It’s hard to think of a simpler moniker than The Band. When given the history of the group, no other name could be a better fit.
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The Band – Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm – first made their rounds in the music industry as the backing band for many notable musicians.
Between 1958 and 1963, the group landed a gig with rockabilly icon Ronnie Hawkins and became known as the Hawks. In ’63, the group parted ways with Hawkins over artistic differences. The band wanted to play original material and were wary of Hawkins’ heavy-handed leadership.
“Eventually, [Hawkins] built us up to the point where we outgrew his music and had to leave,” Robertson once said. “He shot himself in the foot, really, bless his heart, by sharpening us into such a crackerjack band that we had to go on out into the world, because we knew what his vision was for himself, and we were all younger and more ambitious musically.”
The first iteration of their autonymous act was dubbed the Levon Helm Sextet, with their sixth member being saxophone player Jerry Penfound. Then they moved on to the moniker Levon and the Hawks after Penfound left the group.
In ’65, Bob Dylan hired the band for a tour of the U.S. It was after this tour that they moved to New York, with Dylan’s help, and made the informal recordings that became the fan-loved The Basement Tapes. Because they were always known as “the band” to various frontmen and the locals in Woodstock, Helm decided to brand the outfit with their enduring moniker, The Band.
Dylan Goes Electric
The Band was playing with The Bard when he made the controversial decision to go electric in 1965. Robertson later recalled that period of time as a “war” that forged a “brotherhood” between the group and Dylan forever.
“When people boo you night after night, it can affect your confidence,” Robertson once told the Guardian. “Anybody else would have said, ‘Well, the audience isn’t liking this, let’s change what we’re doing.’ We didn’t budge. We went out there and just played this music, and the more they booed, the louder we got.
“Inside of us we felt, ‘This is a revolution and we’re part of this revolution, and we’re going to go through with it,'” he continued. “It was like we went through the war together. We’re going to be in it forever, just because of what we went through.”
The Band released their first album Music from Big Pink in 1968 to widespread acclaim. The album contained three songs co-written by Dylan: “This Wheel’s on Fire,” “Tears of Rage” and “I Shall Be Released.” The album also contained one of The Band’s biggest songs “The Weight.”
The success of the album prompted the group to go on a standalone tour, including an appearance at Woodstock (though their appearance was left out of the famed film because of legal complications).
The same year, they headed to Los Angeles to record their self-titled follow-up to their debut. The arrangements of that record stood in contrast to other popular music at the time. The Band featured songs that evoked images of rural America, from the Civil War to the unionization of farm workers. Several artists made similar moves at the same time including Dylan (John Wesley Harding) and the Byrds (Sweetheart of the Rodeo).
This era of The Band sparked lavish praise from the press. Rolling Stone‘s Greil Marcus created an entire mystique around the group through his articles. They also became the second rock group to be featured on the cover of Time magazine, following in the footsteps of the Beatles.
Following the release of their third album, Stage Fright, Robertson started to take control of the group, creating a sense of contention between himself and Helm.
The Last Waltz
Despite growing tensions, the group did manage to weather the storm for several years, sharing many more fan-loved albums.
By the mid-’70s, Robertson had grown weary of touring and their releases were starting to fall short of commercial expectations. Following Manuel suffering a severe neck injury, Robertson urged The Band to retire from performing together after staging a massive “farewell concert,” known as The Last Waltz.
The show was held on Thanksgiving Day of 1976 at the Winterland Ballroom in California. The group brought up a number of special guests that punctated their career including Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Hawkins, Dylan, Muddy Waters, Dr. John, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Ronnie Wood, Bobby Charles, Neil Diamond and Paul Butterfield.
Martin Scorsese captured the night in a film of the same name. The project has gone on to be one of the most iconic concert films of all time.
(Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns)