It always seemed a bit foreign, the idea of a backing band going off to make records by themselves and ending up just as famous as those they stood behind. You just couldnt see it happening today, and even the E Street Band, while a household name on its own, still needs Bruce Springsteen to be complete. The supporting band and the main attraction are just too synonymous with one another to be seen as individuals, and, no matter what, it’s still all about the name on the top of the bill. The Band, though, was an anomaly. It didn’t need Dylan, Dylan needed The Band, and to this day you’d be hard pressed to find anything close to this unique circumstance. Forty years later it’s become just as much a part of rock history as the musicians it played for.
Up until last summer my personal experience with The Band had been limited. I knew of it, and had heard The Weight hundreds of times on baby-boomer radio, but other than that my only experience with its work had been as Dylans backing band. The infamous Basement Tapes had lived on my record player during my last years in college, as did live recordings from the late ’60s, but any albums by The Band itself had yet to be unfurled. Last summer, I decided that needed to change, and I started from the beginning with Music from Big Pink.
To be in a backing band, especially Bob Dylans, you have to be far beyond skilled. You have to be able to play his songs flawlessly, as well as deal with any curve balls he, or the audience, may throw at you. Dylan needed a band that could take his Woody Guthrie folk songs and make them into something that hadnt been heard before, something that could be his. In short, he needed songwriters, not just musicians, and The Band took the challenge, pulling it off in a game-changing way. The Band didn’t know it then, but the work it did would also be its own introduction.
That’s just how they were, though, crafting seemingly flawless songs that would make other musicians wish they would have thought of that. With a little help from Dylan on a few tracks, Music from Big Pink would see The Band’s sound coming to fruition as it did what came naturally, what it’d been doing since the beginning; only this time it was The Band’s songs, and no one else would be in the spotlight. The Band reinvented Dylan, and in doing so found its own identity that would give its debut a lasting presence.
The record is musically spotless, cementing the where-have-you-been feelings that come with discovering a classic record so late. The guys involved are masters, with every verse, solo, bridge, and so on flowing perfectly and effortlessly. Some of the 60’s most iconic tracks are found on the record, from the groovy opening keys on Chest Fever, which has made its way into almost every movie about that time period, to, of course, The Weight, which has become a prized piece of Americana. Beyond the obvious, though, is a record filled with stories and gospel country rock. The Band leans heavily on the organ for soul, be it emotional on Tears of Rage or just to accent as on To Kingdom Come. Those same keys go on to define the core of its sound, adding more R&B to the southern rock.
With tracks Long Black Veil and We Can Talk, it makes sense why Dylan would have chosen The Band. This record was only the start, but it shows you the missing link between the sound of young, naive Dylan to the legend we know now. The sound is smooth, and even as an old recording, the music hits like a hammer on the nail, as on “This Wheel’s on Fire” and album-closer “I Shall Be Released”. It’s a rock record for the purists who love the old R&B influences that make “In a Station” feel so right.
For me, though, this was another record that opened my mind, and sits with the few others that are perfect from start to finish. Big Pink has always been required classic rock listening for any audiophile; I just happened to take the roundabout way of getting there. Like picking apart a head of lettuce, with every layer removed, it just keeps getting better. Listening, you cant ignore how The Band’s sound has become the foundation of rock music, and anything else, no matter how great, feels like an imitation. Some of todays best music comes from those imitations, though, and I wouldnt have it any other way.