Saturday, 10 September 2011
The Band- A Musical History
One of the most fascinating aspects of the history of The Band is their musical evolution, their is a rich legacy of recorded material profiling their formative years as a group, some of this I have already detailed on previous blogs but I wanted to take a more in depth approach to their recorded legacy. I first heard The Band as a 12 year old, my dad had their best of on vinyl, when I first heard them I didn't really appreciate the diversity of their sound. It wasn't until I saw The Last Waltz that I became a dedicated fan and began to research their history and I must say it was an amazing discovery.
The Band were originally known as The Hawks and had been formed as the backing band for Arkansas rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. Hawkins recruited 16 year old drummer Levon Helm who was also an Arkansas native, Levon had a unique drumming style, it wasn't a straight country style as he was deeply influence by blues music, it was a very busy style of drumming with rapid fire fills and a sharp accent on the snare. Ronnie Hawkins recorded for the Roulette Record label and established himself as a popular live figure on the live circuit in Canada. As the rest of his band apart form Helm longed for home, Hawkins decided to concentrate on hiring local Canadian musicians. The first to join up in 1960 was young 15 year old Toronto native Robbie Robertson a guitarist with a fascination for the deep south and an abiding respect for the work of Hubert Sumlin, who was lead guitarist for Howling Wolf. By the end of 1961 the original and formative line-up of the Band had now been formed. Earlier that year Hawkins added Simcoe native Rick Danko to the lineup on bass (Danko started off as a rhythm guitarist and when he was starting out as the bassist he played a six string fender bass). From Stratford Richard Manuel had been pianist and lead vocalist with local group the rockin revols who had supported Hawkins a year earlier, whilst not an outstanding or virtuosic pianist Manuel possessed a distinctive soulful vocal style, that allowed the band to expand it's repertoire. The missing piece of the puzzle was 24 year old Garth Hudson, who was already well known in musical circles in Canada as a multi-instrumentalist and musically trained organ player.
The first session that Hawkins recorded with his new band occurred in September 1961 at Bell Sound studios in New York with veteran R&B producer Henry Glover at the controls. Already the influence of the younger musicians was profound, the material recorded had a far more pronounced R&B sound and was funkier and more powerful than anything Hawkins had recorded previously. From the 13-18 September 11 tracks were recorded two of which featured the Hawks on their own. Neither Manuel nor Hudson played on these sessions, so there was no piano or organ on these tracks so the recordings are very raw R&B. What is most amazing about these sessions is that there was no other white R&B band that was recording this type of music at that period, the authenticity of the playing especially for musicians who were still in their teens is quite extraordinary.
The sessions start of with a frenzied re-working of the Jimmy Reed song You Know I love You, showcasing the primal searing guitar solos of Robertson. The feature of his playing during this period was the jagged sharpness of his solos, his solo sounded like wailing sirens very similar to Hubert Sumlin. He was also capable of a more restrained funky approach, he certainly was a guitarist who had few peers at that time. On a cover of Bobby Blands Further Up The Road, Helm takes the lead vocal and he proves to be a versatile vocalist with elements of a real blues style shouter with elements of a raw funky southern drawl. His drumming is very much set in the R&B school, Helm was also during that period deeply influence by Louis Hayes who was drummer in Cannonball Adderely's band. Perhaps the bluesiest recording from those first sessions was Muddy Waters' 19 Years Old, with some frenetic playing from Robertson who experiments with the tone and volume of his playing.
The band crank it up for a version of Carl Perkins' Matchbox which has a garage style sound but with polish and precision, Helms drumming here is incredibly tight, especially the rapid fire fills that close out the song. They also do a swamp rock version of Susie Q, with some great sax playing from King Curtis. The amazing thing about these sessions is how polished the band sound, large credit for that must go to Henry Glover, but you can tell that this was a band who had not only played a lot of gigs together but had rehearsed incessantly. They were certainly amongst the tightest sounding rhythm sections that I have heard from that period.