The Band was a popular music group that spanned for many decades with members including Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Levon Helm. They performed with some of music’s biggest artists such as Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, and Crosby, Stills and Nash.
Songs such as “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and “I Shall Be Released” helped them emerge as some of history’s most influential artists. Although unfortunate circumstances tore the group apart, their legacy continues to live on through their timeless songs and the connections they made in the industry.
When They Were The Hawks
Before The Band became a hit rock group the members were gradually joining another band called The Hawks. This started in 1958 when they played backup for a Toronto-based rockabilly singer named Ronnie Hawkins. Most of the members were eager to join The Hawks, except for Garth Hudson who was only doing it as a hobby.
By the early 1960s, they were considered to be the best rock band in the Toronto area, but that was all about to change. Hawkins forced the other members of the band to work all night after already playing long shows and they split in late 1963 over creative differences.
Meeting Bob Dylan
After splitting from Hawkins they changed their name to Levon and the Hawks. Around mid-1965 they were recommended by blues singer John Hammond, Jr. to play backup for Bob Dylan. One of their friends happened to be the secretary for Dylan’s manager and she told him to visit them in Toronto.
Dylan admired the musical stylings of Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm and invited them to go on tour with him. Both Robertson and Helm stayed loyal to their other bandmates and made Dylan promise to hire the rest of them for his tour as well.
The Final Name Switch
Bob Dylan started his next tour in September of 1965 and the entire group was billed as Bob Dylan and the Band. This is the first time they were referred to by their new name, and they thought it fit because they were always called “the band” when performing with various frontmen.
Most of their early concerts didn’t go too well because Bob Dylan and the majority of The Band were under the influence of amphetamines. Helm couldn’t take the negative criticism and left the tour after a month to go work on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, but eventually reunited with the other members.
The Sessions At Big Pink
For the next couple of years, Dylan did recording sessions with The Band. The earlier sessions weren’t as successful as expected with them only being able to use a handful of singles. On July 29, 1966, Dylan got into a motorcycle accident, which forced him to retreat into seclusion in Woodstock, New York.
When Dylan invited the members of The Band to visit him they rented a nearby house in West Saugerties and nicknamed it “Big Pink.” Over the next month, Dylan and The Band recorded some demos, but The Band were also starting to write new music of their own.
A New Beginning For The Band
In 1968 The Band released their debut album titled Music from Big Pink, which became widely successful across the country. It included three songs co-written by Dylan (“This Wheel’s on Fire,” “Tears of Rage,” and “I Shall Be Released”). Most famously it had “The Weight.” After that song was featured in the movie Easy Rider it soon became their number one hit.
Their music was so well-liked among fans that they were invited to do some live appearances, including the Woodstock Music Festival and the Isle of Wight Festival. Soon after, they traveled to Los Angeles to work on their next album.
How The Band Set Themselves Apart From The Rest
Their next album was self-titled and came out the following year. The Band knew their previous music had received a positive reaction, so they were ready to try something new. They decided to change their style both physically and musically.
The new album featured a more rustic appearance on the cover, and their songs and arrangements were nothing like other music that was released during the late 1960s. Each song evoked the feeling of a rural-America such as describing the Civil War in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” to the unionization of farm workers in “King Harvest (Has Surely Come).”
They Received Critical Acclaim
The Band were critically acclaimed by numerous publications for their innovative work on their first two albums. Rolling Stone consistently praised them in articles written by famed music critic Greil Marcus, which helped them reach a bigger audience. Also, they became the first rock group to be featured on the cover of Time magazine after the Beatles, who’d received the honor two years prior.
All of this attention gave them the chance to embark on a tour of their own where they were the lead act. As fame started getting to their heads it led them to take a different approach with their music moving forward.
The Band Experienced Stage Fright
It’s quite common for celebrities to experience anxiety regarding newfound fame. Their third album, Stage Fright, was filled with songs that had darker themes with feelings of alienation and fear. Stage Fright was engineered by famed musician Todd Rundgren with Robbie Robertson writing the majority of the songs.
It didn’t receive as many great reviews as their previous albums due to the heavier subject matter, but years later some contemporary critics found that there was a lot of honesty and depth to their writing.
Tension Is Starting To Rise
Since Robertson was writing most of the songs for The Band he started to exert greater control over their endeavors. This led to a clash between him and Helm, who thought that Robertson was being too greedy and authoritative. Robertson fought back explaining that the reason he was showing more control was because the other members were becoming very unreliable due to unfortunate circumstances.
Even though the group was at odds, they completed their next album titled Cahoots where they collaborated with Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. During this period they worked with Allen Toussaint, who came up with unforgettable horn arrangements for their tracks.
A Big Farewell Concert
Robbie Robertson had grown tired of touring by 1976 and thought it would be best if The Band retired. The best way he thought to do this would be a massive farewell concert, which became known as The Last Waltz. On Thanksgiving that year they held a turkey dinner for 5,000 fans and performed what would be the final show of the original lineup.
