The Band

The Band has a deserved reputation as one of the true oracles of American music at its essence — their seamless distillation of blues, jazz, folk, country, rockabilly, and soul can tell a 200-year musical saga in a span of one 4-minute song. But the story of the group itself and the inimitable individuals who formed its ranks has more in common with a 19th century Russian novel: epic, historical, and mainly tragic. The haunting beauty of their finest work exudes a kind of sweeping, panoramic melancholy, which for all of its beauty can be almost too difficult to listen to. Their confederate and key collaborator Bob Dylan once lamented in song that “death kept following us/ tracking us down,” as appropriate an epitaph as any for this extraordinary, star-crossed group of musical greats.
 
First formed in the late ’50s as the backing backing band to the Texas rockabilly badass Ronnie Hawkins — the pairing of the Canadian-born musicians Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Rick Danko with the Arkansas native Levon Helm proved as fortuitous as it was unlikely. A collection of peerless musicians with jazz skills and roots instincts, they honed their craft backing Hawkins in juke joints and small halls for nearly five years, and then had their first fateful experience as Bob Dylan’s backup band on his 1965 US tour. This was the early watershed moment in which Dylan, the anointed savior of the folk scene, had “gone electric” and ostensibly turned his back on a large portion of his weirdly possessive fan base.
 
If the idea that Dylan’s decision to play electric music rendered him a sellout or even a ”Judas” seems totally absurd in retrospect (and surely it was absurd at the time) it remains important to note the unapologetically dissonant, high-voltage nature of the music he and the Band were playing at that moment. Little wonder that startled and even frightened fans were moved to boo lustily from Shea Stadium to the Royal Albert Hall. A decade and change later, mainstream audiences were still baffled and appalled when the Sex Pistols came forward with a similar eye toward chaos and called it punk rock.
 
By the time they were creating music entirely on their own, the Band was an old group of young men. Years on the road had burnished a continuity of sound and a sense of purpose that immediately yielded the instant classics Music From Big Pink in 1968 and the equally wonderful self-titled album The Band in 1969. Later releases like Stage Fright and the stunning, underrated Northern Lights – Southern Cross from 1975 exemplified the savant-like skills of a group that played together with omniscient ability. Few outfits have ever measured up to the Band at their peak: that short list might include the first Miles Davis Quartet, Elvis Presley’s TCB Band, James Brown’s the JB’s, and NRBQ at the height of their powers.
 
The irony of their magisterial greatness was captured only too adroitly by a young Martin Scorsese in his 1978 concert film The Last Waltz, which chronicled the group playing in its original lineup for the final time at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom in 1976. Joined by luminaries like Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Dr. John, the group never sounded more incandescent. But juxtaposed with behind-the-scenes interviews, you see men terribly frayed by a lifetime turning rock and roll’s endless trick. “It’s a goddamn impossible way of life,” Robbie Robertson avers, looking close enough to death to take him at his word.
 
The Last Waltz was functionally the end of the Band, although members would periodically reconvene in various permutations throughout the ’70s and ’80s, always without Robertson. Manuel committed suicide in 1986 after a gig in Florida. Danko’s demise followed in 1999, dead of “drug related heart failure,” whatever that means. Last year, Levon Helm finally succumbed to a long-running battle with throat cancer, which finally silenced one of the most perfect voices that ever graced the tradition. It’s perhaps no surprise that the newly released (and critically acclaimed) documentary about Helm is titled Ain’t In It For My Health.
 
There is a sadness that gathers around the story of the Band, but also a sense of triumph. No one ever did it better or at such great cost. The weight, it transpires, was simply too onerous. With The Last Waltz 35 years old as of last week, and Ain’t In It For My Health in theaters now, it’s an apt moment to cull and discuss the very best songs from one of America’s very best rock groups.

10. “Stage Fright” (From Stage Fright, 1970)

The infectious, semi-autobiographical “Stage Fright” is an addicting plea to an audience that has become accustomed to the phenomenally extroverted performances of a group with the temerity to term themselves THE Band. Rarely has the push and pull of performance anxiety been articulated so forcefully — here the man with the stage fright suffers through every moment of his on-stage presentation, only to wish it could start all over again. A brilliant track in which the psychology of the compulsive performer is measured beneath a discerning microscope, with results only too elucidating.

9. “Twilight” (From Twilight Single, 1975)

One of the finest songs the Band ever rendered was something of an orphan, appearing first as a single and often included on group compilations. Nature figures prominently in many of the Band’s best songs, often depicted with a conflicted combination of love, awe, and terror. It is also most often a place of terrible isolation — a seeming reflection of the open road that is the closest thing the group had to a home. On this track Danko begs his lover not to leave him alone in the twilight, seemingly assured that the beauty of that “loneliest time of day” will undo him to treacherous effect. In the world of the Band, ugliness can mean salvation and beauty can be the most terrible thing to behold.

