On the surface, The Band is a shocking name for a music group. It seems good for confusion, cheap Abbott and Costello comedy routines and declaring yourself as a folk outfit with an awful sense of humour and nothing more. However, the backstory of how they arrived at their debut album and the name under which it was released, reveals a depth that the surface obscures, much like Bob Dylan’s appalling child-like painting for the front cover, featuring either a sitar that doesn’t actually appear on the album or the worst painting of a guitar that any adult has ever attempted, not to mention the elephant in the room.
The Band consisted of Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson. And they could aptly be described as a pariah group of musician’s equivalent to boxing journeymen. The group garnered as much mystique as they did musicianship from 16 years travelling the rough roads with Bob Dylan and the likes, eventually infusing their own music with everything they had learnt while holed up in a big pink abode. The album, Music from Big Pink, is the culmination of all this experience, both in terms of the highs and hard knocks of a touring musician and the cacophonous howl of everything they had learnt musically along the way.
Starting as a subterranean jam session with Bob Dylan in the basement of the Big Pink home where Danko, Hudson and Manuel lived together in West Saugerties, New York, the huge mass of covers and discarded Dylan material that the band raced through was slowly fine-tuned. In this creative atmosphere, the eponymous band felt they were ready to seize something new and step out from the long cast shadow of Dylan. Thus, they approached their manager, Albert Grossman, with plans. He contacted Capitol Records and secured a recording deal for the musicians who were now soon to be formerly known as “Dylan’s backing band.”
Unlike many albums from the era that seemed to be recorded after a singer had wandered aimlessly for long enough that the warmth of a studio was suddenly appealing again, Music from Big Pink could be described as a working album. In the most perfunctory sense, The Band’s drummer and vocalist Levon Helm had to be recalled from working on oil rigs to chance his hand at music once more. Everything that followed seemingly came out in a ferment of activity.
While they recorded with Dylan, they also crafted their own songs, working tirelessly in a frenzy of creativity. Life on the road had been interlocked with the professionalism required of touring musicians, and now they seemed to both relish the reckless abandon of a footloose artistic existence while maintaining the work ethic of a subcontractor that they had always known.
The result is a record that sounds like everything that went before it. The depth and wisdom of their previous wayfaring ways are enlivened with a visceral edge as they harnessed their moment in the sun and proudly presented something that they could ineffably call their own. Just like the journey that led to the album, there are definite highs and lows therein, but those lows are still lukewarm at worst, and the highs are searing irons from the fire of folk that they had helped to fuel in the first place.