The Band was a road-worn aggregation that got tapped to back up Bob Dylan on his first "electric" tour, after years of backing up rockabilly legend Ronnie Hawkins. Their sound added
a layer or two to Hawkins more standard sound, throwing electric blues and soul heavier into the mix. By the time Dylan got them, there was probably not a better band to be found. Think of the E
Street Band or The Heartbreakers, but grittier, bluesier, funkier, and years ahead of that curve.
After being constantly caught in the crossfire of purist's boos aimed at Dylan, they retreated to Big Pink, a giant house in rural upstate New York, to rest, retool, and create one of the true masterpieces of American music.
The irony being, of course, that The Band, whose sound embraced American music from mountain music to delta blues to grit-drenched rockabilly, even giving a nod to carnival and vaudevillian music and Tin Pan Alley pop sensibilities, consisted of only one American, and four Canadians.
Okay, it's not as far-fetched as it might seem; they share a continent and similar musical roots, after all. But just that tendril of wide-eyed detachment was enough to engender a romanticism that inspired the raw but gorgeous Americana that no one since has been able to surpass.
There is much to dig about The Band. The finest rhythm section this side of Detroit's Funk Brothers, although the Band was known to switch instruments to fit each songs particular needs.. Three superb vocalists, whose voices fit together in perfect sync, but could leave unattended and pursue stark emotion like no other collection of voices ever assembled. Drummer Levon Helm, the homespun Arkansas homeboy, handling the growls and shouts, but capable of nuanced phrasing that perfectly drove home the joy of a carefree troubadour, or the anguish of a confederate soldier watching his home and life go up in flames. Bassist Rick Danko, a Canadian farm boy whose family spun bluegrass-tinged folk, handled the high lonesome part, and was able to take the most corny of a lyric and turn it into a moment of inarguable truth.
And then there was brilliant, doomed pianist Richard Manuel, the finest blue-eyed soul voice of them all, a Ray Charles disciple who remains the gebre’s most sinfully under-recorded vocalist.
There's also musical savant keyboardist/sax player Garth Hudson, classically trained, and bringing the whole thing together with just the perfect mixture of tones and colors. If any rock band ever had a secret weapon, it was Garth Hudson.
In Manuel, Danko, and fevered ego Robbie Robertson, they had three world-class songwriters, and old pal Bob Dylan contributed to Big Pink, as well. Not too shabby.
It was music of real and warm community, egos ignored for a larger cause and a truer sound. At a time when the world was fractured, and rock music was leaning into a harder and harsher sound, the mature, bluesy country-funk of Big Pink was the one thing everybody agreed on, it's loose and funky warmth sinking in and healing. Eric Clapton, in his final, miserable days with Cream, says he used to plow through every show just so he could go back to his hotel room and listen to Big Pink.
This fragile aggregation simply couldn't last. They had a well-publicized "farewell to the road" concert, and intended to go on sabbatical. But greed and personal demons proved too much. Manuel eventually hung himself in a hotel bathroom, after a show with the reformed, Robertson-less Band. Helm, Danko, and Hudson recorded several fine albums under the "Band" name, but without Manuel, there was a serious component missing. Danko died of Heroin overdose a few years later, and the bad blood that developed between Helm and Robertson has continued until Helm’s death from throat cancer in .
Big Pink, though, remains. It's influence is still felt, in bands like Wilco and Drive-By Truckers. Listening to it, you can still feel the creaking boards, smell the wood-burning stove, and hear the truth in every note.