8. “The Shape I’m In” (From Stage Fright, 1970)

Both musically and thematically, the Band were masters of nuance, and Richard Manuel’s wry, telling vocal on “The Shape I’m In” is a perfect example – here he brings a nearly winsome air to this otherwise harrowing tale of complete physical and emotional dissolution. Abetted by a bouncing rhythm track and soul-inflected organ, this is the sound of the group barreling headlong toward oblivion, gallows humor fully intact. “Out of nine lives/ I spent seven/ Now how in the world/ do you get to heaven?”

7. “Ophelia” (From Northern Lights Southern Cross, 1975)

Aided by jaunty, New Orleans-style horns and a killer vocal from Levon Helm, “Ophelia” is the kind of unequaled, loose-limbed jam that the Band made sound easy, but few others could ever pull off. One of the group’s mesmerizing conjurer’s tricks is the ability to make a song move like lightning, while never seeming to be in any sort of rush themselves as players. That’s the magic of the groove, and “Ophelia” has a great one.

6. “Whispering Pines” (From The Band, 1969)

Like a gorgeous Northern cousin to Gram Parson’s “Hickory Wind,” the yearning “Whispering Pines” is one of the most intense and transporting four minutes in the history of the folk and rock tradition. Manuel’s lead vocals are stunning — somehow conveying a complex cocktail of vulnerability, hurt, and aspirational wonder that conveys the song’s central message about the awesome loneliness of life and nature. By the time he begins trading lines with Helm, “Whispering Pines” takes on the character of the most powerful devotional music. A visionary track possessed of an almost overpowering emotional pull.

5. “Up On Cripple Creek” (From The Band, 1969)

A delightful hobo’s travelogue, “Up On Cripple Creek” is the Band at their most convivial and comic, wedding an unforgettable melody to the musings of a thoroughly debauched narrator with an infectious lust for life. Helm’s vocals are a masterpiece of comic timing and light touch — he sings in the conversational manner of the world’s most entertaining drunk — spinning tales of racetracks and liquor shacks that make little sense, but can’t help but bring a smile. One of the more amusing earnest love songs in the entire rock tradition, the object of the singer’s affection is Bessie — an ideal mate who is always willing to nurse the singer back to health after a long bender: “A drunkard’s dream if I ever did see one.” Proof that the Band can be as funny as they are moving.  

4. “Acadian Driftwood” (From Northern Lights Southern Cross, 1975)

In the beautiful, moving “Acadian Driftwood,” Robertson tells the sad story of the French Acadians who were expelled from Canada by the British during the French and Indian war. “They signed a treaty/ And our homes were taken/ Loved ones forsaken/ They didn’t give a damn.” Danko, Manuel, and Helm all take a turn singing the verses, telling this heartbreaking tale of loss, alienation, and homesickness, giving voice to a people who didn’t have any say in their ultimate fate. 

3. “The Weight” (From Music From Big Pink, 1968)

“The Weight” is a quintessential instance of the incredible continuity between the different talents involved in the Band. It’s essentially a handful of shaggy dog stories (with a literal shaggy dog in there) — more or less a smattering of of quasi-Dylan anecdotes, which left to their own devices maybe don’t amount to anything in particular, but with Levon’s passionate reading and the near gospel-style arrangement, it takes on the character of something almost scriptural. It’s a perfect example of the greatness of the group as a full-fledged entity elevating what might as well have been just another pop song into the exalted arena of a true spiritual classic. 

2. “It Makes No Difference” (From Northern Lights Southern Cross, 1975)

The poignant centerpiece of the great Northern Lights/Southern Cross, the Danko-sung “It Makes No Difference” is an emotional cratering of such profound proportions that it can be difficult to recover from a casual listening. Detailing the living death of a narrator who has lost the love of his life, the stunningly gorgeous melody only deepens the sense of despair, as if to emphasize that there is surely beauty in the world, but it is simply inaccessible to the narrator. As the song stretches over six and a half unhurried minutes, a sense of resolution and finality takes shape, but there are no silver linings. Only the grave, if even that, can free the singer from the bondage of his sorrow. As powerful as soul music gets.

1. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (The Band, 1969)

Of the many strange mysteries that comprise the story of the Band, one of the principal ones is the manner in which they seem to exist outside the normal constraints of the time/space continuum. Although wildly popular in their own time amongst fans and critics alike, it is just as easy to imagine them as heroes of the 19th century vaudeville era, or the saloons and speakeasies of 1920s New Orleans. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is perhaps the greatest exemplar of that peculiar capacity — a perfectly plausible Civil War-era anthem, written and released in the late 1960s, and sounding absolutely nothing like a historical recreation or rote genre exercise. As he sings of the struggles of Confederate soldier Virgil Caine during the last days of the Old South, Helm sounds more than convincing. He sounds possessed, inhabited. The melody is pitch perfect and the arrangement typically stirring, bringing to bear the many contradictory elements that have made the Band perhaps the most imitated group that no one has ever managed to sound like. The song is soaring and painfully melancholy, indignant and sorrowful, rebellious and regretful. It feels epic, but is barely three and a half minutes long. It carries you away to places of exultant happiness and terrible misery — and then just like that, just like the group itself, it’s gone.  

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Comments (72)
  1. The Band is simply legendary

  2. Im okay with this list.

  3. Perhaps it may be due to its memorable use in My Name is Earl, but I’ve always interpreted “The Weight” as being about karma, in a way. If you do good things, good things will happen to you. The speaker goes into town to do some favor for Ms. Fanny/Annie and in return he gets a girlfriend and a dog. Dunno how the verse about Carmen and the devil play into that, though.

  4. I like this list. Then again, I love The Band, and as long as this wasn’t populated with Moondog Matinee cuts it was bound to be pretty solid. The top three strikes me as particularly on the mark. But I think you have to put “I Shall be Released” in the mix, and I would slot “The Unfaithful Servant” in pretty high as well, though I realize the latter opinion is far less common.

    Still, what a fucking great band. I’ve watched The Last Waltz enough that I have nightmares where a sweaty leisure-suit clad Van Morrison shows up out of the blue and shouts “TURN IT UP” at me repeatedly. I should probably skip that part from now on.

    • “VAN THE MAN!!!” Robbie gestured, confused at why a performer left the stage before the song he was performing was over…

    • God only knows how much alcohol was in Van Morrison’s system when he took the stage. Probably enough to knock out a medium-sized elephant.

    • Danko singing “It Makes No Difference” on The Last Waltz never fails to bring a tear to my eye. Right when his voices cracks on “it’s all I can DO”…Devastatingly beautiful.

  5. I’m so glad that “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is number one. Truly one of the greatest songs ever written. I would have liked to have maybe seen “Rockin’ Chair,” but still a great list.

  6. I can neither argue with, nor support the decisions of this list. This is one of those bands for which you could make a case that just about ANY of their songs belong on this list.

    One thing though, no “Rag Mama Rag” OR “Rockin’ Chair”? For real?

  7. And now for a quick debate starter:

    The Band “The Shape I’m In” OR Belle and Sebastian “The State That I Am In”

    Discuss…

  8. Great band, great list. Levon Helm’s performances on Ophelia and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down from The Last Waltz give me goosebumps every time I watch them. Incredible voice.

  9. It’s a perfect list, though almost any list of songs from The Band would be perfect. My personal favorites are Chest Fever and When I Paint My Masterpiece. When Levon died, I listened to Masterpiece on my way home from work and wept.

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  11. I’d have certainly put “King Harvest” in the top ten. “Twilight” is a fine song, but “King Harvest” bookends the “brown album” (along with “Dixie”) as a touching portrait of rural American life. The vocal by Richard is one of his best, and Robbie does one of his “he really knows what not to play” solos.

    • Yeah, “King Harvest” is the one omission that irks me the most. Well, that and “When I Paint My Masterpiece.”

      1. Acadian Driftwood
      2. The Weight (feat. The Staple Singers
      3. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
      4. When I Paint My Masterpiece
      5. It Makes No Difference
      6. King Harvest (Has Surely Come)
      7. When You Awake
      8. Ophelia
      9. Home Cookin’
      10. Rockin Chair

  12. I agree that the absences of “I Shall be Released” and “The Unfaithful Servant” are problematic.

    Otherwise, hard to screw up a list like this, providing you don’t put something off HIGH ON THE HOG at number one.

  13. Phew. You didn’t blow it. Would have loved a little love thrown Cahoots’ way. It’s a truly underrated record that boasts a couple aboslute classics in “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and “Life Is A Carnival” as well as a whole bunch of rewarding deep cuts. But I won’t complain because you go out of your way to pump Northern Lights-Souther Cross’ tires. I think, if push came to shove, I might have “Acadian Driftwood” as my No. 1, ahead of even “Dixie.”
    Also, including “Twilight” is great. There are a few late-era singles that just rule: “Twilight,” “Endless Highway” and the amazing “Home Cookin’”
    There’s an acoustic version Danko did on his Cryin’ Heart Blues album that might be the definitive version.
    There are few albums in the history of anything as rich and complete as their self-titled album.

