If your memory serves you well: The best of The Band

Devotees of a fantastical America in which the smell of rivers and the sound of Chuck Berry’s guitar carved space in their imaginations, The Band never sold millions of albums but appealed to listeners who sought a tradition that didn’t stop at merely contextualizing Bob Dylan and Allen Toussaint. Hearing Rick Danko on “It Makes No Difference” or Richard Manuel sing “Tears of Rage,” I wonder where the hell those performances came from. The former is a quilt of astonishing density: Robbie Robertson knitting another skein as tautly woven as the one he offered in Dylan’s “Going, Going Gone”; Garth Hudson on synthesizer, some of the era’s subtlest work (Greil Marcus: “…Hudson sneaks out of hiding, wraps the tune up with a shivery midnight hush, and steals the piece”); and that spectral Danko vocal.

Robertson and his mates — and no matter the songwriting credits these are group compositions — understand the paradox of good writing: the sharper the details, the more general the application. These songs are romances in the traditional sense: quests in search of enigmas. I first heard “This Wheel’s on Fire” when Siouxsie and the Banshees gothed it up in 1987, and thanks to an emphatic string section it sounded spooky and histrionic; when I heard the original Dylan-Band version a decade later, it still sounded spooky and histrionic.

Below is one of my more conservative lists, in which I included their The Basement Tapes material. I have nothing after and including 1975’s Islands.

1. It Makes No Difference
2. Up on Cripple Creek
3. Long Black Veil
4. This Wheel’s On Fire
5. When I Paint My Masterpiece
6. Acadian Driftwood
7. The Weight
8. Last of the Blacksmiths
9. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
10. Tears of Rage
11. Life is a Carnival
12. Katie’s Been Gone
13. Across the Great Divide
14. Ophelia
15. Bessie Smith
16. Jawbone
17. Don’t Do It
18. Stage Fright
19. When You Awake
20. Rags and Bones

3 thoughts on “If your memory serves you well: The best of The Band

  1. You should explore The Weight Band’s new album, “World Gone Mad.” It’s quarterbacked by Jim Weider, who took over for Robertson in the 80s and features two original songs co-written by Helm.

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