After reaching across generations on the solemn and startling “Tears of Rage,” the Band leapt into a rambling groove — with Robbie Robertson taking a rare lead vocal turn for a Bob Dylan-esque exploration on the idea of salvation.
Not that it’s entirely spelled out. Robertson, who wouldn’t take the mic again until “Knockin’ Lost John” on 1976’s Islands, had clearly learned well during The Basement Tapes composing apprenticeship with Dylan. There is as much said here, as not said — all amid a series of writerly, unforgettable images. (At least one of them, when Robertson brilliantly pairs the colloquial “haints” with saints, seems likely to have sprung from the fertile storytelling of his Southern-born band mate Levon Helm.)
It all happens as part of a larger tapestry of sound, a brotherhood of overlapping voices and musical influences that seemed to arrive on their 1968 debut Music from Big Pink in a fully formed way.
Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Helm establish an insistent, idiosyncratic rhythm behind Robertson — with Danko’s plunking bass offsetting this honky-tonking piano from Manuel. Helm, as always, plays the drums like a singer, following along with a tremendous sensitivity. And as the song unfolds, their voices (by turns, pained, joyful and utterly surprised) weave in and out of the lyric before Robertson begins to unfurl a solo of huge ambition: I hear whispers of his guitarist forebears Hubert Sumlin and James Burton, and also something different, something quieter. As with the lyric, Robertson has mastered a stirring new economy.
All of this amazing sonic depth, so different than the closely conveyed, more straight-forward sound of “Tears of Rage,” was the result of a change in venues during the sessions for Big Pink. The Band had begun recording on a four-track console, over a pair of dates at A&R’s studios in New York. Five songs, including the opener, emerged from these live-to-tape sessions. The group was put on two tracks and the horns on a third, with the fourth track reserved for vocals.
Capitol Records officials, upon hearing these initial successes, opted to fly the Band along with producer John Simon out to Los Angeles to finish the album — giving Robertson and Co. the chance to record at the label’s modern eight-track studio. (A session was also held at LA’s Gold Star studio, where a number of legendary sides had been recorded by Phil Spector and the Beach Boys, as well.)
Rather than polishing up their rustic sound, this shift only revealed deeper complexities about the Band. When they enter the final stanza (howling “tarred and feathered, yeah!”), Helm’s fat beat is surrounded by Garth Hudson’s ghostly ruminations on the organ — and then four voices singing not together but with one another, each of them individual but of the same mind. In many ways, it is here that the legend of Big Pink begins to pick up steam.