formerly of Whiskeytown; Lynn Blakey, once of Let’s Active; and Hazeldine alumna Tonya Lamm – making a record together for the simple joy of it. The warmth between them pours out of their voices. It’s not a flawless album, but it is an extremely likeable, even lovable, one. I hear in it the same thing I hear on The Basement Tapes, or in the best Travelling Wilburys material, or in early works by The Band and CSN – friendship. It’s a rare and precious thing in music. Tres Chicas captured it on their first album, and couldn’t recapture it on their second. Sweetwater is a low-stakes record, and all the better for it. The stakes – and budget – were a little higher second time around, and it sounds like the artists knew it.

case/lang/veirs is not a low-stakes record, and it doesn’t sound like it was made by friends in love with making music together. It’s cool, professional and meticulously produced. kd lang, Neko Case and Laura Veirs are all better known than even the best-known member of Tres Chicas, and in lang they have in their ranks a genuine star; anything they did together was going to have a guaranteed audience. That expectation changes things, for both musicians and listeners.*

While I love all the songs I’ve picked out above, the record as a whole just didn’t grow on me the way I was expecting it to after a first listen, and I’ve thought a lot about why that is. Ultimately there’s something just a little stifling about case/lang/veirs, about the sound world it inhabits. It feels a little fussy, and there are a few songs towards the end (the run from 1000 Miles Away to Down) that would probably have been better excised.**

Now, it’s not really its creators fault that the record reminds me of other albums that capture something intangible that case/lang/veirs doesn’t, but at the same time, it exists in the same world as Nat King Cole Sings/George Shearing Plays, as The Basement Tapes, as Music from Big Pink, as the 1961 “Summit Meeting” recordings by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. There’s a special something those records have – that Sweetwater has too – that case/lang/veirs lacks, and it’s hard not to hear it as an opportunity not quite fully taken.

caselangveirs
Case, lang & Veirs

*The difference in self-perception is even mirrored in the groups’ names: Tres Chicas (Three Girls) is the ad hoc name given to them by the owner of a bar the women sang at regularly; the modishly lower-cased case/lang/veirs could as easily be the name of an exclusive firm of architects, or a trendy LA legal firm.

**14-song albums that wouldn’t have been better as 11- or 12-song albums are vanishingly rare.

The Sound of The Band

Three weeks after promising you shorter posts, here’s a 1600 word monster. I apologise. This only happened because I’m so familiar with these guys, the research and fact-checking time I needed was minimal.

The Band’s debut album, Music from Big Pink, is not one of the hi-fi masterworks of studio recording. It’s churchy, it’s raw, it’s spontaneous sounding, it’s messy in places. Voices overlap. Players play on top of each other. The sounds are sometimes not quite right for the arrangements, echoes are too prominent, vocals not quite sunk in enough. Nevertheless, it’s a fine-sounding record, made in top-flight studios in New York and LA, with such professionals as John Simon (much more of him to come) and Shelly Yakus (who engineered Moondance by Van Morrison, and is a bit of a genius).

If the members of The Band wanted to recreate the lo-fi, rough-hewn recordings they’d made in 1967 with Bob Dylan, in the basement of the Big Pink house in the Catskills, they didn’t quite manage it. Listen to the rich echo on Richard Manuel’s voice on Lonesome Suzie, the cutting snare drum sound on Chest Fever, the booming tom-tom rolls Levon Helm plays on Tears of Rage – these are all good sounds, great sounds even, but they don’t exactly speak of a band in small room, lots of wood, lots of eye contact, ambient temperatures through the roof. They’re not the true sound of Big Pink.

