THE BAND – Asbury Park 1976
Live at Casino Arena, Asbury Park, New Jersey, USA, July 20th 1976
DVD (Approx. 80 Min.): Introduction, Don’t Do It, The Shape I’m In, It Makes No Difference, The Weight, King Harvest (Has Surely Come), Twilight, Ophelia, Tears Of Rage, Forbidden Fruit, This Wheel’s On Fire, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, The Genetic Method, Chest Fever, Stage Fright, Up On Cripple Creek, The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show, Life Is A Carnival
I took this review assignment because well, frankly, I’ve never been a proselytizing, avowed, dyed-in-the-wool fan of The Band. Make no mistake: they are absolutely a group that deserves (and has) a loyal, enduring and adoring fan base. Few other musical units that emerged around the time The Band began making their mark on the rock landscape of both the body and mind – first as Bob Dylan’s backing band, the Hawks, in 1965 (after splitting from original leader Ronnie Hawkins) – meshed as many musical genres as effortlessly as these guys.
Country, folk, blues, soul, gospel, pop, early rock & roll, you name your poison: the five-man, multi-instrumentalist wrecking crew of The Band (a marvelously simple moniker that I always took to mean an ultimate bonded brotherhood; or perhaps the definitive collaborative unit) could knock it back and breathe it out. In that sense, The Band were, along with the nascent Grateful Dead, the first jam rock band I can think of that combined a sense of far-reaching musical exploration, inspired improvisation, and a catholic sense of taste and discovery. Another word for it might be freedom.
Their 1968 debut, “Music From Big Pink,” remains a landmark of richly textured, deeply ingrained Americana that helped, along with the Buffalo Springfield, foreshadow the country rock movement of the late 1960s and early ‘70s (which is ironic considering that four-fifths of the group, as well as members of the Springfield, hailed from Canada). “Big Pink” proved integral to their former boss Bob’s return to acoustic, roots-based music, and the perpetually booted, and belatedly officially released “Basement Tapes,” recorded with The Band at its Big Pink headquarters, remains a watershed achievement. The album has also been cited as an inspiration to the Rolling Stones’ majestic country-folk-blues amalgam, “Beggars Banquet,” released in December of that year. There’s also little doubt in my mind that Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers listened to “Big Pink” a time or ten.
So, why haven’t I ever been as dedicated a fan (as I’ve always secretly suspected I should be) of this phenomenally talented group? Still curious and perplexed after all these years, I was hoping to at last find some semblance of an answer by viewing this new and rare archival DVD concert of The Band’s last stand: the 1976 tour that would ultimately culminate in the famous Thanksgiving Day, star-studded farewell concert dubbed “The Last Waltz” at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco (later officially released as a three-LP extravaganza and film of the same name). Although I never got the chance to see or hear The Band live (which may be part of the problem), I once screened the deluxe theatrical showing and DVD re-release of director Martin Scorsese’s labor-of-love concert film, “The Last Waltz,” for professional review. What I saw and heard was all very impressive, enjoyable, and admirable. But truth be told, The Band’s performance didn’t really truly excite or cut me emotionally to the bone (that would be Dylan, who did).
That said, this 80-minute, 17-song overview demonstrates that there was, and is, musically much to relish about these five individuals who came together as a unique whole: bassist Rick Danko; drummer Levon Helm (from Arkansas and the only American of the bunch); guitarist Robbie Robertson; organist Garth Hudson; and pianist Richard Manuel. How versatile were they? Three of the five members sang with distinctive, often compelling voices, and everyone except Robertson played two or three instruments apiece, which only enhanced their ability to deepen and embroider their musical textures in multi-faceted ways.
Indeed, the straightforwardly titled “Asbury Park 1976,” which was pro-shot with multiple cameras in black and white, offers a relatively rare glimpse of the group (although grey and white is perhaps a more accurate description than black and white; the video – not much better than a 6 ranked on a scale of 10, I’d say – leaves something to be desired). This was a road-tested unit that, for the most part, still appeared to be near the peak of its collective powers, but perhaps beginning to show signs of the personal strain and touring fatigue that Robertson later claimed had set in, prompting the decision to quit touring or performing together.
In hindsight, it’s hard not to read, for example, pianist and co-lead singer Manuel’s mangled growl of a voice on “Asbury Park” as a harbinger, and/or by-product, of his grueling personal battles with depression, alcoholism, and addiction. Manuel’s chronic illnesses and persisting demons would later contribute to his suicide after a gig at the early age of 42. (Sadly, early death would also later claim Danko, who died in 1999 of heart failure at age 56; and most recently Helm, who died after a battle with cancer in 2012 at age 72).
