If The Band single-handedly created Americana with their debut album, on their self-titled sophomore effort they honed everything that made Music From Big Pink so quietly epochal. Initially, the group relocated from their iconic Woodstock home to a New York studio in order to work up the 12 songs that formed their self-titled second album, but the pro facilities didn’t suit the group’s laidback, down-home approach. Packing up and heading west, they recreated the Big Pink vibe with what lead guitarist Robbie Robertson called “a clubhouse feel” in a house on 8850 Evanview Drive in West Hollywood.
Crossing the vast expanse of North America was apt: The Band was almost simply titled America, and its songs are populated with characters from the continent’s past; like the lucky hopefuls who set off west in search of the American Dream in the mid-1800s, The Band struck gold.
Truckers, sailors, Civil War soldiers: it’s the sort of roll call that would feel contrived in lesser hands, but the band’s deft performances and innate knack for storytelling allowed these disparate characters – like the wide array of instruments the group rotated through – to coalesce, working up a collection of songs that, as Ralph J Gleason put it in his Rolling Stone review, are “equal sides of a 12-faceted gem, the whole of which is geometrically greater than the sum of the parts”.
First-time listeners usually gravitate towards ‘Rag Mama Rag’, ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ and ‘Up On Cripple Creek’ – and with good reason. Drummer Levon Helm’s vocals are the apogee of white soul, infectious and intimate at the same time. Sung from the perspective of solider Virgin Kane, ‘Dixie’ virtually time travels to the Civil War, bringing it back to life with a poignant narrative that, as Rolling Stone noted, “make it seem impossible that this isn’t some oral tradition material handed down from father to son from that winter of 65 to today”.
Yet repeated listens are richly rewarded with The Band’s more subtle charms. Rick Danko’s higher, more emotive register comes to the fore on ‘Whispering Pines’ and ‘When You Awake’, the former a lament that haunts the listener long after the song is over, the latter an exercise in nostalgia that also shows how much the group matured in the year since they released their debut.
Without a Dylan co-write in sight (in fact, Robbie Robertson gets a full or co-writing credit on every track), the album finds the The Band doing what they did best: creating space between instruments, letting the music breathe and allowing for each individual personality to shine through, while all working in service to the group’s unified vision.
Released on 22 September 1969, The Band would reach No.9 on the Billboard Pop Album chart and peak at No.2 in their Canadian homeland. Writing in The Village Voice, Robert Christgau, who’d been unmoved by Big Pink, praised the album as “an A-plus record if ever I’ve rated one”, and ultimately declared it to be the fourth best album of the year. Rolling Stone went one further, evoking the timeless nature of the record itself when it declared: “It has the sound of familiarity in every new line because it is ringing changes on the basic truths of life, you have been there before, and like the truths of life itself, it nourishes you.”
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