Let’s see, it had to be Halloween night 1976 when I saw Saturday Night Live for the first time. I believe I was at my buddy’s house for a big sleepover. He lived just a few homes from a very old, historical cemetery, and his crazy dad was offering twenty bucks each to sleep the night over there. Being loud, idiotic teenage boys, everyone was talking a big game, but none of us seemed to be able to stay there more than an hour. Personally, I knew my limitations and came back to watch this newer show.
That night, the host was Buck Henry (it seemed like he or Steve Martin were on all the time back then), and the musical guest was The Band. Now, I had only heard of The Band through some music magazines, whose writers were always disparaging them for being over-the-hill hippies. As I began to watch them, I was mesmerized by their unique sound. It had an earthy, nearly country sound that still had touches of rock, gospel and R&B. Earlier that week, in my journalism class, the hip young teacher was teaching us about the songwriting styles of Bob Dylan with and without The Band. Needless to say, the seeds were planted in my head about The Band, but I never purchased one of their albums. Back at the time, I was more of a KISS and Queen man, but I was intrigued by the music my teacher played and the performance I saw on that early SNL show.
Now, let’s fast forward to the fall of 2002. I was getting ready for my first back surgery, an outpatient procedure that would removed the “junk” that was pressing on my sciatic nerve. Since I was going to be off work for six weeks, my boys bought me a DVD of The Band’s Last Waltz. This concert motion picture had been released in theaters back in 1978. I remember looking at the ads in the newspapers and wondering what that movie was like. The movie documented the last concert that The Band performed, with the help of many rock stars of the time, such as Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell, to name a few. Instead, I went to see Grease or Cheech & Chong’s Up in Smoke or some other movie geared toward teens.And, many times during the that time, I went to the record stores to look through the selections, and often contemplating the purchase of the triple album soundtrack to The Band’s Last Waltz. Yet, I never could justify purchasing a triple album.
Now, in the Fall of 2002, suffering through the beginning of my chronic back spasms, I was laying on my back, watching the DVD of The Last Waltz. The more I watched, the more I fell in love with the music. The Band was unique in that they had three lead vocalists who all sounded different, whose harmonies sounded as if they were competing with each other while complimenting the others. Vocally, they were acting like the Staple Singers. But, then there was the music that I described earlier. Here were four Canadians and an American playing music that seemed steeped in the past but still of its time and the future. Their music is simply timeless.
From the yearning of “It Makes No Difference” to the Post-Civil War Southerner’s lament of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, from the gospel remembrance of others in “The Weight” to the terror of solitude of “Stagefright”, The Band gave voice to more than a generation. They were giving a voice to something that was genuinely American. In other words, The Band invented a genre that we now call “Americana”, which includes groups like the Lumineers and Uncle Tupelo. But, I have yet to find a group that has been able to capture the essence of The Band and re-conceptualize it into a new sound. Nope, The Band stands alone with their sound. And, on the night they performed their last concert that was called and immortalized as The Last Waltz, you are listening to the influences, peers and genius of The Band all in one concert.
Their are so many highlights: Neil Young leading The Band through a great version of “Helpless”, “Mannish Boy” with the immortal Muddy Waters, performing “Caravan” with the Celtic mystic himself Van Morrison, and my personal favorite, a pairing of The Staple Singers with The Band on “The Weight”. But, The Band proves their own rock and roll immortality with live versions of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, Richard Manuel dueting with Bob Dylan on “I Shall Be Released” and bassist Rick Danko displaying his insecurities while singing “Stagefright”.
To me, there is nothing like The Band. Not ever in the past, the present or in the future, The Band is a once in a lifetime happening. Their Last Waltz album and DVD always seems to release me from whatever is bothering me and helps me not only find joy in music but in life. Truthfully, how many artists can you say will do that for you? Very few, I am certain.