The Band rocks from the Rockin' Chair
by Greg Swann
More than a year ago I was watching Loretta Lynn's show on TNN. Her
guests that night were Kitty Wells and Faith Hill, the latter performer
being the reason I had tuned in. During the "singing together" part of
the show, Loretta Lynn introduced the topic of her old friend Patsy
Cline. Both she and Kitty Wells said a few words about Patsy and then
Faith Hill sang "Crazy". If you haven't heard her, you should. Her
voice is second only to Dolly Parton's in clarity, and both of
them--and virtually all of the good singers in country music--obscure
their incredible talent and natural endowment behind the deliberately
ridiculous posturings of country music itself. Faith Hill sang a song
that is not ridiculous and sang it in a voice that is clearer and
more pure than even Patsy Cline's remarkable instrument. And even
though every second of every show on TNN is devoid of even the
possibility of spontaneity, still Kitty Wells looked as if she were
seeing the ghost of Patsy Cline in the person of Faith Hill.
Watching that, I found myself wondering what I would wish for, if I could see Patsy Cline just once in concert. Or Keith Whitley. Or Hank Williams. Or Elvis Presley. Or Janis Joplin. Would I demand a perfect performance, or would I be delighted simply to have the privilege of seeing them at all?
That was the question I had to ask myself when I at last saw The Band perform live, on May 11, 1996, at the Electric Ballroom in Tempe, AZ. I knew going in that I would be seeing a reconstituted line-up and that the three remaining original members are all now well past their prime. Pianist/vocalist Richard Manuel has been dead for ten years, and guitarist/songwriter Robbie Robertson is busy demonstrating that Peter Gabriel is not the worst singer in rock 'n' roll. But I am young for an old Band fan; I was ten-years-old when the album "The Band" (the brown album) was released. I was 15 when I actually discovered the group, listening over and over again to Side 3 of the Bob Dylan/The Band album "Before the Flood". By the time I was old enough to think about seeing the group in concert, the original Band had broken up.
But: I would pay to see Patsy Cline, even if her voice were cracked and husky. I would pay to see Hank and the King and Pearl, even knowing that I wouldn't see even the shadow of their greatness. I would pay dearly to hear one song, even one phrase, from the broken voice of Keith Whitley. And I paid to see The Band, knowing full well that my reason was not to see what had been, not even to see what remains, but merely to see them, alive and making music the best they can. To see them before they die or stop touring. To see them while I still can, so I don't forever regret not seeing them.
I'm very glad I did see them, and for their part they gave a creditable performance. But at the same time, I wish they were not touring. The Electric Ballroom show had originally been scheduled for Union Hall in Phoenix. A representative of the promoter told me that advance sales were fewer than 300 tickets, which is why the show was moved to the much smaller venue. The Electric Ballroom is basically a nightclub, and while the ultimate draw was over 500, a nightclub is no place to honor great art, nor even the spent hulk of great art. We read all the time about the many illnesses that afflict the three remaining original members. At the Electric Ballroom show, keyboardist Garth Hudson was clearly suffering immensely. He repeatedly dropped things, he evinced great pain in his hands and he seemed to be blinded by the spot lights. His rendition of "The Genetic Method" at the beginning of the encore was truncated and so sporadic as to seem perfunctory. While I am glad I had the opportunity to see them, I hated to seen them robbed of their dignity in order to rob themselves of their health.
The show was opened by neo-folkie John Wesley Harding, who swiped more than just his moniker from Bob Dylan. But he plays and sings with a confidence that Dylan himself hasn't made manifest since before the "John Wesley Harding" album and he seems to have mastered the art of being the opening act. From the beginning he commanded the respect of the crowd, and his acerbic wit and powerful performance had a decisive impact. He accompanied himself on acoustic guitar and harmonica, and he was joined onstage by a musician who alternated on accordion and mandolin. The accordion was very reminiscent of Garth Hudson in his best days, and the mandolin playing also swiped a page from The Band's book: the instrument was picked to play the parts that would normally go to either a banjo or to a lead guitar; never once did it sound like a mandolin. In a crowd less partial, John Wesley Harding might actually have blown The Band off the stage, much as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers overwhelmed Bob Dylan when they toured together. This is another good reason for The Band to stop touring; if they can't hold their own against talented unknowns, they're not headliners, not even nightclub headliners.