So for their second album, which would be titled The Band, the group changed its method. Capitol found them a house to rent in the Hollywood Hills, belonging to Sammy Davis Jr. It had a poolhouse that could be soundproofed and made into an ad hoc two-room studio (the second room was the bathroom-echo chamber; there was no separate control room). The pictures of The Band set up in Sammy Davis’s poolhouse, with a pair of feet up on the console, are now among the most iconic in rock ‘n’roll.

bandpoolhouse
l-r Hudson (head bowed over organ), Robertson (gtr), Danko (bass), Helm (drums), Manuel (piano)

This, says John Simon, was exactly how the group set up and recorded, with the addition of more microphones and baffles (barriers set up to absorb and diffuse sound), which were removed to allow Elliott Landy to take his photographs of the session. The difference it made is perhaps subtle, and I’m not sure I was aware of it when I bought Capitol’s Greatest Hits compilation in 2001, but it’s crucial in creating the singular mood and sound world of that second album. Everything is just a bit more together, a bit woodier, a bit muddier, a bit more down-home and funky. The piano is an upright rather than a grand. The bass (recorded direct) has that big Danko bottom end that is present on the Basement Tapes and the pre-Big Pink demos the group cut (Yazoo Street Scandal, for example). The toms don’t have that cavernous low end they do on Big Pink, the guitar sound is smaller and part of the overall mix rather than shined up and haloed with echo as it was on the debut. The mixes are also more consistent from song to song. The drums and bass are always centred, and I think the lead vocal is, too. It’s a spacious sound, but a realistic one. In production terms, this is about as close to portrait painting as a rock ‘n’ roll record gets. Needless to say, it sounds glorious, Helm’s drum sound in particular. Listen to The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and remember, too, that Helm’s vocal was cut live with the instruments, to ensure that the stop going into the chorus was nice and tight. John Simon’s microphone placement controlled the leakage of vocals into drums, and vice versa, and made it constructive and phase coherent, while Helm’s control of his drumming and singing was truly magnificent.

John Simon has stated that it was always made clear to him by The Band, or at least by Robertson, that his job as producer was to teach them (or at least Robertson) everything he knew, so that they could eventually dispense with his services. Groups often feel as they become more comfortable in studios that they don’t need a producer any more. There’s a lot to be said for and against the record producer (in the old sense of the term – George Martin did not perform the same role as a beatmaking producer does in today’s world), but what is true is that when The Band cut John Simon loose, they lost a key component in their sound. Not only did Simon produce, mix and engineer those first two albums, he also contributed piano, saxophone, tuba and baritone horn. The mournful horn-section sound that is such a key part of the record’s old timeyness came from Hudson on soprano sax and Simon on baritone horn. When Simon left, The Band’s horn arrangements were never again so idiosyncratic and moving.

His replacement for Stage Fright (1970) was Todd Rundgren.

Todd Rundgren

Yeah, this guy.

Not that Todd is not talented. He’s a vastly talented singer, guitarist and multi-instrumentalist. But manager Albert Grossman’s wheeze to have his new boy wonder work with his old favourites The Band was misguided in the extreme. Helm, in particular, was frequently enraged by Rundgren’s bratty arrogance.

When first contemplating how to record their third album, The Band intended to record it in front of an invited audience at a Woodstock theatre called The Playhouse. Unfortunately, the town council weren’t keen on the idea of hordes of rock fans descending on their little community, and as they had with the festival nine months earlier (which was eventually staged at Max Yasgur’s farm at Bethel), they put the kibosh on it. Instead The Band decided to use The Playhouse as a studio and record in private, setting up on the stage and turning the prop cupboard into a control room.

For a combination of reasons – the lack of John Simon, the drying up of Richard Manuel as a songwriter and the corresponding over-reliance on just Robertson for songs, the shape Manuel (booze), Helm (downers) and Danko (everything) were in, Robertson’s reverence for an imagined historic rural idyll turning into a fetish – Stage Fright was a big downward step in quality. Sound quality also suffered. The band had Glyn Johns and Rundgren mix the songs separately and chose three of Johns’s mixes and seven of Rundgren’s. But while fine, the record’s sounds are just sounds; there’s nothing alchemical there. Garth Hudson’s on top form on Stage Fright and Sleeping, and Helm’s drums are dazzling on the latter, but without the songs to inspire their best playing, the group treads water for much of the album.