  14. there was never a prominent “Miles Davis Quartet” and besides that the second Quintet reached heights of musical innovation and brilliant collective spontaneity untouched by the first, far more conventional one.

    • You’re right – we meant “quintet” but for whatever reason the eyes just glazed over and instead “quartet” was typed. As to the second being better than the first, an interesting argument but not sure we can sign off – this could just be personal preferences talking (they were both amazing).

      • well moreover there were a lot of personnel changes in the first great quintet whereas the second one had a consistent lineup and also featured a lot more of band members’ original compositions. it just doesn’t seem to make sense to compare the first as an ‘outfit’ to the band when the second one did such incredible work as a longtime collective creatively progressing as a whole….like the band

    • Totally understand you’re love for the Quintets, but I do have a soft spot for some of those Quartet recordings. I mean come on, you’ve got either Art Blakey or Max Roach on drums depending on the session. Not bad.

  15. The Band are one of my all-ttime favorites, and Levon was a particular hero of mine. If anyone’s interested in the controversial back story behind the Band, you should read Levons book This Wheel’s On Fire. It’s a classic.
    Love this list, and love the article.
    Stereogum, Timothy and Elizabeth should write every one of these lists for you.
    Nicely done.

  16. I would have thrown in a few more from Big Pink like “Tears of Rage”, “We Can Talk”, or “Caledonia Mission” but otherwise a great list. Can’t go wrong with much of their catalog.

  17. I clicked on this thinking “If The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down isn’t number 1, somebody is going to die.” Everyone is safe tonight.

  18. A good list. There are so many to choose from, but I would have included “Rockin’ Chair” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece” (there’s a really great version of the latter on a Bob Dylan anniversary tribute album I’ve been trying to track down). My wife would insist on “Don’t Do It,” one they nail, albeit a cover. So much more, like the Basement Tapes, but only 10 choices. The best band ever–really, the best two bands–with and without Dylan.

  19. You know what The Band song is awesome? “Chest Fever.”

  20. Bessie Smith is a very gorgeous song, it ended up on The Basement Tapes, but man, that’s one of their best ballads, a criminally underrated song. Altough it was covered by some guys, it’s usually ignored.

  21. I can’t accept a Band list that omits King Harvest … and decry the absence of Rockin’ Chair, although I appreciate that last one is personal. But no King Harvest? Come ON.

  22. How can you possibly limit it to only ten?? The Band’s songs are simply among the greatest songs of all time. The Band is timeless,, iconic and they have never been duplicated. I’m so happy that this Incredible group of five is finally getting the recognition, accolades and mass acclaim that they have been due. It was a long, hard, sad struggle for most of them. Needn’t say anymore. This was a great article and beautifully written. If only it had a happier ending.

  23. This is one of the best pieces of rock journalism I’ve ever read. kudos

  24. It should have been a Top 11 list, and Just Another Whistle Stop should have been on it. We had a local band who covered this song and I could never figure out why it wasn’t at least as big as Dixie. This thing lurches all around the room like a drunk best friend who you let get away with it. I’m just sayin’.

  25. Whatever happened to Cahoots?4% Pantomime, f’rinstance.

  26. We went up to Griffith Park, we a fifth of Johnnie Walker Red. Smashed it on a rock…

    Well, you get the rest.

  27. While I acknowlage the fact that these lists are entirely subjective, I seriously can’t see including Ophelia on any Top Ten list, especially at the expense of Chest Fever, When You Awake, King Harvest, Jawbone,, This Wheel’s on Fire, Tears of Rage, Rag Mama Rag….. pretty much anything off the first two albums, and you can tag Strawberry Wine and Daniel and The Sacred Harp on there too. Also, It Makes No Difference, while containing one of Danko’s finest vocals, is too overwrought lyrically to stand amongst the best of The Band’s work, especially so near the top.

  28. Also, Ronnie Hawkins is from Arkansas.

  29. Glad to see some Band love, but “King Harvest” needs to be in the top 3. And yet it’s not on the list at all. Other omissions are natural and acceptable and it’s not a bad list at all (no “Tears of Rage” – nice!), but King Harvest is a monster.

  30. CHEST FEVER?

  31. Oh man, these lists are slippery. Well written and good points across the board. Ten just isn’t enough to do a band like this justice. I just made my own CD of favorites by The Band and couldn’t quite slide them all onto one 79 minute disc.