When The Band finally took they stage, their appearance was not auspicious. Drummer/vocalist Levon Helm is on TV all the time, so his appearance was not startling, although he looks very different from the wildman we see in "The Last Waltz". As mentioned, Garth Hudson looked palpably ill, and he barely glanced up at the crowd at all. Bassist/vocalist Rick Danko didn't look horrible, but he looked nothing like a front-man for a rock 'n' roll band. He is extremely overweight, and he looks and moves like no one so much as guitar great Albert King. By contrast, the three "new" members of the group--guitarist Jim Weider, pianist Richard Bell and drummer/vocalist Randy Ciarlante--looked like the new hires in a two-tier union shop: young, fresh and energetic.
Their playing was fresh and energetic, too, if not wholly in keeping with the grand traditions of The Band. All six members attacked the music with gusto, though not always with tempo. John Wesley Harding delivered a crowd that was thoroughly warmed up to a Band that wasn't. It was only by the fifth song in the set that The Band began to play convincingly as a band. Throughout the set, the sound levels were way over the top, and the vocals never did emerge fully from the raging echoes. But the players themselves grew more confident with each number, and by the end of the show, the room did indeed resound with the ghost of greatness.
But only the ghost. In The Band of yore, the instruments did not seek to occupy every square inch of the sound, and the vocals did not battle the instruments for the same territory. One of the most unique and beautiful sounds of The Band was the sound of silence, a silence punctuated and made utterly perfect by the interruption of a single note. There were no silences at the Electric Ballroom, nor any single notes, nor any hint that the musicians might be capable of anything like subtlety, nor any suggestion that the audience might be capable of appreciating subtlety. Rick Danko spoke long ago of the way the normal style of rock 'n' roll playing makes butter--churning, churning, churning. This is precisely what's missing in, for example, "We Can Talk" or "King Harvest". In its original form, The Band was a band that dared to be quiet. No more, alas, and no sign even of the songs in which they perfected that perfect quietude.
The set list heavily favored the recently released "High on the Hog" CD and "Jericho", the first album made by the new line-up. From the first, we heard "Back to Memphis", "Crazy Mama" and "I Must Love You Too Much". From "Jericho", The Band played "Remedy", "Blind Willie McTell", "Atlantic City" and "Stuff You Gotta Watch". The songs drawn from the earlier, unreconstituted epoch were mainly the rollicking, raucous crowd-pleasers: "Ophelia", "The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show", "Stage Fright". Interestingly, only "Rag Mama Rag" emerged from the brown album, although we heard "The Weight", "Caledonia Mission" and "Chest Fever" (as an encore) from the equally perfect "Music From Big Pink". Rick Danko put forth an affecting vocal on "It Makes No Difference" but, regrettably, The Band did not perform that song's de facto companion, "Where I Should Always Be" from "High on the Hog".
The new members acquitted themselves fairly well in a churning, churning, churning kind of way. Jim Weider continues to play a hybrid style of guitar, half his own, half Robbie Robertson's. Unsurprisingly, he is at his most exciting when he is emulating Robertson's broken harmonics and surgical incision style of picking. Randy Ciarlante is a decent vocalist, though he will never replace Richard Manuel, the purest white soul voice ever. Richard Bell is very exciting on the piano, adeptly handling the very parts that Garth Hudson once commandeered from Richard Manual. Bell's right hand is actually quite remarkable, and it failed to complement the sound of The Band only because it gave too much top to a sound that had way too much bottom.
But still, the crowd dug it. And I dug it. But I loved not what I heard, but what I remembered hearing. Despite everything, I enjoyed hearing live if clamorous performances of songs I love dearly in their quiet and perfect original form. I'm very glad I got to see them, and, despite my wish that they'd stop touring, I will see them again if the opportunity presents itself. But when I want to know what The Band was once capable of doing in performance, I'll spin up "Rock Of Ages" or "Live at Watkins Glen".
"Jericho" is a fine album, and "High on the Hog" ain't just porkfat. But the brown album is perfection, and not age, not illness, not personnel changes, not forgotten technique, not anything can rob it of one iota of that perfection. I loved seeing The Band for the same reason I would love to see Patsy or Keith or Hank or Elvis or Janis, not for what they are but for what they were. And unlike all those others, I saw The Band while they were still around to be seen...