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For America, 1968 was one of the most turbulent times witnessed since the finish of the World War II, with counterculture growing in force and size, leading the charge against any form of authority or leadership. And it was rock music that was given the charge of railing against the forces, becoming almost another form of protest music, but with psychedelia instead of folk. And then in the same year as Electric Ladyland and The Beatles, comes Music From Big Pink, an album built around roots/folk-rock that was completely against the grain.
For a group that had previously been the backing band for Bob Dylan's infamous 1966 world tour that shocked its audience with its use rock backing for someone who was previously seen as the cover boy for folk music, this was not the expected route. But ultimately the album went on to inspire and influence many groups and albums that would come about in the late sixties and early seventies, and would mark the recreation of a group formally known as Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, with the heading of the eponymous rockabilly legend.
But even though at the time it seemed like a sudden step to take in an environment built for the loud and raucous, the album had developed from the time they spent with Dylan in the house that lends its name to the album title, in what would become the Basement Tapes. These sessions would be documented on the 1975 release The Basement Tapes and on various bootlegs (A Tree with Roots). They themselves provide a glimpse of the fun and development that must have occurred during this time for both Bob Dylan and The Band, but also shows some of the early versions of the songs that would be featured on the final album.
1. Tears Of Rage *****
This track begins with an organ piece that for me really sets the tone for the rest of the album, which itself is for a part dominated by the instrument. The song though is a lament to the loss of a relationship, written by Bob Dylan and sung beautifully here by Richard Manuel. When comparing this to the release on the Basement Tapes, which is sung by Bob Dylan, the style and the melody remain pretty close, but it feels larger here and makes it more of a hard hitting opening track and must have been a shock when first played for contemporary audiences.
2. To Kingdom Come ****
This is a far more upbeat track and despite its rather religious suggestions in the title, feels removed from that despite still possessing some of the lyrics to play into this. The feel of the track and the lyrics though do give the impression that this is a group that has a strong footing in family values and a clean upbringing, an impression shown to be true from the band themselves.
3. In A Station ****
This again changes the pace of the album and is far more of a dreamlike song, with a floating vocal and almost whimsical lyrics, something that would become for me very much connected with the songs of Richard Manuel, contrasting with some of the more rocking numbers written by Robbie Robertson, who would later become the dominant lyricist in the group. The song does help to break up the rhythm and forces you to sit up and take notice rather than simply let the songs be played at you.
4. Caledonia Mission *****
At this point in the album you begin to realise that the guitar, an instrument seen as the dominant piece in a rock band has been forced to the back thus far, and this idea continues throughout with Robertson claiming that after overloading with guitar solos during Dylan's 1966 tour, he wanted an album where the other instruments were given more of a voice, and for that I can am entirely in his debt as it makes it a far more interesting listen that what it otherwise may have been. The track itself is quite dynamic with the chorus building up with what would become the classic Band harmonics with each voice given its own place and not simply forced into a harmony.
5. The Weight *****
Probably the most well-known track by The Band, this track is for me a highlight of the album as it works on so many levels, with the laid back verses and chorus that simply allow you to amble along with them as they take you through this rather odd almost-narrative piece. The simple drum work by Manuel is great as it really drives the track and does set the place for the rest of the instruments, allowing the vocals also to become of greater measure. The only true testament to this track would be for you to listen to it for yourself and it will provide you with an indication of what The Band is truly about.
6. We Can Talk ****
After the laid back pace of The Weight, we return to a more upbeat piece that is dominated by the organ part and really expands the sound and creates more of a soundscape than simply a song. The dynamic element of the song again really helps to lift it and the layers of vocals gives this track The Band stamp.
7. Long Black Veil *****
This cover for me is a great example of the instrumental prowess that is one of the reasons The Band became as influential as they did, as each instrument seems to build up by itself and they turn from singular forms to one single large sound that creates one of the best backings I have heard.
8. Chest Fever *****
The organ opening is similar in style to that of Tears Of Rage, but becomes far more engaging and creates the ideal platform for the build up to this more rock based track. The sound again, as with the whole album, feels so full and can hardly be knocked as it perfectly compliments the layers of vocals and lyrics that helps to pull this album away from some of the other releases of the time.