Things reach a nadir with Cahoots. It was recorded at Bearsville Sound, the studio Grossman set up in the town of the same name, a couple miles west of Woodstock. Recorded by Mark Harman (a Bearsville regular who also made records with Poco, as well as honest workaday folkies like Artie and Happy Traum, and John Hartford), the sounds are again competent, but they have less than ever to do with the mood and feel of the music, and the finished mix is somewhat brittle and hard, a problem that the early-noughties remaster didn’t do much to rectify.

The group’s work between 1972 and 1975 comprised various stopgaps – live albums and a covers album of 1950s rock ‘n’ roll of the sort they’d played with Ronnie Hawkins at the beginning of their career. There’s good music on all of these records (Share Your Love With Me, sung by Manuel, on Moondog Matinee is one of the group’s finest recordings, even if Hudson’s increasingly customised organ sounds are a little gloopy, and the drums are smaller and starting to lose their focus in the mix.

Northern Lights-Southern Cross is a strange finale to the group’s career (out of respect for their magisterial best work, I’ll gloss over Islands. It’s a disaster that shouldn’t have been released). At this point, the group were working in their own Shangri-La studio in California, with a couple of in-house guys engineering with Robertson. The drums, in mid-seventies fashion, are a little too quiet for my taste (they don’t seem to support the vocals in the way they do on The Band) and the horn sound is now a mix of Hudson’s real saxophone and synthesisers, which do sound a little chintzy and cheap on Ring Your Bell and Jupiter Hollow. Nonetheless, Robertson was temporarily reinvigorated as a songwriter and Acadian Driftwood, It Makes No Difference, Ophelia, Forbidden Fruit and Hobo Jungle were as good as anything he’d ever written. The sentimentality still ran out of control at times, but with a good story to tell (and Acadian Driftwood was both a good and necessary story), Robertson was in top form again. Acadian Driftwood also sees the return of a Band signature: the trading of vocals during verses, with three-part harmony choruses. It’s a glorious sound, much missed on Cahoots and Stage Fright.

I doubt there are many people reading this who don’t know The Band’s oeuvre well, but if you don’t, start with the first two records. They are singular acheivements, two of the most influential records ever made. That’s not hyperbole. These are the records that convinced Eric Clapton to break up Cream, that George Harrison was seeking to emultate on All Things Must Pass, that Fairport Convention were aping from a British perspective on Liege & Lief, and that rootsy musicians are still listening to in awe today.

Still No Clapton, Part 2 – To Kingdom Come by The Band

This is an article about Robbie Robertson the guitar player rather than Robbie Robertson the songwriter. And so I’m obliged to start with Dylan’s quote about his one-time sideman:

The only mathematical guitar genius I’ve ever run into who doesn’t offend my intestinal nervousness with his rearguard sound

I’ve logged hundreds of hours listening to the Band’s music. How many times have I listened to The Band and Northern Lights, Southern Cross? 50, 80, 100 times each? If you add in the number of times I’ve listened to the 1966 Dylan/Hawks set from Manchester Free Trade Hall, I may have as many as 500 hours or so on just this one group. I know the Band’s music well, I know Robertson’s playing well. I still have no idea what Dylan was driving at.

Playing with Dylan, Robertson’s solos were apt to be scrappy and messy. He bit hard into notes, and played without much vibrato. If he played one note and held it, you wouldn’t think, Ah, yes, the tone and control of a natural lead guitar player, as you would with, say, David Gilmour. Robertson’s attack, the lack of refinement, was the whole point. As Barney Hoskyns noted in Across the Great Divide, there has always been something of the enthusiastic amateur in Robertson’s playing.

The step change in his style occurred during the recording of The Basement Tapes. Partly because he’d played enough solos to last him a lifetime and partly because of the discipline enforced on the group by recording to a cheap mono tape machine at low volume in a clangy basement, Robertson emerged a different player. His new style was sensitive, tasteful, based on a deep feel for the song and an understanding of how and where one should play to complement, but not compete with, the singer. It is this version of Robertson that is a guitar genius.

