In autumn 2009, I loaded up my old Mitsubishi van with all my worldly possessions
and hit the road. I’d finished a degree and was ready for a change of scene. And there was a lovely woman up North whom I was keen to court. The overloaded van swung and bounced on its springs and a packet of Girl Guide biscuits on the dash warmed in the sun as I drove and, as I wrestled the sloppy steering mechanism, I fed tapes into the deck.
One of the albums I listened to more than once on that drive was a soundtrack.
The Band were a Canadian-American act in the 60s and 70s and are a big part of the story of American music, and an influence on the genre known today as Americana: the fusion of folk, roots, country, rock and blues that draws on the stories and traditions of America’s past. In November 1976 they played a concert billed as their farewell outing. It was a lavish and star-studded affair which was immortalised by filmmaker Martin Scorsese in his seminal music documentary The Last Waltz.
When it comes to music, I’m a sucker for a good story — both in the songs themselves and in the life of the band or individual who writes and performs them. The story of The Last Waltz show is a good one — intra-band tensions, criticism of Scorsese’s focus on one member of the band to the exclusion of others, lack of rehearsal time, guest Bob Dylan’s last-minute refusal to perform — and at the heart of it is the music and the tales in the songs.
“We’re not dealing with people at the top of the ladder,” main songwriter and guitarist Robbie Robertson said once. “We’re saying what about that house out there in the middle of that field? What does this guy think, with that one light on upstairs, and that truck parked out there? What is going on in there? And just following the story of this person.”
This is the guts of Americana; like a good short story the songs capture a moment,
a character, an event, distil it to its essence and say something about what it is to be human. The story may be grotesque – think a Johnny Cash murder ballad or a Flannery O’Connor short story — but in that darkness the artist highlights glimpses of light. “Art is not what you see but what you make others see,” said painter Edgar Degas. Seeing a person, especially a person not “at the top of the ladder”, and telling their story: we need artists to do this today to help us see someone and something new.
The Band used to play with rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins and he was one of the first guests to join them on the stage, singing the Bo Diddley tune Who Do You Love. It’s a swaggering belter of a song, telling the story of a man talking himself up to woo a woman, with some of the best opening lines in the history of music: “I walked forty-seven miles of barbed wire, use a cobra snake for a necktie.” Hawkins yelps his way through the narrator’s braggadocio as The Band lays down an intense groove behind him.
Neil Young joins them for his song Helpless. “If swamps and lagoons could hum, they’d probably hum Neil Young songs,” says magazine The Paris Review, pointing out the way Young’s music and lyrics conjure up the American South. “Baby can you hear me now? / The chains are locked across my door / Helpless,” he croons in his distinctive voice.
Joni Mitchell comes on for her ballad Coyote which evokes restlessness and transition. “Either he’s going to have to stand and fight or take off out of here / . . . A prisoner of the white lines on the freeway.”
The Band’s own The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down captures the mood of the beaten South after the civil war. It puts aside the reasons for the war and just aims to highlight the human suffering: “Virgil Caine is the name, and I served on the Danville train / . . . My brother was just eighteen, proud and brave / but a Yankee laid him in his grave / . . . they should never have taken the very best,” sings drummer Levon Helm over a swinging rhythm.
My old tape leaves out Van Morrison and Bob Dylan (who eventually relented and performed as planned) but legendary pianist Dr John, who’s still going strong today, is there, along with bluesman Muddy Waters.
Although the audio was tidied up after the concert for release as an album, the vocals and music are rough around the edges throughout, emphasising the grit at the heart of The Band’s music.
I sold my old van not long after I got to Tauranga, but I’ll be jumping in our silver
Caldina — nicknamed the Wabash Cannonball — to head up to Auckland in November for The Last Waltz Tour. This anniversary concert features original keyboard player Garth Hudson and music director John Simon along with today’s inheritors of the Americana tradition: musicians Delaney Davidson, Tami Neilson, Kevin Borich, Barry Saunders and the Bads. It’ll be a cracker.