Both individually and collectively, the members of The Band (Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel) had had a decade’s experience cutting their teeth on the live circuit before releasing their debut album, Music From Big Pink, in 1968. Initially coming together as The Hawks, backing band for Canadian rockabilly mainstay Ronnie Hawkins, they slogged around the Canadian and US live circuit working up a furious mix of blues- and country-infused R&B that would satiate bar audiences eager for Hawkins’ full-tilt boogie.
Yet Hawkins was ultimately hoisted by his own petard: his exacting leadership turned the group into such a hot young outfit that they would eventually strike out on their own. A brief stint as Levon And The Hawks followed in 1965, before John Hammond, Jr, recommended the group to Bob Dylan, who was then doing untold things with folk music and in search of a fearless young outfit who’d tour the world with him and recreate his “thin, wild mercury sound” on stage.
The rest is music lore: Dylan was charged a “Judas!” at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in 1966; The Hawks found themselves jumping from an exacting leader to an exacting audience divided by sounds they’d never heard before. The shows were electric – in every sense of the word – and, for both Dylan and band, life was charging at a terrifying pace.
It’s no wonder that, when The Band returned home to their rented house in West Saugerites, New York (nicknamed “Big Pink” on account of its eye-catching outer walls), the music they worked up seemed to yearn for a simpler way of life. Nor is it any surprise that, with their chops, they would create a seemingly effortless blend of gospel, soul, country and rock. If “Americana” has ever had any solid definition, it is in the songs that these four Canadians and one Arkansawyer recorded for 1968’s Music From Big Pink.
Released at the height of the psychedelic era, Big Pink sideswiped a music scene that had become reliant upon finding itself in lysergic experiences and extended instrumental wig-outs. From the group’s modest billing (not even named on the sleeve, they chose the name The Band because, up to that point, that’s all they’d ever been behind the marquee names they’d toured with) to the folk-art cover painted by Bob Dylan, the album created something truly new from its arcane influences.
Released on July 1, 1968, Music From Big Pink emitted a mystique all unto itself. Bookended by a trio of Dylan numbers, opener “Tears Of Rage” and closing duo “This Wheel’s On Fire” and “I Shall Be Released,” it offered the first hint of how any of the infamous “Basement Tapes” songs should have sounded by the musicians that first recorded them. Though the 1967 sessions that Dylan held at Big Pink with The Band while recuperating from a motorcycle crash (and the demands of his ’66 world tour) were already the stuff of legend – and, thanks to leaks of acetates, had spawned numerous covers – the Big Pink album versions were the first released by anyone who was actually present during those hallowed “Basement Tapes” sessions.
But The Band were far from chancers riding Dylan’s coattails. Mastering over 12 instruments between the five of them, Big Pink is evidence of a group truly mixing up the medicine and coming up with an explosive concoction of their own. Indeed, Eric Clapton declared that it convinced him to disband Cream in favour of forming Blind Faith; the Stones and Beatles, too, followed its back-to-the-roots trail, stepping back from their psychedelic extremes to record Beggars Banquet and The Beatles (aka “The White Album”), respectively.
As if formed of four frontmen with no ego among them, Manuel, Robertson, Danko and Helm trade vocals back and forth across the album’s 11 songs, all the while taking care to leave instrumental space for each other. The interplay is deceptively simple, but herein lies exquisite musicianship further enhanced by the fact that there are no excesses: every note is perfectly placed, nothing is over-cooked.
Garth Hudson’s haunting electric organ swells beneath Manuel’s pleading falsetto on “Tears Of Rage,” the song a modern-day hymn if ever there was one. Elsewhere, the lyrical fixation on simpler times; the “weight” we all must shoulder; a constant questing throughout the record, are perfectly served by the deft musicianship. One of the few clear-cut solo spots on the album, the opening, classical-tinged organ flourish that Hudson unleashes on “Chest Fever” further makes the case for his unassuming brilliance, but then the others settle in behind him, leaving no confusion over why they were The Band: Levon Helm is solid as an oak, proving why he was one of finest drummers to emerge from the country-rock era, while Robbie Robertson’s sinewy guitar weaves its way throughout the gaps without ever muscling for more space than it needs.
A subtle beast that only rewards repeated listens, Music From Big Pink’s secrets slowly reveal themselves with each return – yet without ever relinquishing the mysterious beauty that lies at its core.