But on the night of July 20, 1976, The Band was very much alive and kicking – or, at least jamming – at the Casino Arena in Asbury Park, New Jersey, smack dab in the middle of its swan song tour. It’s unclear why this otherwise nicely shot and edited straight-ahead concert film (save for occasional cuts that end a couple of songs somewhat abruptly) isn’t up to the video quality one might expect. Unfortunately, the all-region, no-label DVD doesn’t offer an explanation or source of where or why the film originated, or for whom (television? cable? the group’s personal archive? Scorsese’s dry run for the movie?). A “limited edition” sticker on my review copy containing Japanese characters is about all we get besides the set list, date, and venue. The outer packaging is very nice but a bit misleading. Despite the notation that it is “pro-shot B&W,” the back cover advertises what look to be concert stills of the show in rich, crisp color. In reality, the sepia-toned grey-ish front cover is much closer to the rougher film quality within.
The audio itself is strong, fairly clear, crisp, and evenly balanced among the voices and instruments. Ah, if only the visual measured up. Still, given the relative dearth of documented classic-era Band performances available on DVD, this release of an iconic period of the group’s history comes as a welcome offering, however flawed.
The concert itself is a fairly relaxed affair with stretches of instrumental detours and an intuitive interplay among the musicians, who come across like cooks working in tandem to concoct a gumbo stew expertly seasoned with all of their influences. To further stretch the metaphor, many of the numbers here are delivered at an unhurried, simmering pace. But rarely do they come to a boil — or even better, a boiling over — of heat, power, and dynamism. One notable exception to this is Danko’s arrestingly soulful take on Robertson’s “It Makes No Difference,” which sounds as if it’s actually costing Danko something deep down to sing.
But the Band’s predilection, overall, for a musically freewheeling, yet ultimately even-keeled, well-behaved mid-tempo vibe and its frontman-by-committee approach, are likely a couple of reasons why I never really felt that addictive rock & roll rush, or fell hard for the music. There are edges and risk and adventure in The Band’s music, to be sure, but to me, they’re more often than not found in the emotional resonance of the lyrics, rather than the guitar riffs, or in any sense of urgency of delivery. Instead, we see a casual congeniality (at least on stage) spread democratically around the room and on-screen, although Robertson, a recurring focal point in the film, most closely inhabits the role of breakout rock star and band leader. Besides those tangy little licks and solos, he’s all cool poses and coy shakes of his enviable hair.
A narrative of love going stale, and the plea for romantic restoration is the catalyst behind “Don’t Do It,” which opens this concert and is a title-shortened cover of the Holland-Dozier-Holland classic, “Baby Don’t You Do It,” first recorded by Marvin Gaye in 1964. The Band treat it here as a loose jam to limber up, and it’s a good party-starter.
The Robertson-penned “The Shape I’m In,” a song he’s claimed is about the deterioration and self-immolation of its singer, Manuel (Robertson rarely sang himself) comes next. Robertson himself supplies a pungent, tightly woven guitar solo – the first of many on this night – that serves notice to remind us that Robbie, though far less overtly flashy than some of his contemporaries, was among one of the very best, and certainly most tasteful and expressive, lead guitarists working the decade.
Probably the Band’s best-loved, well-known, and oft-covered, song, “The Weight,” drops surprisingly early here – just four songs into the set. Along with the gospel-drenched hymnal country of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” which comes deeper into the program, “The Weight” distills the essence of the group’s enveloping sound and emotional resonance like no other. Helm’s instantly recognizable lead vocal – kind of a Southern peckerwood drawl – from behind his drum kit, coupled with a drifter’s tale of his experiences rambling in a town called Nazareth, plus some great multi-part harmony singing (including a verse sung by Danko) – accord it all-time classic status.
Another strong Helm lead vocal on the sprightly “Ophelia” and another tart guitar contribution by Robertson make the number not just an audio, but a visual, treat, as the camera edits employ a series of nice dissolves that toggle between Robertson’s expressive Stratocaster electric guitar and his face, which matches the mood of his instrument.
Manuel doesn’t fare as well on “Tears Of Rage,” unfortunately, with his once epically anguished voice reduced to a rough bramble of thorns and prickers that more closely resembles the latter-day throat of his song’s onetime co-writer (Dylan, who penned the words; Manuel wrote the melody). Thankfully, Danko comes to the rescue on harmony vocals, helping to carry his crippled friend across the slow, downward spiral of melody while the band – er, Band – rallies around Richard, encircles him, and lifts him up. That’s what friends are for, after all, aren’t they?
I’ll confess I’m still not a proselytizing, avowed, dyed-in-the-wool fan of The Band after viewing this worthwhile document of those halcyon days before the breakups, bad decisions, and bad blood (mostly between Robertson and everybody else over songwriting credits, leadership, and the group’s subsequent reformation without the guitarist – see the Interwebs for the gory story, verbal snipes and swipes) threatened to poison their legacy. But in listening and watching “Asbury Park,” and contemplating that bond they built together — rock of and for the ages, really — I’d like to think that there are a few friends like Rick, Levon, Garth, Richard and Robbie who’d be there to pick me up and take a load off when the shape I’m in brings tears of rage, regret, or any number of hard things in life The Band sings about so truthfully. I sure hope so. As with most situations, you’ve got to listen carefully, work on your relationships, and hope for the best. Who knows? Maybe, just maybe, by continuing to hold and keep this music close at hand, and by continuing to listen to those voices, there already are.