9. Lonesome Suzie *****
This is a far more low key track that is quite sparse musically in comparison to some of the other tracks, but this does help to break up the larger sound found on some of the other tracks. This does though remind me of the pieces found on The Basement Tapes, as it combines the haunting vocal style with the more back to basics backing that is a major element of the sessions.
10. This Wheel's On Fire *****
The second Dylan track, which for me does build on the version found on The Basement Tapes as the vocals are bolstered by a far better baking and the pace of the track as a result, is more suited to the style of the song. If you want the definitive version of the song look to this, and leave any other covers alone as they pale in comparison to this.
11. I Shall Be Released *****
Another track that has become synonymous with The Band despite it being written by Bob Dylan, this track takes on a mellower style on the album, but would become the more upbeat and powerful track that I prefer after touring and live performances. There are various versions of this track, but my picks would have to be the version done for The Last Waltz, a few of the live performances around the same time, and the acoustic version done for Bob Dylan's second Greatest Hits album.
12. Yazoo Street Scandal *****
This is the first of the bonus tracks on the album, with this being an outtake from the album sessions, which from the backing music is obvious as it doesn't have the same style and feel as some of the other tracks. But despite this I feel that this is a very strong track, and even though it would not have been able to fall straight onto the final album, does stand as a great track in its own right. But for me the best version of this is found on The Basement Tapes.
13. Tears Of Rage (Alternate Take) ****
This take is quite similar to the final version, but does feel not quite there in terms of vocals, as they do waiver at some points, and the instruments do feel a bit hesitant, as if they are still trying to figure the song out.
14. Katie's Been Gone *****
I really like this track although it does slightly play on a simple style and idea as seen on Lonesome Suzie, but this track previously done on The Basement Tapes does have a very upbeat feel that may have helped to break up some of the tracks and provided more of a dynamic, but it is still a great build on the Basement Tapes version.
15. If I Lose *****
I think this is one of the demos done before the album in a small studio, as the quality is slightly lower, but this simple track with light vocals and mainly piano, drums and guitar backing, is a nice little track that provides a nice look at the development of the group and their roots.
16. Long Distance Operator *****
This is another track taken from The Basement Tapes that is very similar to the originally, but is given a bit more meat in terms of instrumentation. This track has a nice simple lyric and is really just a nice little track that is really pushed on by the driving beat and rhythm of the instrumentation.
17. Lonesome Suzie (Alternate Take) *****
I really like this take of the song, as it does feel more upbeat with the piano part and the vocals do feel slightly lifted. For me this is a better version, but would not perhaps be very cohesive in terms of the instrumentation with the rest of the album, but then breaking this is sometimes a good thing.
18. Orange Juice Blues (Blues For Breakfast) ****
This track was first done at The Basement Tapes sessions, and this version features just a barrel piano for backing, which makes for a nice little track that does feel like a demo, but is still a great track in its own right.
19. Key To The Highway *****
The album credits this song to Big Bill Bronzy, who is often seen as the main promoter of the song, but it was first recorded by Charlie Segar. The song itself though is a nice run through of this classic blues track, although the instrumentation removes it from its roots and makes it a far more upbeat track that does work well.
20. Ferdinand The Imposter ****
Another demo of slightly lower quality, but is still a really nice track that features some nice piano and drums again that really help to build the vocal part. This track does feel like a work in progress, but I would have liked to have seen it done to completion.
Overall then, this album is one of the most influential records of the period, turning its back on the style of the time and creating a masterpiece. This introduced The Band in their own right and was the start of a great discography from a great group. The instrumentation can't be put down as it does really control this album with the expanse of it at times overwhelming, becoming more of a statement. This started off a trio of albums by The Band that could be counted among some of the best of all time, which for five guys that just wanted to make great music is a huge achievement. If you want to start a musical affair with The Band, then I cannot think of a better place to start than here, although perhaps their second album would suffice for those that want to hear their most applauded record.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Tears Of Rage
2 To Kingdom Come
3 In A Station
4 Caledonian Mission
6 We Can Talk
7 Long Black Veil
8 Chest Fever
9 Lonesome Suzie
10 This Wheel's On Fire
11 I Shall Be Released
12 Yazoo Street Scandal
13 Tears Of Rage
14 Katie's Been Gone
15 If I Lose
16 Long Distance Operator
17 Lonesome Suzie
18 Orange Juice Blues (Blues For Breakfast)
19 Key To The Highway
20 Ferdinand The Imposte