Thursday, February 15, 2007

Endless Highway: The Music of The Band
This is a cd I've been waiting for for a long time. Yesterday, when everyone else in my office was supposedly "snowed in" I had some time to give it a good listen and make some notes. Here goes, track by track:

This Wheel's on Fire, by Guster: Guster is a band that seems to be successful, and gets a lot of attention, for reasons I don't really understand. They continue to leave me unimpressed with their dirge-like version of a song that deserves a lot more life. There are some cool banjo moments, but that's about it. In The Band's version, Levon Helm attacks his snare drum; in this version, the Guster drummer gives some gentle nudges. I prefer the attack.

King Harvest, by Bruce Hornsby: Hornsby bebops his way through an otherwise jam-bandish version of another great song. This also suffers from the lack of the aggressive drumming that contributed to The Band's greatness.

Makes No Difference, by My Morning Jacket: MMJ is a younger band that I like, even though sometimes I get them mixed up with Kings of Leon. I like this version, it does a great job of capturing the spirit of The Band, in part because of the multiple vocalists. This was recorded at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock.

I Shall Be Released, by Jack Johnson: Pretty much the low point, as Jack Johnson whispers his way through a song that I don't think is meant to be whispered through.

The Weight, by Lee Ann Womack: I really can't stand commercial country music, but I like authentic country, and I wasn't quite sure which category Womack fit into, as I know she's a high profile artist. Based on this, she's the real thing, though, as she gives a sweet version of the song. Initially, I was also struck by how great the back-up vocals were. On review, they were provided by Buddy and Julie Miller, which explains the greatness. If you can't have the Staples Singers singing back-up, the Millers are pretty fine.

Chest Fever, by Widespread Panic: Unsurprisingly, this is my favorite track, as it's one of my favorite songs by The Band, and I also love Panic. John Hermann's keyboards are similar to Garth Hudson's originals, with some cool variations. They're joined by a horn section, including Randall Bramblett (who I'm remiss for not having blogged about his most recent great recording, Rich Someday, which has been in heavy rotation for me for about four months), and showcase new gutarist, and former Allman and friend of Phil Lesh, Jimmy Herring. Widespread Panic seems to have the rare ability to put just the right amount of jamming into their songs. Listening to this song, you realize what a great lyricist Robbie Robertson was: She's stoned said the swede, and the moon calf agreed, I'm like a viper in shock, with my eyes on the clock. I don't know what the hell that means, but I know it's great and I want to listen to it over and over.

Up on Cripple Creek, by Gomez: Gomez is a roots band from the UK. I haven't listened to a lot of their music, but everything I've heard I like. And I like this, too.

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, by the Allman Brothers Band: This is recorded live, and I'd heard it live before. As much as I want to really love it, Greg Allman's vocals are a little too world weary. There are some great guitar moments, though, and, unlike some of the other tracks on this collection, the drumming does Levon Helm proud.

Stage Fright, by Steve Reynolds: I'd never heard of Steve Reynolds before. His website describes him as "mercurial," and a "Canadian expat troubadour." Alrighty. Rick Danko firmly established ownership of this song, so this is a tough task, and Reynolds falls short in this raspy, slowed-down version, that doesn't really capture an emotion, unless you consider whininess an emotion. They both may be Canadian, but Reynolds is no Rick Danko.

Raga Mama Rag, by Blues Traveler: Blues Traveler makes this sound like a post-Lowell George Little Feat song, with, surprise, a big harmonica solo. Pass.

Whispering Pines, by Jakob Dylan: This is a beautiful song, and Jakob Dylan does it justice, no doubt helped out by Jim Keltner on guitar and the production of Joe Henry. There are a lot of nice little instrumental things going on, that makes it something you want to listen to often.

Acadian Driftwood, by The Roches: The Roches clearly "get" The Band, and they do a nice version of this song. Lisa Morsberger plays whistles, which adds to the old-timey sound of the track.

The Unfaithful Servant, by Roseanne Cash: On its own, this is a perfectly fine song, but it doesn't hold up well compared to the original. It's a slow song to begin with, and it's slowed down even more, which appears to be a recurring theme throughout the collection.

When I Paint My Masterpiece, by Josh Turner: Like Lee Ann Womack, Josh Turner is apparently a big name in country music, which made me nervous. But this is good, he's got a nice deep, no frills voice. Combine the voice, which sounds similar to Kevin Russell's, and the banjo and mandolin, it almost sounds more like Turner's doing a Gourds version of a song by The Band. But that's OK by me.

Life is a Carnival, by Trevor Hall: Hall, a 19-year old from South Carolina, provides another minimalist version of a song that was made great by it's intricacies. His voice is what they say is full of character, which in this case isn't really a good thing.

Look Out Cleveland, by Jackie Greene: This is an earnest effort, I guess, and it sticks pretty close to the original. If you tied one of Levon Helm's arms behind his back.

Rockin' Chair, by Death Cab for Cutie: I've never really gotten this band, and the only word I can come up with to describe this version is "sleepy." There's really nothing special about it, I don't even know why they bothered. The cleverness of having unusually long pauses at the end of phrases eludes me.

There you have it. So there are six songs I really don't like, and a couple that I can take or leave. And some great ones. As a set, it shows how great The Band was, just a rare combination of great songwriting and overall musicianship. Their retirement seemed heroic at the time, but in its aftermath, it just seems sad. Richard Manuel and Rick Danko, whose post-Last Waltz recordings with Eric Andersen and Jonas Fjeld were great, are both gone. Garth Hudson is 70 years old, and presumably still making some keyboards sing somewhere. And Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson hate each other. That hurts.


J said...

Course. No one can fully recaputure the original versions of the band. But overall I think this is a great attempt. I liked it.

Ed. said...

Great post. I love many of your observations. I look forward to hearing this album and then rereading your take. Well done.

tadcranky said...

Cool, I'll be interested in hearing what you think. I listened to the Panic song (Chest Fever) really loud a couple of times over the weekend, and it sounded great.