“Once Were Brothers” traces the mythical saga of The Band, through Robbie Robertson’s lens

“We few, we proud, we band of brothers.” — Shakespeare, Henry V

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, a documentary film by Daniel Roher, plays at 4:15 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, at the Oriental Theater, 2230 N. Farwell Ave, Milwaukee, WI 53202 (414) 276-5140

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This story needed to be told again, on Robbie Robertson’s terms, even as it needs telling from all five. Three are gone, so Robbie the wordsmith stands best to speak here, anew and anon. And The Band started with him; it’s roots arose when he converged with Levon Helm and Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. But this needed to be told because the Band lasted too short a time for the America it embraced and re-imagined, the nation that needed a band like this, to remind us who and what America was, and is, and might be.

For perhaps no other American vernacular band compressed more talent into one entity, like pages of a tattered book filled with dried and pressed leaves, shadows and light, and music of American spheres. It was a great North American band, comprising four Canadians and one Arkansan, who embodied “Canadian driftwood, gypsy tailwind,” as they regaled us on one of their late, great saga-songs.

We need this story because, well, as the venerable roots purveyor Taj Mahal asserts here, they are the closest we have to the American Beatles. Daniel Roher’s film provides classic and never-published photos and film footage of their life in Woodstock. N.Y. and at the house called Big Pink, on the road, and reflections from most band members, but mainly Robertson’s and those of his wife Dominique, their road manager and some celebrated others.

But Mahal’s claim begs examination, because the band’s peak years lasted less than the Beatles. Both bands emerged from, and remained rooted in, rhythm and blues, and rockabilly, blues, and country. Like their counterparts, the North Americans drew from British Isle folk sources as well. Stylistically where they diverged was when the Beatles embraced psychedelia. The Band arrived right about that time, but driven by older forces, and enamored of the rustic weirdness, oily charm, verve, wit and tragedy that would come to be called Americana, a genre they forged as much as anyone. As Robertson points out, “The rock generation revolted against their parents but we loved our parents.” They had a sprawling family portrait taken during the Basement Tapes sessions.

And yet their extraordinary quintet synergy also made for some of the bitterness that would ultimately arise, perhaps justified (more on that later).

“It was such a beautiful thing. It was so beautiful that it went up in flames,” Robertson reflects.

More on the Beatles comparison. Both had magnificent and glorious songwriting, though the Beatles were more diverse with three gifted writers, which may be their greatest claim, aside from the phenomenal impact they had on our culture. The Band had primarily Robertson writing songs, but they had that three-part harmony, probably the most fulsome and profoundly textured of any popular group, because these were also “three of the greatest white rhythm-and-blues singers in the world at the time,” as Eric Clapton comments.

“They have voices that you’d never heard before, and yet they sound like they’ve always been there,” rhapsodizes Bruce Springsteen.

Here, The Band has a leg up on the more famous British band, whose third and fourth singers were only serviceable, though George and Ringo had their moments.

The Band was also instrumentally superior, again, to almost almost any rock ’n’ roll band, especially in ensemble, given their kaleidoscopic versatility. Bassist-singer Rick Danko was capable with several horns and string instruments. Classically-trained Garth Hudson played organ, synthesizer, accordion, saxophones, brass, and piccolo. Drummer-singer Hudson also played mandolin.

Guitarist Robertson developed a style that startled and even intimidated many guitarists, even if he wasn’t the typical virtuoso pealing off chorus after dazzling chorus. Few pickers had a sharper rhythmic flair, or could make a guitar bite, sear, and jump for joy, almost at once. Richard Manuel played piano, clavinet and drums, and sang with the most soul-haunting voice of any of them. I’m probably forgetting a few axes. Clapton was so moved — “they changed my life” — that he forsook his two fellows of the psychedelic-blues-rock trio Cream at its peak, in hopes he could join The Band. “Maybe they’d need a rhythm guitar,” he says.

