The Band, “Across the Great Divide” from The Band (1969): Across the Great Divide

The Band’s eponymous second album begins with some serious women troubles, but “Across the Great Divide” doesn’t herald a project as haunted as their 1968 debut. Instead, as with this song’s title, it’s about intersections — about meeting in the middle, about community.

They had to travel, quite literally, across that divide to construct 1969’s The Band, had to rekindle their sense of musical camaraderie away from the pastoral comfort that surrounded Music from Big Pink. In so doing, they confronted the country’s mystical past, came to terms with it in a way that hadn’t been done before and — most importantly — incorporated it into their narrative not as a dusty artifact but as part of the tapestry of our shared existence.

That starts with this wife and her gun — and Richard Manuel, this time in all of his winking glory, left with a whole lot of explaining to do. The dizzying ambition of this album doesn’t wall it off from these moments of witty irony, and — bolstered here via Levon Helm’s galloping fills, Garth Hudson’s churchy asides, Robbie Robertson’s fizzy rockabilly-inflected plucks, and those oh-so-boozy horn lines — no small amount of genre-bending fun. It unfolds like an R&B hootenanny, if such a thing had ever existed.

Big Pink was Sunday morning,” as Robertson once adroitly put it, “and The Band Saturday night.”

The group’s celebrated debut, as improbable as it seems now, hadn’t been followed by a huge tour. That, of course, only added to the intrigue surrounding this facelessly named amalgam — as did a cover story in Rolling Stone that August which found the Band, in an outtake from the photo shoot for their 1968 effort, on a bench facing away from the camera.

But this extended down time also gave the Band — then still holed up in and around that brightly colored farm house in West Saugerties, N.Y. — plenty of opportunities for mischief making. A litany of car accidents told the tale, the worst of which found Rick Danko in traction for three months after suffering severe back and neck injuries.

A change of scenery, quite clearly, was in order. And so the Band hustled off to record its hotly anticipated follow up at a house on Sunset Boulevard owned by Sammy Davis Jr. Their previous, legendarily bucolic East Coast setting, as the fates would have it, was replaced with one almost as clubby inside a converted pool house. Robertson worked on completing songs while Capitol Records retrofitted the space with sound equipment — and, though Manuel, Bob Dylan and Danko had been credited with writing or co-writing more than half of Big Pink, Robertson would never again relinquish his role as principal composer for the Band.

In that space, away from time-keeping budget concerns and at the absolute top of their games, the fivesome began constructing “Across the Great Divide” and The Band with an eye toward consolidating — and then improving upon — everything they’d begun with Ronnie Hawkins, with Dylan and with their initial recording. And, put simply, they did.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has explored music for USA Today, 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 nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso