I almost did this album for a Classic Album Tuesday a few weeks ago, so it was quite a shock when drummer/vocalist Levon Helm’s ailing health came up in the news not long after. Rock has lost a powerful figure with Levon’s passing, but at least I can come back to this album for comfort. The Band’s eponymous second album has always been my favorite from the group. It’s hard to believe any band could follow up a debut like Music from Big Pink with an album that in many ways is just as good. For one, this album has four of my favorite Band songs in a row; “Rag Mama Rag”, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, “When You Awake”, and “Up On Cripple Creek”. All together it’s like a rootsy history lesson, rich with stories about the American landscape.
I’ve always found it surprising that The Band (with the exception of Arkansas native Levon Helm) were from Canada. Maybe it’s because guitarist Robbie Robertson’s songs captured the beauty of American culture better than most American musicians could. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is a fine example of Robertson’s fascination with old time America. The song is such a hauntingly beautiful story of the hardships of the Civil War, and one of the most affecting songs I’ve ever heard. Of course it helps when you have an extraordinary voice like Levon Helm belting out the lyrics with such sincerity. Though you can’t overlook the other voices in The Band. Bassist Rick Danko and pianist Richard Manuel both brought a great deal of heart and soul into their performances.
The musicianship harkens back to turn of the century folk with hints of modern rock and blues. This is convincing due to the fact that every member is so versatile. Take into account a song like “Rag Mama Rag”. Here we have Robbie Robertson on guitar, Garth Hudson on piano, Richard Manuel on drums, Rick Danko on fiddle, Levon Helm on vocals/mandolin, and producer John Simon playing the bass line on sousaphone. How many bands can so seamlessly switch around the lineup and still be so cohesive? Everyone here brings so much, it’s no wonder they were known simply as “The Band.”
There’s so much to say about this album that I can’t even express with the words. So I’m going to take the easy way out and wrap this up. I’ll always love both Band albums, but this one was my introduction to the group, so it will always have a place in my heart. This album is simply one of the best of it’s era and one of my all-time favorites.
Favorite Tracks: “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, “Rag Mama Rag”, “Up on Cripple Creek”