Music From Big Pink, released in 1968, was one of the best debut albums in rock ‘n’ roll history. So what was The Band to do as an encore? The answer was to release one of the best rock albums of all time.
The Band’s sophomore effort, simply titled The Band, was just about a perfect rock album. The Band continued to build on the song structures and textures established on Music From Big Pink. They would take almost mystic folk traditions and through a subtle rock ‘n’ roll styling and beautiful vocals would create a sound that was different from anything else that was being released in 1969. Even today, The Band’s sound remains unique and instantly recognizable.
The Band, also called The Brown Album at times, was comprised of 12 chapters in a creative ongoing story. People, places, myths, traditions and ballads would be set to music with preciseness and beauty which would enable each song to be distinctive yet part of a well crafted whole.
The lead track, “Across The Great Divide,” is a song of emotional distance yet is presented in a positive way through the beauty of the story telling lyrics and wonderful harmonies. “Rag Mama Rag” is a quirky, fun song complete with mandolin, violin and Garth Hudson’s stellar organ work. Hudson did not have the vocal capacity of the other members of The Band but his keyboards would be the instrumental glue that would bind their music together. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” could have been written in 1869 as it tells a story of the Civil War. Joan Baez would take this song and strip it down to its basics and have a huge hit.
Robbie Robertson would show his guitar virtuosity with some brilliant fills on “When You Awake.” The harmonies on the chorus would accentuate the beauty of the group’s combined voices. “Up On Cripple Creek” would be a rare single hit for The Band. A sensitive lead vocal by Levon Helm would lead toward the forceful harmonies that would drive the song. Richard Manuel would take the vocal lead on the haunting “Whispering Pines.” It was a song of multiple textures that could be explored as the song progressed.
The Band raises their energy level during the second half of the album. “Jemima Surrender,” “Look Out Cleveland” and “Rockin’ Chair” show that The Band could rock when they put their minds to it. “Rockin’ Chair” does not feature any drums on the track. Regular drummer Levon Helm switches to the mandolin and Garth Hudson picks up the accordion to create a memorable sound. The ballad, “The Unfaithful Servant,” featuring Rick Danko’s lead vocal and “King Harvest (Has Surely Come),” brings The Band back to a full group setting and closes the album in style.
Rolling Stone Magazine would rank The Band as one of the "50 Best Albums of All Time." Today, 39 years after its release, it remains a timeless creation and a lasting testament to one of the best rock groups to ever enter a recording studio.