The band performs in the concert film “The Last Waltz.” (Left to right) Richard Manuel, piano and vocals; Garth Hudson, accordion, keyboards and saxes; Rick Danko, bass and vocals; Robbie Robertson, guitar; Levon Helm, drums; Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, vocals.

As for style, their playing and singing blended looseness and precision, defiant resolve and abandon, high humor and pooling sadness. They fully inhabited the characters dwelling in Robertson’s songs of American archetypes — dirt farmers, varmints, vagabonds, drunkards, Dixie fighters. “Virgil Cain is my name and I worked on the Danville train,” Helm sings on the forlorn, feisty epic “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” “They reminded me of 19th century American literature, of Melville’s stories of searchers,” film director Martin Scorsese ponders.

Barney Hoskyns, biographer of The Band, has a similar reflection, by way of quoting the great American critic Greil Marcus: “…their music gave us a sure sense that the country was richer than we had guessed.’” Hoskyns adds: “If there was any band that could get to the heart of the mystery that pervaded rural life in America, then The Band was it. Nathaniel Hawthorne may have been right when he wrote of Americans that ‘we have so much country that we have really no country at all’,’ but The Band managed to create a sense of its adopted land that was at once precise and mythical.” 1

Courtesy Nebraska Furniture Mart

The Band’s first two albums, Music from Big Pink and The Band, and Northern Lights-Southern Cross compare well to any Beatles album, as does, in its rough, eccentric ways The Basement Tapes with Bob Dylan. Stage Fright and Cahoots are right in the ballpark. Rock of Ages is a masterful live recording achievement, and Scorsese’s The Last Waltz remains arguably the finest concert documentary ever made, studded with stars, and The Band’s last-ever live performance at Winterland in San Francisco, in its original incarnation, here sweaty and transcendent.

I saw them once, at Summerfest, on their last 1974 tour, and the power and glory remained, though the poisons that killed it all festered beneath the surface.

Robertson recounts his prodigious rise when, at 15, he wrote two songs recorded by Canadian rock ‘n’ roll star Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. “That band was my own personal Big Bang,” Robertson says. He soon joined the Hawks, and they reformed as Levon Helm and the Hawks.

Aside from his musical and literary genius, Bob Dylan is an astute aficionado and observer of American musical talent. When he heard The Band he knew they had to be his. He approached them and they invited to their basement studios in their communal Woodstock home “Big Pink.” Dylan was dubious at first of recording there, as they only had a small reel-to-reel, but once they got down to it, things began flowing. Dylan clacked away song lyrics on his typewriter and they rehearsed.

The Basement Tapes is among the most mythical informal recordings in pop music history, largely Dylan songs, nut immensely enhanced by The Band. Before long they were touring, yet this was early in Dylan’s plugged-in phase. His still-faithful-to-folk-roots fans consistently booed the electric music, for all its quality. This rejection eventually wore on Helm, who was beginning to sink into drugs and alcohol, as were several others, especially Manuel, a sensitive soul, who struggled with depression. In time, disillusioned Helm quit the group to become an oil rigger in the Gulf of Mexico.

Robertson soldiered on with the group though somewhat devastated by the loss of his soul brother and best friend. He addresses the nature of creativity, saying it’s often a matter of “trying to surprise yourself. For example, if you look inside the sounding hole of a Martin guitar you see imprinted” made in Nazareth, PA.” One day I saw that and thought, ‘I pulled into Nazareth, was a feeling about half-past dead.’ Then I heard these voices, ‘Take a load off Fanny,’” and “The Weight” was born.

The Band performs “The Weight” with The Staple Singers, in “The Last Waltz.” YouTube

The Band’s Robbie Robertson (right) is interviewed about the new film “Once Were Brothers.” Courtesy The Toronto Star. 

Enter producer entrepreneur extraordinaire David Geffen. He convinced Robertson to move to Malibu, CA, and a oceanfront property, and before long he’d lured the band members out there which replenished them. The result was the 1976 album Northern Lights-Southern Cross considered by many their best album since their second. It included three classic new songs “Acadian Driftwood,” “It Makes No Difference,” and “Ophelia” and no clunkers.

