Tag Archives: the Hawks

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:

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Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 10 – Out on the Weekend – Neil Young

If you play something he doesn’t like, boy, he’ll put a look on you you’ll never forget. Neil hires some of the best musicians in the world and has ’em play as stupid as they possibly can.

Neil Young famously likes his drummers to play simple. Sometimes it feels as many as half his songs are built on the same rhythmic chassis: boom-boom tssch, boom-boom tssch, about 80-90 bpm. It’s his feel, and he’s always made it work for him. It’s impossible to tell whether he adopted it because it was all Crazy Horse’s Ralph Molina could play, or whether he suggested it to Molina, but either way it stuck.

He said to me, “I don’t want any right hand” – no cymbals – which was really tough for me, because I was havin’ to think about what I was playin’ rather than lettin’ it come natural.

That’s Kenny Buttrey (taken from Jimmy McDonough’s Shakey*), who occupied Young’s drum stool for Harvest and its quasi-sequel Harvest Moon, talking. Buttrey was a successful Nashville drummer who’d played on the R&B track Anna (Go to Him) by Arthur Alexander in 1962 and crossed over into rock with his appearance on Blonde on Blonde. Buttrey’s best performances on that album are things of wonder – country funk with a great-feeling backbeat. He’s wonderful on Visions of Johanna, Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way and on more delicate tracks like Just Like a Woman. However, it’s not nit-picking to say that he didn’t quite have the right authority for Pledging My Time and Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat (compare the oafish but so much more physical take from the 1966 tour with the Hawks – the “Royal Albert Hall”** show with Mickey Jones on drums. Compare also how much more satisfying Bobby Gregg’s heavier performances on Highway 61). Buttrey, then, wasn’t a great pick for live heavy-rock shows, as would become apparent on the Time Fades Away tour, but fantastic in the studio with the right kind of material.

Having been at the forefront of the early crossover between rock ‘n’ roll and country music on subsequent Dylan records John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, though, made him a natural fit for Young’s Nashville band the Stray Gators, even if, like Tim Drummond and Ben Keith, he was brought in by producer Elliott Mazer because the guys he really wanted all spent their weekends fishing. And, appropriately, my Buttrey choice – and really it could have been any one of another half-dozen tunes, since the differences in beat are often minimal – is Out on the Weekend, Harvest‘s opener.

Like most of the Harvest material (the time and tempo changes of Words (Between the Lines of Age) being the obvious exception), Out on the Weekend allows one to play the fun game of listening out for the little licks and subtle variations Buttrey tries to sneak in without Young noticing: the odd little semi-quaver stutter on the kick, a little bit more of that dreaded right hand, in the second half of the second verse. Kenny Buttrey’s work on Harvest is a reminder that while playing to a demanding artist’s specifications may be an ordeal (what first-call Nashville player would cheerfully submit to being transformed into a Ralph Molina clone?), it can pay huge artistic (and financial) dividends.

Stray gators
Young and the Stray Gators rehearse in Young’s barn. l-r Buttrey, Tim Drummond, Jack Nitzsche (piano), Ben Keith (pedal steel), Young

*I’ve retained the punctuation as it appeared in Shakey. McDonough’s habit of representing a Southern accent by dropping terminal “g”s, and rendering “interesting” as “innaresting'” whenever Young says it, becomes rather wearying over 700 pages, but source material is source material.

**It was actually recorded at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, but the show – with it’s “Judas!” moment – went down in legend as having been at the Albert Hall. The quote marks do appear on the record sleeve, by the way.

Too Soon Gone – The Band

As Barney Hoskyns noted in his fine biography of the group, Across the Great Divide, the bulk of The Band’s recorded output after they got back together in the 1990s suggests that, without Robbie Robertson to spur them on, their ambitions went little further than playing good-time R&B and funky country gospel soul. They cut a slew of predictable covers (stuff like Back to Memphis and Forever Young, although I’ll take their version over either of Dylan’s) and some total head-scratchers (En Vogue’s Free Your Mind, from 1995’s High on the Hog; my life sure been made better by hearing Levon Helm declare, ‘I like rap music and hip-hop clothes’), but seldom did they record new self-written material of the first rank.

But a band of their calibre will always be worth hearing and there was certainly quality work on their first comeback album, Jericho, even if the following ones couldn’t match it for vibe or material. The highlights of the record included their worthy versions of Springsteen’s Atlantic City and Bob Dylan’s Blind Willie McTell, which if anything is slightly weighed down by the solemnity with which they approach it (whereas Dylan all but threw his version away, as if daunted by the idea of having to make a record worthy of the song). But best of all was Too Soon Gone, a tribute to Richard Manuel by Jules Shear and former Hawks pianist Stan Szelest, whom Manuel had replaced in the Hawks all the way back in 1961.

Szelest himself had played in the reformed Band, lending a little extra legitimacy to the enterprise, as did the groups retention of producer John Simon, who’d worked on Big Pink and The Band. But Szelest died in 1991, before Jericho came out, and so he didn’t play on his own song (though he is on a couple of the songs on the record that had been recorded while he was still alive). In a strange way, then, he wrote his own memorial; you have to imagine that Szelest was as much in the mind of Rick Danko when he laid down this vocals for Too Soon Gone as Richard Manuel was. While not quite in the league of The Band’s best work from first time around, it’s always nice to hear Levon drumming and it serves as a reminder of how affecting Danko’s tremulous voice could be. Garth Hudson walks (as he often did on ballads) very close to the line cheese-wise with his keyboards and saxophone without quite crossing it. The result is, to me, very moving.

If you’re one of those Band fans who has never heard their reunion records and wants to pretend that they bowed out with the Last Waltz and stayed out, I understand. But you’re missing out on a really lovely song, one that only sounds sadder now that Levon and Rick have joined Richard and Stan on the other side of that other great divide.

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The Band, 1993 (© New York Times): Rick Danko, far left; Garth Hudson, with hat, Levon Helm, with beard, on the right