A key text for me has always been To Kingdom Come. The second track on the Band’s debut, Music from Big Pink, contained the only Robertson lead vocal (until Islands‘ Knocking Lost John) in the Band’s catalogue and the only extended lead guitar break on the whole of the first album. As such, it debuted all the facets of his new style: a superlative tone, a mastery of structure and repetition, a much more prominent vibrato, and a string bending technique that begins to anticipate the great Jerry Donahue (who widened the folk and country guitar player’s vocabulary immeasurably with his arsenal of contrary-motion bends and double-stop bends that go up by different intervals). Most evident, though, is the soulful influence of Curtis Mayfield, audible in the R&B/gospel licks that Robertson was now interweaving with his bandmates’ vocals. He retained enough bite that you still knew it was him, but what was gone, at least from his recorded work, was the frantic quality that his playing had in the early years. Leaving this behind, he truly became the mathematical guitar genius Dylan had praised so highly a couple of years before.

Robbie
Robertson, latter days with the Band

Some of the author’s own work. The author is not Robbie Robertson unfortunately:

Sleeping – The Band

We return once again to the Band. But they are one of my absolute favourites, so no apologies from me, I’m afraid!

When first contemplating how to record their third album, The Band intended to record it in front of an invited audience at a Woodstock theatre called the Playhouse. Unfortunately, the town council weren’t keen on the idea of hordes of rock fans descending on their little community, and as they had with the festival nine months earlier (which was eventually staged at Max Yasgur’s farm at Bethel), they put the kibosh on it. Not that the town’s elders were opposed to rock musicians in general or the Band in particular – in one interview Rick Danko revealed that the local judges and the police referred to them rather fondly as ‘the boys’. But with their first plan not viable, instead the Band decided to use the Playhouse as a studio and record in private, setting up on the stage and turning the prop cupboard into an ad hoc control room. Producer of the first two albums John Simon was eased out and in his place was the incongruous red-trousered, green-haired figure of Todd Rundgren, Albert Grossman’s latest boy wonder. There was reportedly some tension, particularly between the Runt and Levon Helm. One can only imagine.

It would be a fool’s errand to try to argue Stage Fright is on the same level as the Band’s first two albums. It’s not. There’s something alchemical, something magical, that exists in their early work but that is evident only fitfully from Stage Fright onwards. By this time, the Band had divided into factions: the partiers (Danko, Helm and Manuel) and the ‘grown-ups’ (Robertson and Hudson). If he hadn’t been before, Manuel was now a full-blown alcoholic; Danko was an undiscriminating user of whatever was being offered; and Levon was taking fistfuls of downers, which undoubtedly mellowed him out, but didn’t do much for his ability to get up in the morning.

Undoubtedly all of this had an effect on the Band’s cohesion and focus, but even more serious was the drying up of Richard Manuel the songwriter, who had been such a presence on the Band’s first two albums (he wrote or co-wrote In a Station, We Can Talk, Lonezome Suzie, Whispering Pines, Jawbone and When You Awake) and the increasingly humourless didacticism of Robertson’s own po-faced and overwrought songs. The lightness of touch he brought to Jawbone and Across the Great Divide would be less and less evident from hereon in.

This knowledge makes it hard to take the lyrics of Sleeping at face value; the desire to be cocooned and protected from the world was all too real for these guys. Nonetheless all the members of the group step up as players (the instrumental chorus is ecstatic, and Helm’s jazzy drumming superlative) for Manuel’s last great songwriting effort. As with the Manuel songs on The Band, though, it’s actually a Manuel-Robertson co-write, and one wonders how much the lyrics are Robbie projecting himself into the shoes of his bandmate.

Image

The Band, up on a roof: l-r, Hudson, Manuel, Helm, Robertson, Danko