Martin Scorsese filmed the entire thing and there were numerous special guest singers including Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, and Neil Diamond.
It Wasn’t The Same After The Last Waltz
After completing The Last Waltz farewell concert film they released their seventh studio album, Islands, which ended their contract with Capitol Records. Five years passed until they embarked on another tour sans Robertson, but their popularity had diminished and they were back to playing smaller venues.
From around 1983 to 1999 The Band would occasionally reunite for special concert events such as Bob Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration or their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A few years later Robertson bought the rights to The Band from every member, except for Helm.
They Inspired Some Great Artists
Even though The Band doesn’t make music anymore doesn’t mean that they didn’t inspire other influential artists along the way. Many significant performers such as Pink Floyd, Phish, Elton John, Led Zeppelin, George Harrison, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young all cite The Band as one of the best groups of all time.
Eric Clapton even stated that The Band’s Music from Big Pink caused him to quit Cream to pursue a solo career. Also, George Harrison’s single “All Things Must Pass” was heavily influenced by The Band and he even imagined Helm for the vocals.
The Band Heads To The Big Screen In A New Documentary
The world may be wondering what Robertson has been up to since his split from The Band in the mid-1970s. Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band is an upcoming documentary that chronicles Robertson’s early life and how The Band came together. It features interviews from some of their biggest supporters including Martin Scorsese, Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, and Van Morrison.
The documentary will be out in theaters on February 21, 2020, and will include rare archival footage from their concerts, behind-the-scenes photos, and a showcase of their historic music journey. It’s executive produced by Scorsese, Brian Grazer, and Ron Howard.
Robertson And Scorsese Became Best Friends
Robertson and Scorsese became close friends after the filming of The Last Waltz and they even lived together for a while. They became frequent collaborators, with Robertson sourcing and scoring some of Scorsese’s films such as The Irishman, The Wolf of Wall Street, Shutter Island, and Gangs of New York.
When Robertson worked in the music department for Scorsese’s Raging Bull it sparked his interest in scoring movies. Most recently, the two collaborated on Robertson’s documentary about his early life and time with The Band called Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band.
Why Levon Helm’s Name May Sound Familiar
Levon Helm was considered one of the most soulful members of The Band with a Southern-accented singing voice, original drumming style, and powerful ability to master multiple instruments. Helm alone got the attention of some of music’s greatest singers including George Harrison, Mumford & Sons, Roger Waters, Gregg Allman, and Elton John.
John’s lyricist and longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin named “Levon” after Helm, even though the song itself isn’t about him. Taupin shared that he and John would often go down to record stores to purchase The Band’s newest albums because of their love for Helm.
The Band’s Memorable Woodstock Performance
The Band had quite an interesting set at the Woodstock Music Festival when they played one of the last slots at 10 p.m. on closing night. They performed a total of 11 songs, which included “The Weight,” “This Wheel’s on Fire,” and “I Shall Be Released.”
Videos and photos from their performance show what a rough condition the festival site was in, with dressing areas turned into emergency rooms and seriously muddy fields from the heavy storms. Luckily, the harsh conditions didn’t stop The Band from playing their hearts out.
Robertson And Helm’s Constant Feuding
Almost every one of the songs released by The Band has Robertson credited as either the writer or co-writer. This allowed him to receive most of the songwriting royalties attributed to their music, which upset the rest of the group.
Helm said that every song was a collaboration between all members of The Band in his biography, which bass guitarist and vocalist Rick Danko completely agreed on. When the group split Helm became a solo artist, but the majority of his songs were written by other people.
Robertson Saved Bob Dylan’s Life
When Bob Dylan and The Band were near the end of their tour in England they were set to meet with the Beatles at a local hotel. According to Robertson, Dylan was very strung out and decided to take a bath to calm himself down.
Robertson left him alone and went to tell the Beatles that Dylan was “just freshening up.” When Robertson returned to Dylan he found him completely submerged under the water. Luckily, Dylan had just recently slipped under and Robertson brought him back up to the surface.
Robertson Wrote “The Weight” In One Sitting
Robertson explained to The New Yorker that even though he is responsible for writing the majority of The Band’s songs he has a difficult time describing his creative process. One of The Band’s most iconic songs is “The Weight.” Robertson wrote all the lyrics in one sitting and the song is praised for its surreal tone and creative biblical storyline.
He cited Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel as his main songwriting influence due to his contrasting real and mythical imagery. Robertson stated that his creative imagination combined with vivid life experiences shape his lyrics as well.
The Band: Where Are They Now?
As of today, there are only two surviving members of the original lineup of The Band: Robertson and Garth Hudson. After the group’s breakup Hudson performed on movie soundtracks with artists such as Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison and he also became a solo artist.
Aside from collaborating with Scorsese in scoring and sourcing movie soundtracks Robertson also became a solo artist, soundtrack producer, and actor. Even though there was hostility between the members, Robertson recently admitted that every one of them were like brothers to him.