Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Band [extended]

  • The Band [Capitol, 1969]
  • Stage Fright [Capitol, 1970] B+
  • Cahoots [Capitol, 1971] B-
  • Rock of Ages [Capitol, 1972] B
  • Moondog Matinee [Capitol, 1973] B+
  • Before the Flood [Asylum, 1974] A
  • The Basement Tapes [Columbia, 1975] A+
  • Northern Lights--Southern Cross [Capitol, 1975] B+
  • Islands [Capitol, 1977] C+
  • The Last Waltz [Warner Bros., 1978] B+
  • Anthology [Capitol, 1978] B-
  • The Best of the Band Volume II [Rhino, 1999] *

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Band [Capitol, 1969]
[CG70s: A Basic Record Library; CG80: Rock Library: Before 1980]

Stage Fright [Capitol, 1970]
I've gone both ways with this group--if Music from Big Pink didn't tempt me away from my urban fastness, The Band did manage to make me jump around in my apartment. What gets in the way of this follow-up, however, is neither natural alienation nor critical overanticipation--it's the music itself, which simply overmatches the words. The tunes are so bright and doughty, and the musicians pitch in with so much will, that the domestic banalities of side one seem out of place in a way those of Delaney & Bonnie, say, never do. And if the settings are too complex for what Robbie Robertson knows, they're too unfocused for what he doesn't know, as the confused politico-philosophical grapplings on side two make agonizingly clear. Memorable as most of these songs are, they never hook in--never give up the musical-verbal phrase that might encapsulate their every-which-way power. Which perhaps means that they don't have much to say. B+

Cahoots [Capitol, 1971]
Whew, these fellows can really play. They cook on "Smoke Signal," and you should hear the guitar solo on "Last of the Blacksmiths." Seem overly worried about the passing of the world as they know it, though--not just blacksmiths, but eagles, rivers, trains, the works. B-

Rock of Ages [Capitol, 1972]
This live double introduces a couple of covers, a "new" song they've been playing for years, and the seven-minute organ precede with which Garth Hudson protracts "Chest Fever" in advance, while finding room for only one song from their most recent (and worst) studio album. Yet admirers claim it as a masterwork rather than a commercial stopgap. Nonsense. Given the Band's ordinary woodenness in performance, the playing and singing are spirited, and Allen Toussaint's horn arrangements add genuine punch instead of the usual fuss, although they never reshape--as oppose to redecorate--the material. But this is clearly the testament of artists who are looking backwards because the future presents itself as a vacuum--a problem that has afflicted even their best work. B

Moondog Matinee [Capitol, 1973]
Since I never expected this talented rock group to guide me through the travails of life--mostly because there was too much goddam travail in their music--I regard this album not as an aesthetic reverse but as an uncommonly well-selected and -performed buncha oldies. Not as many good tunes as on Stage Fright, I'll grant you, but the lyrics are better. B+

Bob Dylan/The Band: Before the Flood [Asylum, 1974]
At its best, this is the craziest and strongest rock and roll ever recorded. All analogous live albums fall flat. The Rolling Stones are mechanical dolls by comparison, the Faces merely sloppy, the Dead positively quiet. The MC5 achieved something similar by ignoring musicianship altogether, but while the Band sounds undisciplined, threatening to destroy their headlong momentum by throwing out one foot or elbow too many, they never abandon their enormous technical ability. In this they follow the boss. When he sounded thin on Planet Waves, so did they. Now his voice settles in at a rich bellow, running over his old songs like a truck. I agree that a few of them will never walk again, but I treasure the sacrilege; Uncle Bob purveying to the sports arena masses. We may never even know whether this is a masterpiece. A

Bob Dylan/The Band: The Basement Tapes [Columbia, 1975]
These are the famous lost demos recorded at Big Pink in 1967 and later bootlegged on The Great White Wonder and elsewhere. Of the eighteen Dylan songs, thirteen have been heard in cover versions, one by Dylan himself; the six Band songs have never even been bootlegged and are among their best. Because the Dylan is all work tape, the music is certifiably unpremeditated, lazy as a river and rarely relentless or precise--laid back without complacency or slickness. The writerly "serious" songs like "Tears of Rage" are all the richer for the company of his greatest novelties--if "Going to Acapulco" is a dirge about having fun, "Don't Ya Tell Henry" is a ditty about separation from self, and both modes are enriched by the Band's more conventional ("realistic") approach to lyrics. We needn't bow our heads in shame because this is the best album of 1975. It would have been the best album of 1967 too. And it's sure to sound great in 1983. A+

Northern Lights--Southern Cross [Capitol, 1975]
I've always been put off by the sprung quality of the Band's music--the sense that if someone were to undo the catch its works would be propelled forth in all directions. Instead of energizing the impulse to piece together the lyrics--in the manner of the Stones, not to mention Bob Dylan--the sound of albums like Music From Big Pink and Stage Fright (though not The Band or The Basement Tapes) tends to reinforce their own metaphorical impenetrability. So the pure comeliness of every melody on this album led to an immediate infatuation. As I listened to the words, however, infatuation turned to mild affection, for the best of these songs is sentimental, and the worst (the two that are set in the city) are grossly sentimental. Only Garth Hudson, who has turned into a synthesizer natural, saves things in the end, and just barely. B+

Islands [Capitol, 1977]
Even true believers admit that this sounds like a listless farewell to old habits--recording as a group on Capitol, for instance. The best song is about the baby Jesus and almost made me gag first time I heard it; the second best is about a traveling evangelist and strikes a familiar note; and the third best is a remake that sounds like one. C+

The Last Waltz [Warner Bros., 1978]
The movie improves when you can't see it--Robbie Robertson and friends don't play anywhere near as smug as they look (or talk). And for an olio featuring eleven guest vocalists and a studio "suite," the soundtrack is remarkably coherent. The four new Band tunes are nothing special, but everybody lays into the oldies. The blues sequence--beefed up by Toussaint's horns, Butterfield's harp, Muddy's pipes, and a blistering if messy Robertson-Clapton duet--is a small landmark, Morrison and Young are worth going back to, and Dylan's "Baby Let Me Follow You Down" is spunky enough to make up for "Forever Young." Not only that, Joni Mitchell and Neil Diamond are on the same side. Bet this ages a lot better than Woodstock--in a way, it already has. B+

Anthology [Capitol, 1978]
Well, it salvages Stage Fright and Cahoots. But not on the same side. B-

The Best of the Band Volume II [Rhino, 1999]
Pretty fair country bar group/cover band ("Blind Willie McTell," "Atlantic City"). *

See Also