I was listening to The Band on the iPod on the train this morning, specifically their superb Musical History box set, CD3, and two songs, both live recordings, were just so good I had to play them twice as the countryside rolled by. The first was ‘Rocking Chair’ and the second was ‘Slippin‘ & Slidin‘’.
Although they looked and dressed like a bunch of lumberjacks from northern Canada, The Band – that is the five bearded blokes who backed Bob Dylan live and then struck it out on their own – blended so many influences – blues, country, r&b, folk, Cajun, rock’n’roll, jazz, gospel, ragtime, hillbilly, you name it – that what emerged was a distillation of musical Americana which always sounds to me as if it could have been written at any time in the past 100 years. This was ‘rural’ music such as hadn’t been heard before and hasn’t since, and is quite impossible to categorise. Everyone seemed to play everything, including the drums, four of the five had superb voices – each could have been lead singer – and their instrumental capacity went way beyond the usual guitars, keyboards and drums to include tubas, mandolins, accordions, violins, saxes, again you name it, so much so that they had an infinite variety of combinations to play with in their music.
Just about every track on their first and second albums is superb, and ‘Rocking Chair’, from the second, is a wistful ballad about two old sailors on the verge of retirement, looking forward to spending the rest of their days in ‘ol’ Virginny’, out on the porch in the ‘big rocking chair that won’t go nowhere’, which is just about as perfect a song as anyone has ever recorded. For this drummer Levon Helm has abandoned his kit and joined the singers at the front, while multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson has shouldered an accordion. I particularly like the counterpoint singing in the final verse, the others laying down harmonic bedrock for the ever so soulful Richard Manuel to croon over; recorded at London’s Albert Hall in 1971.
As for ‘Slippin‘ & Slidin‘’, this is The Band – any band – at its rocking best, a match for The Beatles’ cracking version of ‘Long Tall Sally’ in fact. Opening with some terrific jangly piano that leads into the first verse, I defy anyone not to smile when the rest join in, Levon’s on the beat snare, Robbie Roberston’s Tele, Garth’s Hammond and, best of all, Rick Danko’s swooping bass lines, all taking the song into the kind of territory that only bands with an innate sense of the wonder of rock’n’roll can do. The Band were schooled in the old fashioned way, hundreds of gigs in dives galore across Canada and the eastern US, and by the time Dylan recruited them in 1965, they had killer chops and played with an ease that only paying such dues can bring. All this is on display on ‘Slippin‘ & Slidin‘’, a Little Richard B-side back in the 1956 (yes, a B-side! [of ‘Long Tall Sally’ actually]... things were different then!) and also recorded by John Lennon on his Rock’n’Roll album in 1975. But no-one beats this version by The Band. And what is a solid sender?