The Band was a Canadian-American rock and roll band. First making their name as Bob Dylan's backing group in the late 1960s, they later became highly influential in their own right, as progenitors of country rock and helping to repopularize traditional American musical forms.
Their music fused old-time country and blues with rock and roll. The Band comprised J.R. "Robbie" Robertson (guitar), Richard Manuel (piano, drums, saxophone), Garth Hudson (organ, piano, accordion, saxophone), Rick Danko (bass guitar, violin, trombone) and Levon Helm (drums, mandolin, guitar). (Excepting Robertson, all were multi-instrumentalists; each's primary instrument is listed first.) Manuel, Danko and Helm all sang, while Robertson was the unit's chief lyricist. This role, and Robertson's resulting claim to the copyright of most of the compositions would become a point of much antipathy between the group's members, especially Robertson and Helm.
Formed as The Hawks, as a backing unit for Toronto rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, the group had little success until Dylan requested their services for a tumultuous series of 1965 concerts, marking Dylan's change from folkie to rocker. These concerts saw them heckled by folk music purists.
Following Dylan's motorcycle accident the group retired with him to Woodstock, where they recorded the much-bootlegged Basement Tapes, and picked up their new name. Their first album proper, Music From Big Pink (1968) (named after the Woodstock house in which they lived) was widely acclaimed, including three Dylan compositions ("This Wheels On Fire", "Tears Of Rage" and "I Shall Be Released") as well as Robertson's own classic "The Weight", whose use on the Easy Rider soundtrack would make it their best known song.
After the success of Big Pink the band left Woodstock for Los Angeles where they recorded the followup, The Band (1969). From their rustic appearance on the cover, to the songs and arrangements within, the album was a rejection of the prevalent hippie culture of California, with songs of rural America, from the civil war ("The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down") to unionization of farm workers ("King Harvest"). A critical and commercial triumph, The Band, along with The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, established a musical template that would be taken to even greater levels of commercial, if not artistic, success by such artists as The Eagles.
The tour following their second album would be the first with The Band as headline act, and the resulting anxiety, especially felt by Robertson who undertook hypnosis to combat it, was an influence on their next work, the self-explanatory Stage Fright (1970). The album was probably The Band's last classic work, with subsequent records being increasingly disappointing. The exception is the live Rock Of Ages (1972), recorded at a New Year's Eve 1971/1972 concert and featuring the line-up, bolstered by the addition of a horn section, in exuberant form.
By 1976, seemingly tired of the constant workload, they retired from touring with a massive Thanksgiving concert on November 24, featuring a horn section and a stellar list of guests, including Hawkins, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, The Staple Singers, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Neil Diamond. The concert, filmed (together with interviews and some additional studio-based song footage) as The Last Waltz by Martin Scorsese, was accompanied by a triple-album set of highlights. After one more studio record, however, and a version of "Georgia On My Mind" for Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign, the band split.
As a solo artist, Robertson had the most successful musical career, both as a producer and writing movie soundtracks before a highly praised comeback with a Daniel Lanois produced, self-titled solo album in 1987. Helm received many plaudits for his acting debut in Coal Miner's Daughter, a biographical film about Loretta Lynn, while the remaining members interspersed session work with occasional solo releases.
In 1983 The Band reformed without and recommenced touring. On one of these tours, on March 4, 1986 Manuel committed suicide in his Florida hotel room. It would be another seven years before the reformed group recorded an album, Jericho (1993). Like its successor High On The Hog (1996), the musicianship was immaculate, but many fans noted that some of the spirit that had made them great was missing. On December 10, 1999 The Band lost another member, when Rick Danko passed away, aged 56, after a history of drug problems.
Robbie Robertson solo recordings
- Robbie Robertson Geffen Records, 1987
- Storyville Geffen Records, 1991
- Music for the Native Americans Cema/Capitol Records, 1994
- Contact from the Underworld of Red Boy Capitol Records, 1998
- Classic Masters EMI/Capitol Records, 2002
This Wheels On Fire (ISBN 1556524056) - Levon Helm with Stephen Davis - a complete, but by no means impartial, account of the group's history.