By: Andy Tennille
The smiling elephant.
It was the ivory-tusked elephant inexplicably standing among the musicians on the cover of Music from the Big Pink that likely first drew my attention to the dusty copy of The Band's 1968 debut masterpiece among my father's vinyl collection in the cabinet underneath his well-stocked liquor cabinet.
Pulling the well-worn record out from the gatefold and placing it on the turntable, I stared with bewildered amazement at the bizarre album cover as the first strained notes of Richard Manuel's "Tears of Rage" piped over my parents' hi-fi system. Why was the piano player being wrestled over the top of the upright piano, and what kind of band (other than perhaps the Village People) had a feather-sporting Indian playing the stand-up bass? And why exactly was a purple coffee cup perched precariously atop the seated sitar player's head?
Like so much of the music found during one's childhood, my discovery of The Band as a curious 12-year-old was based mainly on my adolescent attraction to Bob Dylan's quirky folk art portrait on the album cover.
The Band by Elliot Landy
It's funny how readily we remember those first landmark experiences discovering music that will forever affect our lives. Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools was a 12-year-old kid living in Richmond, Virginia when the first wave of press hit for The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese's concert movie of the group's final performance at San Francisco's Winterland in 1976.
"I remember my friend Joey and I rode our bikes down to the Byrd Theater in Richmond to go see it, not because we had any appreciation for who The Band was or that we knew any of their songs or even that Scorsese was a cool director. We were excited mainly because Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton and Neil Young were going to be in it," Schools recalls. "We were blown away by The Band and went back five or six times, every time riding our bikes down to the Byrd Theater to see it. Every time we went, we fell in love with The Band more and more. The songs were so disparate, from things like 'Unfaithful Servant' to 'The Shape I'm In' to 'Life is a Carnival' to 'Genetic Method/Chest Fever' to the rockabilly of 'Don't Want to Hang Up My Rock 'n Roll Shoes.' Look, any number of musicians in this day and age would kill to have written just one of those songs and have it be part of their catalogue. And they just flipped 'em out like biscuits out of an oven. The stories and their characters are these little passion plays. It's not just some three minute and thirty-eight second piece of fuckin' advertising – it's great American music. That's gonna stand the test of time over and over and over. So, like many people in my generation, seeing The Last Waltz was our introduction to The Band. It just sucked that this band that we now loved but had never heard of before was not going to be coming to a coliseum near you."
Dave Schools by Aaron Williams
Like so many other kids growing up, Warren Haynes' introduction to The Band came as a teenager listening to the music emanating from beneath his older siblings' bedroom doors.
"My oldest brother had a few of their records and I started hearing them in the background around the house. I remember wondering what it was because they sounded so different than anything else I was hearing," says the Allman Brothers Band guitarist and Gov't Mule frontman. "Lyrically, the songs were all stories, like little mini history lessons. The way The Band put the music and the lyrics together took you back in time as opposed to a lot of other music from that era that was more modern. The Band's music always made me feel like I was time traveling, both lyrically and musically. They really took all forms of American music and combined it into this unique sound. They didn't modernize it. They just came up with a unique hybrid that no one had ever discovered. I think that's one of the things that makes that music so timeless now is that it fits into any decade. Even though most of the guys were Canadian, their music was a picture of Americana."
Warren Haynes by Dino Perrucci
"As a singer, as a player, as a songwriter and even as a listener, The Band's music has been a constant source of inspiration," Haynes continues. "It's very grounding in a lot of ways. As a songwriter and a musician, you always want to find ways of pushing yourself and going further than you've ever been. And then you listen to The Band and you find that they achieved that by looking backwards. It's something we all need to remind ourselves of."
Haynes isn't the only musician that considers The Band's catalogue instructive. Tea Leaf Green keysman and chief songwriter Trevor Garrod first found The Band's music through raiding his father's vinyl collection in search of his old man's Dylan records.
Trevor Garrod by Josh Miller
"I've always kinda thought of The Band as teachers – they teach me as a songwriter how to pull off good songwriting and still keep it rockin'," Garrod explains. "I've learned a lot about songwriting by listening to their music and seeing how they put their songs together. I've been trying to rip them off ever since I saw The Last Waltz. Creating music is all about imitation and then trying to mutate something you learned from someone else to make it your own. You have to choose who you want to imitate and then mutate it. The Band is definitely one of my favorite sources. They're like an oil well for my engine."
The epitome of The Band's influence on today's generation of rock musicians may not be felt any stronger than with Jason Isbell, the Muscle Shoals, Alabama-based singer, songwriter, guitarist and former member of the Drive-By Truckers. Whether it's his reverence for Southern lore and mythology in his songwriting or his fragile, Rick Danko-like vocal range, Isbell quite obviously has borrowed a thing or two from The Band over the years, culminating in his beautifully haunting tribute to the group "Danko/Manuel" off the Truckers' fantastic 2004 album, The Dirty South.
Jason Isbell by Dave Vann
"The Band has an influence on modern music that seems to be revealing itself more and more as time goes on," Isbell says. "I wrote 'Danko/Manuel' after reading a book about The Band called This Wheel's On Fire. Early on in the book, Levon Helm discusses finding Richard Manuel dead in his hotel room and the half-joking pact they'd made years before that if someone died on the road, they'd put him on ice and bring him home in a storage bay under the bus. That made me think a lot about the fragile nature of life on the road and the difference between the beautiful music Danko and Manuel made and the horrible ways they died."
On April 24, a whole new generation of music fans will have the opportunity to meet Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson for the first time through The Band: The Best Of A Musical History, a two-disc compilation of both audio and video recordings culled from the critically acclaimed, career-spanning box set, A Musical History, released last year. To celebrate the occasion, Robbie Robertson sat down with JamBase to talk about the genesis of The Band, the promise Ronnie Hawkins made when he joined The Hawks, his first meeting with Bob Dylan, his favorite covers of The Band's music and his thoughts about not reforming The Band one last time before Richard Manuel's passing.