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

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Not much, thus far into the Band’s official discography, had hinted at the lip-busting brawn of their early work with Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan — until this. “Look Out Cleveland” is a round-house punch of a song, all grimy attitude, weird portent and sinewy toughness.

In so doing, “Look Our Cleveland” stands out in a song cycle that, as with the Band’s 1968 debut, often focused on pastoral tales. Instead, this track finds songwriter Robbie Robertson and Co. working with a decidedly urban color palette. This is more city blues than Appalachian moan, making for a blast furnace of nervous energy.

“Look Out Cleveland” begins with a bordello-shaking piano figure from Richard Manuel and the kind of bloody-knuckled Robertson riff that powered a thousand jaw-dropping nights as the Band made their bones on the chitlin circuit with Hawkins, and then stormed around the world pissing off folkies alongside Dylan.

Levon Helm’s stomping backbeat, as carnal and full of life as any he’d unleash, sets the stage for a stop-start musical narrative that seems to have had no small amount of influence on “Take Me To the Pilot,” Elton John’s b-side cut for the 1970 hit single “Your Song.” Helm shares the mic at first, before Rick Danko takes center stage for one of his most energetic early Band vocals.

Garth Hudson arrives at the very last moment, unleashing a funnel cloud of keyboard energy as the song’s rising storm seems to have descended all around. Then, like the sudden downpour that it no doubt was, “Look Out Cleveland” simply vanishes — with nothing more than an echoing thunderclap remaining.

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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  • the more i read this series, the more it pisses me off that i never got to see these guys live.

    i mean, i did…but it was a lineup that Rick Danko was touring…can’t even remember if Helm was with them or not.


  • Judith O’Toole

    40 years later I had no idea what this song was really about, until I moved to East Texas,about an hour north of Houston.” Look out Cleveland” is about a hurricane blowin’ north out of the Gulf of Mexico to pulverise the town of Cleveland! Which happened quite a lot.