Robertson treads too lightly on the feud that developed between him and Helm. “Bitterness was setting in with Levon.” he muses. It had to do with the band members beginning to indulge in heroin. Robertson fortunately did not have an addictive makeup and was not chemically affected. But he does gloss Helms point of view which deeply resented all the royalties that Robertson received for their original music. Although Robertson wrote the majority of the songs, few bands could better fit the adage: The sum is greater than their parts. So there was a strong argument for all members sharing in some royalties.

Nor does Robertson address Richard Manuel’s devastating suicide. So, it’s worth referring to Barney Hoskyns book Across the Great Divide: The Band in America, to give the subject some due. “The band had played capacity crowds for two shows which went well, despite the fact that Rick had complained to Richard about his drink. ‘We played a good show for good intelligent people,’ Rick said. ‘Talk was of the next show. That’s what we were all living for.’

 

After leaving the club, Richard headed back to the nearby Quality Inn and stopped by Levon’s room en route to his own. To Levon, he did not seem especially depressed. ‘I don’t know what got crosswise in his mind between leaving the foot of my bed and going into his bathroom.’ Once in the room Richard finished off a bottle of Grand Marnier and his last scrapings of coke. Sometime between 3 and 3:30 AM on Tuesday 4, March, he went into the bathroom…

Richard Manuel. Courtesy Live for Live Music

Rick Danko was in shock, and denial. “I cannot believe in a million years that wasn’t a goddamn silly accident,’ he said

“It seems much more likely that loneliness and a profound sense of failure combined to convince him of the futility of life,” Hoskyns writes.

The opening words of his prologue also address the fated artist. “Richard Manuel’s is the first voice you hear in the the first Band album Music from Big Pink (1968)…His aching baritone launches into the first reproachful line of “Tears of Rage.” As it arches over ‘arms,’ you can’t help thinking of Ray Charles, the singer who more than any other shaped this unlikely white soul voice from Stratford, Ontario… A month shy of his 43rd birthday, he could see nothing ahead but these depressing one-nighters, rehashing ‘the old magic’ in a continuing, fruitless struggle to moderate his intake of alcohol and cocaine.”

On that Tuesday morning in 1986, “he tied one end of a plain black belt around her neck, the other end around the shower curtain and hanged himself. The distance between ‘Tears of Rage’ and Richard Manuel’s lonely death at the Winter Park Quality Inn was the journey The Band traveled in their rise and fall as one of the greatest rock bands in America.” 2

Levon Helm drums and sings, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” in “The Last Waltz.”

Once Were Brothers — an engrossing, touching and well-crafted film — understandably climaxes with two generous clips from The Last Waltz. The Band’s radiant final hurrah was on Thanksgiving Day, 1976, and includes Dylan, Clapton, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Dr. John, The Staple Singers, Emmylou Harris, Ringo Starr, Paul Butterfield, Neil Diamond, Ronnie Hawkins, and a brass ensemble.

“Time is the most mysterious word of all,” Norman Mailer once wrote. The Band somehow traversed and encapsulated the mysteries of our time, as an “Unfaithful Servant” and as “Life is a Carnival.”

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1 Barney Hoskyns, Across the Great Divide: The Band in America, Hyperion, 1993 Quote of Greil Marcus from his book Mystery Train, 3-4 .

2 Hoskyns, Across the Great Divide, 384-85

 

Listening to the “deluxe edition” bonus disc of Tedeschi Trucks’ “Let Me Get By”

 

The cover of the box-set 2-disc deluxe edition of “Let Me Get By” mimics a vintage guitar amplifier. amazon.com

The bonus deluxe edition of the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s latest album Let Me Get By further demonstrates how you can turn a stylistic assessment of this remarkable band into a parlor game. Try pigeon-holing them — short of a six or seven-hyphen phrase —  and they’ll invariably squirm free, or break the bindings. That’s another of the metaphorical meanings of the album’s eloquently powerful cover image of a Mongolian eagle, flying free from his master’s binding.

The cover of their bonus disc is a photo portrait of the same eagle perched on the leather-sheathed hand of the ornately outfitted eagle hunter who, though unnamed, appears Mongolian himself, with his thickly fur-lined hat, and long coat reaching to the tops of his tall boots, which can ford deep snow drifts.

So it’s a pan-cultural nod to the Eastern influences that make this a group defy even the multi-various vernaculars of American roots music.

I said in my first blog review of the basic album Let Me Get By (here: https://kevernacular.com/?p=7331) we’ve never seen anything quite like this band before. I stand by that, however their precursors are three personnel-related groups — Derek and the Dominoes, Delaney and Bonnie, and Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen. So Eric (“Derek”) Clapton is a visionary forefather. 1 Yet TTB has encompassed influences beyond what any of those groups ever did, by standing on their shoulders. Plus, they’re already longer lived than any of those, with no signs of slowing down.

All the styles, solos and 12 performers might sound messy in terms of musical structure and arrangements and, at times in the past it has been, but mainly in close listening as the power of their grooves usually carries along loose ends.

The success of the new album reflects the fact the band spent more time in the studio than in any recording project before, according to album annotator Ashley Kahn. It helps that their Swamp Raga Studios are in the Jacksonville, Florida home of Susan Tedeshi and spouse Derek Trucks, and that the group functions almost as an extended family.

The overall musical quality of the ensemble also seems upgraded since jazz bassist Tim LeFebvre came aboard last year. Lefebrve’s credits include jazzers Donny McCaslin, Wayne Krantz, Chuck Loeb, and jazz-contemporary classical’s Uri Ciane. Also he recorded  with the late David Bowie on his already now-celebrated last album Blackstar, which also includes McCaslin and several other top jazzers. LeFebvre co-wrote three songs on Let Me Get By, and actually flew between Bowie’s New York studio and Jacksonville during those albums’ overlapping dates. LeFebvre clearly facilitates the band’s inclusion of the 1971 Bowie  song “Oh! You Pretty Things,” which they cover on the deluxe album second disc, and which I’ll address below.

The fluency of several complex, stirring ensemble passages on both discs heightens the collective groove and may betray the arranging and playing skills of LeFebvre.

Along with three alternate takes of the new album’s songs and the Bowie cover, the deluxe-set disc includes a  quirky quintet studio instrumental “Satie Groove,”  and a three-song update on the band’s celebrated live-concert prowess — one song from the new album and two covers, recorded at New York’s Beacon Theater.

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The first of the three alternate takes is a LMGB song I haven’t commented on previously: “Hear Me.” It opens like a long dusty trek, but it calls to a lover who may or may not be left behind forever. TTB seems very strong conveying that welter of feelings on the verge of break-up or post break-up, when life both shrinks and one imagines so much is possible, for better and worse.

Their lyrics’ deft rhetorical ambiguity allow such songs to resonate for many losses and failures in life. Reminding the loved one “we were one in a million years” speaks to the profundity, grandiosity and cavernous sense of loss in shattered romance. Here Derek Trucks shows his lyrical side, drawing from The Allmans’ singing guitar style of Dickey Betts, specifically his alternating oblique note bends, which mimic a pedal steel.

The live version of “In Every Heart” is slower more burdened and stripped down, but Trucks’ animated solo almost sounds like a conversation with his own heart, recalling Clapton’s buzzing blues style, perfected on Derek and the Dominoes classic album Layla.

Bowie’s “Oh, You Pretty Things,” fits this group’s POV, as a challenging but stirring appraisal of the human race that finally advises: Look at your children/ see their faces in the golden rays/ don’t kid yourself/ They’re the start of a coming race.

The “Just as Strange” alternate take is, surprisingly a 2 ½ minute instrumental jam on that LMGB song, with Trucks and the rhythm section and co-composer Doyle Bramhall II on bass.

