9. “I Shall Be Released”
The version found on The Basement Tapes is pretty great, with Dylan singing lead and Danko and Manuel harmonizing. Still, there is no comparison to the take that closes out Music From Big Pink. From that icy opening piano note to the final sigh of harmony, there isn’t a moment that fails to induce chills. Dylan’s song about a prisoner yearning for spiritual freedom gets the ultimate reading from Manuel, who sings in an achingly high voice wracked with loneliness and longing.
8. “The Rumor”
Stage Fright is The Band’s darkest album, and this ominous song serves as the ideal closing track for it. The three main singers brilliantly trade off on the lead vocal on this cautionary tale about allowing false information to gain traction in a community, making it a second cousin to Dylan’s “Idiot Wind.” When Manuel sings in the chorus, “It’s a-comin’, a brand new day,” the irony is evident in the downbeat music, which is highlighted by Robertson’s brief, emotional solo in the bridge.
7. “We Can Talk”
The Band had a grasp on just about every form of American music, so it’s no surprise they could take on gospel as well as they do on this joyous track off Music From Big Pink. It’s a typically idiosyncratic Manuel composition, with a sauntering bridge that seems completely out of character with the rest of the song and lyrics about milking cows and eternal ploughs. Who really cares what it’s about with those three amazing singers bouncing off each other? As the song says: “One voice for all.”
6. “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)”
In the ’80s, Farm Aid was born, but Robertson had the plight of the farmer on his mind way back in ’69 with this fantastic closing track from the Brown Album. Manuel sings the verses, all frantic desperation as he embodies a struggling Depression-era farmer resisting union overtures. Helm takes the choruses, which contrast the verses with their bucolic descriptions of the sights and sounds of farm life. It all leads to a thrilling closing, as Robertson uncorks a furious solo over the loose-limbed rhythm section of Danko and Helm.
5. “It Makes No Difference”
Robertson rarely wrote love songs with The Band; good thing he made an exception for this colossal Northern Lights/Southern Cross track. He also rarely overplayed on guitar, but his playing is front and center here, trading off with Hudson’s sax solo at song’s end in a mesmerizing duet. This, however, is Danko’s showcase all the way. He didn’t have Helm’s distinctive drawl or Manuel’s otherworldly soulfulness, so his vocal prowess gets overlooked sometimes in the context of The Band. Yet you can’t deny his brilliance here, as he wrings every last drop of woe from this beautiful tale of unrequited love.
4. “Whispering Pines”
Manuel wrote the tune, which is reminiscent of one of Brian Wilson’s somber chord sequences from Pet Sounds. He took the song to Robertson for lyrics, and Robbie found inspiration in the Richard’s retreating persona to complete the song. The result is one of the landmark songs off the Brown Album. Manuel imbues every one of his lines with hurt and desolation, sounding as if he’s the last man on Earth while Hudson’s organ coos behind him. In the last verse, Helm joins him for a moving call-and-response session that ends with words that probably served as a bit of wishful thinking for Manuel: “The lost are found.”
3. “The Weight”
It was originally an afterthought at the Big Pink sessions because Robertson thought the music was too simplistic. Upon hearing the playback, he heard the indefinable magic that has beguiled audiences for over forty years since the song’s release. Something about Danko’s descending bass notes and Hudson’s saloon-style piano meshed perfectly with Robertson’s shaggy-dog story about a guy trying to do some good in the world only to get increasingly trapped by his Good Samaritan tendencies. It’s all good by the time the chorus rolls around and those walled voices come together to share the load weighing the narrator down.
2. “Acadian Driftwood”
Robertson is known for his trenchant dissections of rural American living, but this look at the history of his Canadian homeland, found on Northern Lights/Southern Cross, is a masterpiece. Telling the story of farmers who were forced by British settlers to relocate from Canada to New Orleans in the 18th century, he channels all the pain of being a stranger in a strange land. It helped to have his brilliant bandmates delivering the message. Hudson concocts a virtual symphony of regret through a combination of bagpipes and piccolos, and the harmonizing in the chorus by Helm, Manuel, and Danko is indelibly moving.
1. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”
We’ve always thought that they should include a recording of this song with textbooks teaching about the Civil War. Beside all the names of battles and generals, kids could listen to it and understand the depth of loss suffered by the human beings involved. Robertson wrote a brilliant song, featuring those mournful piano chords and lyrics that cut through hollow rationalization to reveal the true damage done by wars. Yet the song wouldn’t have been the classic it became were it not for Helm’s stunning performance as Virgil Caine. You can hear the stubborn resilience in his voice even as he can’t hide his broken heart.