    That said, if this could be a baker’s dozen, I’d ask you to consider “Life is a Carnival”, “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, and “Blind Willie McTell” to round out the list.

    But, then, of course, there’s “Mystery Train”, “Long Black Veil”, “Atlantic City”, “Endless Highway”, “Evangeline”, “Don’t Do It”, “”Across the Great Divide”, “Chest Fever”…

    Great list, though. You’ve nailed some very essential essentials.

    • Band fans should check out the new ebook “The Book of Levon: The Trials and Triumphs of Levon Helm,” a beautiful piece of writing by Jamie Malanowski about the struggles in the latter part part of Levon’s career, and his triumphant creative rebirth with the Midnight Rambles. Available digitally at amazon.com, and in paperback at lulu.com.

    • Love the props thrown Atlantic City’s way. Probably the high point of the 90′s Band.

  32. Great job! So hard to choose only 10 songs are from a band that wrote so many great ones. I love that ‘Acadian Driftwood’ was included. I would have to cheat and include the ‘Night They Drove Old Dixie Down > Across The Great Divide’ combo from Rock Of Ages as a two-for-one on my personal list!

  33. I’m down with the top five, but I’d have “King Harvest” at 6, “Unfaithful Servant” at 7, and “Rockin’ Chair” at 9. I like the commentary, this guy clearly loves and “gets” the group.

  34. This list is spot on

  35. you could have had them all from the self titled record. perfect album!

  36. I’m really happy to see so much love for “It Makes No Difference.” It’s one of the greatest songs ever written, period, but gets overlooked next to other Band classics. Awesome list.

  37. Tears of Rage has got to be one of the most amazing 1st album openers I’ve ever heard, a little surprised it didn’t make this fine list

  38. Special props to Mavis Staples for channeling Beelzebub during the Grammy performance of “The Weight”.

  39. My favorite thing about this article/list is the Northern Lights + Southern Cross props – they had a tough run with Moondog Matinee & Cahoots, but NL+SC was absolutely awesome – better than Stage Fright for my money.

  40. Goddamn. You look at those dudes, and then you listen to those dudes, and then you realize that they were the coolest motherfuckaz ever.

  41. One of the greatest bands ever. This was such an unnecessary list, for the reader that is, of course Stereogum loves these things because they generate page hits.

    The Last Waltz shaped my love of almost all these songs, as I’m sure it did for many others scouring this message board. Don’t Do it, Caravan with Van Morrison and Helpless with Neil Young are among a lot of other unforgettable moments, even for a 25 year old who never came close to living through any of it.

  42. When I discovered them some years ago (thanks to Dylan), I thought they were just another great band. But they are THE Band. The name says it all.

  43. “King Harvest” is a masterpiece, and should have been included. Not only for the lyrical and vocal struggling with despair, but for the subtleties and of the musically arrangements. The pulse of the rhythm section drives the song. Both the vocal and musical performances progress throughout, and just as the vocals fade away, they are replaced by a whoppingly understated guitar solo that begins with a quite emotion and builds to an angry climax, and then The Band just fades away to an emotionally spent ending.

    I listened to “Twilight” for years and the lyrics never made sense; they seemed to come and go with no connectivity. Then I heard from a Viet Nam veteran Marine and it all came together: “The Band understood, understood the whys of why we where in Nam, not the war, but the bullet catcher that didn’t come home and of those who did, Rick Danko [sang] about falling in love, but the love we had was for the dumb grunt who was in the mud, blood, and the beer with you. The Twilight for us was our 13 month tour and the wonderful homecoming greetings. If you thought it was ugly on TV, you have seen in color.” Now, the lyrics all made sense.

    Notably absent from this list is the song that Robbie called “the best song I’m ever going to be able to write,” “Rags and Bones”, an evocative tune with stunning musicianship.

  44. no I shall be released?

  45. I Shall Be Released, Tears of Rage, and When I Paint My Masterpiece, while all incredible, were all written by Bob Dylan, perhaps the reason for their absence. Also, Dylan painted the album cover of Music From the Big Pink.

  46. Another vote for Chest Fever.

    Best song about The Band – Danko/Manuel, by The Drive-By Truckers

  47. Really great! Thank you. The introduction is especially well done.
    Now if I could only shake that horrible The National best of…

  48. Kinda love this list! — Whispering Pines and Acadian Driftwood FTW. But I agree, Chest Fever maybe in place of Ophelia or Twilight? I like them both, but Chest Fever is more interesting . . .

  49. I usually want to strangle someone when I read these lists…but looking at this one, I want to run over there and give you guys a hug…although I think “It Makes No Difference” should be #1.

  50. I think ‘Time To Kill” is underrated but is my favorite.

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