Another short hornless instrumental, “Satie’s Groove,” rides Tim Lefebvre’s fat and funky bass guitar in a satisfying descending progression that may allude to piece by 18th century French composer Erik Satie, a sort of proto-minimalist. In fact, much of these first five bonus tracks may appeal to those who prefer an unadorned approach. For sure, they provide a little breathing room from the often heart-pulsing intensity of much of the basic Let Me Get By album.

But that also sets us up for the bonus disc’s last three cuts, live performances of TTB with all guns blazing and, on the last song, a great hired gun. These astonishingly potent performances from New York’s Beacon Theater make the deluxe edition worth the extra money, to me (this was no free reviewer’s copy)

By then, late in their odyssey-like 2015 tour, Susan Tedeschi’s voice had become somewhat raw, and here she sounds a lot like another influence, Janis Joplin. Her pained-tiger growl on these tracks conveys as much raw powerful and emotion as any singer working today. That’s especially remarkable because she never tries to stretch beyond her natural contralto range, unlike so many pop-rock-soul singers and would-be American Idol divas, to varying degrees of success.

I described “Laugh About It”  in the LMGB review post and this version has Tedeschi’s voice rough-riding the infectious but tricky guitar figure the song’s built on.

I’m glad they included their cover of “I Pity the Fool,” which I heard them do in Madison during that tour. It’s an old R&B song done memorably by Bobby “Blue” Bland and Paul Butterfield. This song of bitterness and pity — for the fool who falls for with the narrators ex-lover — shows that TTB can get down in the darkest of emotions, despite their generally uplifting music and lifestyle ethos.

Derek Trucks (left) and David Hidalgo (right) of Los Lobos do some fancy jamming on “Keep on Growing” in this shot from the performance included in the deluxe edition of “Let Me Get By.” Photo by Dino Perrucci photography.blogspot.com.

The last song is another final statement as apt as “In Every Heart” is for the main LMGB album. That song is the exhilarating “Keep on Growing,” by Eric Clapton and Bobby Whitlock, from Derek and the Dominos’ classic Layla album.

Nominal message aside, the nine-plus-minute version really shows them hoisting the Southern jam band aesthetic to a fresh peak. Part of their current tour includes a number of dates with Los Lobos, and in 2015 that band’s superb lead guitarist David Hidalgo teamed up with Trucks on the song’s two-guitar jam, which bristles with riffing fire, contrapuntal wit and invention that compares to the Allman Brothers in their prime (Trucks was, of, course the Allman Brothers’ last lead guitarist). Characteristic of the Allmans’ longer jams, they slow down the tempo at one point, and then end in a whisper, so it becomes almost suite-like (which ultimately hearkens to the formal rock instrumental sense pioneered by Butterfield’s “East-West”).

Amusingly, from a video of the song performance, it’s evident that Hidalgo knew not much more than the song’s chord changes. And when he stepped to a mike to sing a few lyrics he’d picked up from the first chorus, Tedeschi turned and began mouthing lyrics to him, because who wouldn’t want Hildalgo’s marvelous tenor singing harmony? That is only partially successful, however when the two guitarists jam, Hidalgo’s eyes stay riveted on Trucks’ fretboard, and it works splendidly, a fine example of courageously performing on the fly. 2

I hope something like this happens when I see Los Lobos and Tedesci Trucks Band on the same concert bill this summer.

I’m not sure why Susan Tedeschi doesn’t try such improvisational interplay with her husband at times. She can play the rhythm guitar of a groove like the aforementioned, but perhaps she’s never done much plecteral jamming. Although hardly in Derek’s league technically, she’s a gritty blues guitar soloist, as she shows on “I Pity the Fool.”

The deluxe set also includes lots of cool pix and a brief insider comment on the bonus-disc selections by the band’s resident scribe Mike Mattison.

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  1. I don’t know for a fact, but it’s a fair bet that Derek Trucks was named after the mythical Derek of the Dominoes.
  2. As the video of The Beacon Theater’s “Keep On Growing” is evidently a bootleg, and TTB doesn’t allow bootleg recording like most major concerts, I’m not re-posting it. But its not hard to find online.
  3. Back cover of deluxe LMGB box with song titles courtesy amazon.com