The musical journey of The Band reached an initial fork in the road towards the end of 1963 when The Hawks left the employ of Ronnie Hawkins, having chafed at his strict disciplinarian attitude. The Hawk had rules in relation to smoking pot, bringing girlfriends to gigs and gambling amongst other issues which usually resulted in fines for any infringements. The Hawks were becoming increasingly keen to forge ahead believing that Hawkins wasn't fully behind their desire to concentrate on playing rhythm and blues music, so by the end of 1963 they were on their own.
They made sure to continue an association with booking agent Harold Kudlets who had been Hawkins' booking agent and manager, initially starting out as The Levon Helm sextet they soon morphed into Levon and The Hawks and set out on the familiar path of club gigs in Canada as well as lengthy stints on the club and frat circuit in the south. The group were still determined to try and log as much studio time as possible, obviously without Ronnie Hawkins this became more difficult but they had garnered themselves a reputation over the past three years and had a fan in producer Henry Glover. In June of 1964 Robbie, Levon and Garth were part of a standout rhythm section for the John Hammond jr album So Many Roads. Towards the end of 1964 the band were given further studio time courtesy of Toronto disc jockey Duff Roman who knew the Hawks from their earlier days, he booked them into Hallmark studios to cut some songs. None of these recordings were commercially released at the time, they eventually found release as part of the Band's Musical History box set.
One of the tracks included was an obscure cover of Bobby Blands' Honky Tonk which I've also heard on a live bootleg from a gig the Hawks did at Pop Ivy's Ballroom in Port Dover. It's the first time we are introduced to the distinctive soulful vocals of Richard Manuel, his trademark impassioned delivery is clearly evident. The rhythm section maintains it's established tightness, during this period the Hawks had become keen students of the prevailing trends in modern jazz, especially the work of the Cannonball Adderley Quintet, Levon's drumming style is less frenetic, he concentrates on the groove allowing Rick Danko to add an unobtrusive but swinging bass line on top. Robbie's soloing during this period is certainly less dynamic in sheer power but he once again demonstrates how rapidly he was developing as a major blues guitarist, he was beginning to add a depth as a rhythm player.
On Bacon Fat the Hawks extend and stretch out the groove giving Garth Hudson some room to open proceedings before Richard once again employs his emphatic soul style, in the chorus Robbie fires off solos in between Manuels wailing exhortations. Garth Hudson's organ is prominent, his ability to improvise intricate and vast chord structures was already evident in his early work with Hawks. He doesn't display a particular style as he was well versed in just about every musical style around, he is brilliant in just about every setting. Robbie is also given the opportunity to stretch out, employing those distinctive wails reminiscent of his hero Hubert Sumlin.
Another staple of their live act was the instrumental Robbie Blues, which harks back to their days with Ronnie Hawkins. In this studio version the Hawks show their jazz leanings with Helm, Danko and Manuel once again locking the rhythm down, and allowing Robertson and Hudson to solo. Sax player Jerry Penfound is also featured with a flute solo, in the liner notes for The Band's Musical History it's revealed that Robbie had placed his amp face down on the floor which explains the muted sound he gets on his solos.
After these sessions Levon and The Hawks continued their routine of constant touring, signs of wear and tear were beginning to show the group were becoming increasingly frustrated at their lack of progress, little did they know that less than twelve months later their professional world would be turned upside down. Stay tuned for more!!