Old/Newish Albums: The Band’s “Music From Big Pink”

bandThis is an album that’s been on my radar for years due to one colossal song. Music From Big Pink is the debut album from The Band, released in 1968. Prior to this album, The Band had toured as Bob Dylan’s backing band, and before that, they were known as The Hawks. Most of this record was written and recorded during their time working heavily in collaboration with Dylan, and Dylan himself wrote a few of the songs on the album (he also painted the cover artwork).

Big Pink was the name of the house bought by Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson (three members of The Band) near Woodstock, New York. Big Pink had a particularly large basement, which is where The Band and Dylan spent a lot of time writing and playing music. While the actual recording of Music From Big Pink occurred at studios in L.A. and New York City, the conception and writing of most of this music happened at Big Pink. Dylan and The Band also wrote a huge amount of songs that would end up being released as The Basement Tapes in 1975.

While I understand the historical value of this record, I could take or leave it. I don’t completely groove on the sound. It reminds me of a more fully-fleshed out Delaney & Bonnie (this is a good thing), or more equivalent to the sound of Clapton’s first solo records. I’m not particularly fond of any of the vocals, whether sung by Rick Danko, Levon Helm or Richard Manuel. There is more warbling than singing on this record.

The whole thing kind of drags, and maybe that’s just due to the roots rock nature of the music. That being said, there are a few tracks that, once I got my head around the fact that we weren’t going anywhere fast, I started to enjoy their appearance. The album opener, “Tears Of Rage,” almost sounds like a hopeful funeral dirge with the Lowrey organ, baritone horn, sax and shuffling tambourine. That’s followed by “To Kingdom Come,” which might qualify as the most uptempo tune on the album. I can imagine having fun playing this live, with numerous voices adding to the call-and-response feeling in the verses.

There’s a lot I dislike though. The ballads are slower than molasses on a cold day; nothing happens in “Lonesome Suzie” or “Long Black Veil” that I’d want to hear more than once. And another chip on my shoulder towards “Long Black Veil;” this is a folk song that seems designed for the singer to bust loose their best wail. Nearly every time I’ve heard this song performed, from Dave Matthews to The Band to Bob Dylan, the vocalist never hits the word “veil” clearly, without reaching. They always swoop their voice to hit the note. And while I know this is a vocal trope used constantly in country/folk/bluegrass music, it just grates on my ears every time I hear this song.

So the ballads are blah. The collaborative songs are better. And then there’s “The Weight.”

If I was tasked with creating the Next Great American Songbook, I wouldn’t hesitate to include “The Weight.” While I most likely heard this song in various places growing up, I didn’t really come into real contact with it until college, when I started running with a crowd who was heavily into folk and bluegrass. They listened to John Prine, Old Crow Medicine Show, Ray Lamontagne, Amos Lee, Avett Brothers. On the other hand, the album I was most into that year was probably Apple Juice Kid’s Miles Remixed, so it’s safe to say I was getting thrown into a new musical environment.

“The Weight” is a modern epic poem, replete with allusions of all kinds and a huge cast of characters. The meaning of the song has been discussed and debated ever since the song was written, and even Robbie Robertson himself (lead guitarist for The Band as well as sharing vocal duties, and the writer of lots of Band songs including “The Weight”) has never pinned one true meaning down. The song seems to tell the story of the Narrator, a weary traveler arriving from a long journey. The Narrator then meets a wide array of people in the town, many allusions to Biblical characters, and also based on many real people that were friends or acquaintances of The Band.

I’m not about to attempt to interpret the song, but Robertson has stated in interviews that he was inspired by spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel. Buñuel’s works often featured surreal imagery and moral quests for his characters that ultimately led nowhere. I’d say “The Weight” is Robertson’s attempt to encapsulate the heaviness and, often, futility of the human experience in a song.

One interesting piece of supporting evidence of the theory of six degrees of separation regarding music: this album is the home to “Chest Fever,” which was covered by John Mayer in (I think) his tour supporting his Born And Raised album. The song was used as a mood setting device, with the band slowly percolating and building it until they launched from “Chest Fever” into “Vultures,” which made for a really cool transition. Also interesting to hear one influence of JM’s sound around the time of that album.

This album is deeply loved by lots of critics, people that were hitting formative ages right around the turn of 1970, and fans of roots rock and bluegrass, but not so much by me. There are some pretty good tunes, and one powerhouse tune, but overall I could not hear this album again and not bat an eye. Except for “The Weight.” That song is fantastic.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. The Weight
  2. Tears Of Rage
  3. In A Station
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