The Band, “Orange Juice Blues” from The Basement Tapes (1968): Across the Great Divide

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People forget that it was Richard Manuel, that lost, beautiful soul, who created some of the Band’s first original compositions — including this one, which serves as the debut track for our new weekly series Across the Great Divide.

A song-by-song exploration of the Band’s legacy, this feature actually begins before their celebrated 1968 debut Music from Big Pink, with Band-fronted tunes begun in 1967 and 1968. This bucolic period, subject some seven years later of The Basement Tapes, found the Band and Dylan holed up in Woodstock following a series of groundbreaking electric-folk concerts together, and then Dylan’s 1966 motorcycle accident. More than 100 songs, it’s been said, emerged from this creative outburst.

“We had toured since 1960, almost non stop,” the late Rick Danko once told me. “When we met Bob Dylan, all of the sudden time was on our side. We had some time to do the things that make a career.”

The Basement Tapes, though they remained officially unreleased until 1975, provided not just a missing link between Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde and his later turn toward rootsier sounds, but also the earliest hints of what was to come as the Band evolved into a fully formed musical entity in its own right. “Orange Juice Blues,” written by Manuel with an assist from Danko, is the first of five Band tracks we’ll explore in their order of appearance on this seminal album — before we move on to Music from Big Pink and forward through projects recorded both together and as solo artists.

Only Manuel and Danko were featured on the Band’s original saloon-rattling demo, recorded in February 1968 and later included in a stripped-down form as a bonus track on a new packaging of the groundbreakingly rustic Big Pink in 2000. In particular within the context of that reissue, it’s easy to see why “Orange Juice Blues” — which eventually evolved into a gloamy, mystery-filled groover — didn’t make the final track listing. This demo seemed to have more to do with their earliest, pre-Dylan incarnation as the fierce and fearless early-rocking Hawks. But, with the later addition of parts from Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm and Garth Hudson, “Orange Juice Blues” grew into something more — making it the perfect launching pad for this new series on the Band.

See, even amid this early track’s floorboard-rearranging clatter, so much of what will make their music a culture-shifting force is firmly in place. Helm and Robertson had already mastered the basic framework of the blues, and were beginning to bend and shape it to their own purposes. Danko, ever the gentlemanly team player, provides perfectly attenuated, almost transparent support on bass. Manuel is in complete control of his vocal, which swoops from sharp, heartbreaken retorts to spiraling, unknowable pain. Robertson’s guitar solo, like a hillbilly sucker punch, then gives way to a gloriously idiosyncratic turn by Hudson at the organ.

“Orange Juice Blues” also seems to provide an early glimpse into the darker forces that would lead to such a sad end for Manuel, who was found having hanged himself in a hotel room while on a reunion tour with the Band in 1986: “I’ll just slide on out the door,” he cries here, in a devastating moment, “’cause I’m tired of everything being beautiful.”

The stakes, it seems, were high from the very beginning. The Band was at work on creating a new sound, one that would instantly anachronize the silly psychedelic scene, and yet the human dimension was never far away. Each member brought his own history, his own unique and important contribution. “Orange Juice Blues,” a scarifying outburst of love-lorn rockabilly funk, doesn’t necessarily presuppose those later triumphs, so much as establish a terminus point for their earliest sound.

You hear the Band taking the first step in what would become an endlessly intriguing journey.

Across the Great Divide is a weekly, song-by-song examination from Something Else! on the legacy of the Band, both together and as solo artists. The series runs on Thursdays.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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