I've just started reading Greil Marcus' Old Weird America which focuses on the recordings made by Bob Dylan and The Band after they regrouped in Woodstock in the wake of Dylan's motorcycle accident. A short history is required, Dylan had embarked on a world tour towards the end of 1965 with an electric backing band The Hawks who had previously played with rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins before striking out on their own towards the end of 1963, (previous blogs explain the history in greater depth). The tour was a landmark in rock music, it was loud brash and rooted in the blues and then married to the surrealism of Dylan and then set against the backdrop of an angry audience who only wished to be soothed, not blown through the hall walls! Dylan was going at a cracking pace and burn out was on the cards, after his accident he repaired to Woodstock to recuperate and the Hawks drifted up there themselves. They rented a house in West Saugerties that was dubbed Big Pink and Dylan would join the band in the basement to jam on songs. These songs found the light of day on the bootleg the Great White Wonder, the offical release didn't take place until 1975 and it only really touched the surface of what had been put on tape. What did get on to tape was amazing, especially for the time. Where rock and popular music were heading towards more grandiose pastures Dylan and the band were more interested in exploring the beautiful quilt of traditional country music and the lost art of story telling. There was also a sense of nostalgia and a desire to return to a time that was more innocent and less divided, this music was the soundtrack to that feeling of uncertainty but faith in some of the more precious ideals of the past. I have a two disc cd release and on it you can hear some hints at the directions each artist would take in the following 18 months.
Odd and Ends that kicks off the album doesn't show any changes, it's fast loud and bluesy with those familiar Robbie Robertson guitar lines, jagged and raw. Richard for the most part takes on the drums with Levon Helm yet to return to the fold. Orange Juice Blues has Richard on vocals, he has this incredible ability to tell a story and be totally convincing in doing so. It's plain to see that the Band have now completely left their blues/soul only sensibilities behind and are experimenting more with their voices and their instrumental range. Katie's Been Gone is beautiful with that Richard aching and pleading with Rick Danko duetting in the chorus, the Band had now found their voices. Richard was a great songwriter he was able to capture raw emotion and angst in a way Robbie Robertson never could. On each verse you can hear his growing desperation as to the location of his beloved Katie. I'm surprised why this one didn't make Music From Big Pink, Garth is in fine form with his swirling Lowery.
On Goin To Acupulco we get that first glimpse of a change of direction from Dylan, his voice was changing and becoming more expressive, the song is slow and mournful and has some soulful harmonies from the Band. Dylan still retains his humour and his surreal lyrical style on songs like Lo and Behold, each song has the feeling of a lone drifter travelling from town to town having all manner of adventures. The Band take up on Bessie Smith with Garth starting things off in mournful style, Rick has the lead but Richards duets on falsetto that sits below Rick's lead, they were on the verge of finding that sound, in fact they had it and when Levon rejoined his voice was the missing piece, and his drumming. Clothes Line Saga has that Luke The Drifter feel, maybe Dylan was going for something in that vein but with a different sense of depth.
Side two starts with Too Much Of Nothing a song widely covered when it was bootlegged, it's a got a slow dirge like quality with Robbie's guitar having that familiar jagged sound, but it's been warped and slowed down and bent to give it a deeper richer hue. Ain't No More Cane features Levon Helm and the blending of the three voices, Garth provides an emphatic accordion accompaniment. Levon is at home as the story teller, with that wonderful southern drawl. I think Robbie sneaks in a line on the song as well, I always thought he was an underrated vocalist. Crash on the Levee is a brilliant duet between a scathing apocalyptic Dylan and the brimstone fire of Garth Hudson. Garth has to stand as one of the most amazing musicians of a generation, his genius touched everything he played on. The call and response between Dylan and Hudson just builds and builds, the growing flood just spurs on Hudson to musically ruminate about the impending judgement day. Ruben Remus has a familiar tone it sound a bit like Just Another Whistle Blower which appeared on Stage Fright. Open The Door, Homer has a really country funk to it, with a bass line that pulses and flows. Robbie plays a nice supple rhythm has a Nashville feel to it. Long Distance Operator could have been a single that the Hawks released in the mid 60's it has that raw blues feel, Richard is in fine form and there a nice blast of harmonica. Robbie provides his piercing solos and the song has a nice twisted feel to it.
Within probably 12 months of these tapes being leaked there was already a profound shift in music, groups like The Byrds embraced the idea of looking to the past and trawling through the rich musical heritage on America from Dock Boggs to the Carter Family, to the gospel fervour of The Louvin Brothers and the bluegrass revolution of Bill Monroe.