For Elvis Costello, the Band arrived like a bolt out of the blue. At the same time, there was an ageless quality to the songs — in particular Levon Helm and Company’s “Rag Mama Rag,” from 1969′s The Band.
“The first time I heard ‘Rag Mama Rag’ on the radio, I just couldn’t believe it,” Costello tells Greg Gattine, in an interview held at Helm’s studio barn in Woodstock. “It was not like any other music I’d ever heard — but in a strange sort of way, it sounded sort of like it had always existed. It was a weird combination of old and new.”
And “Rag Mama Rag,” the Band’s highest-charting UK single, was only the beginning of a journey for Costello — back the mysteries and wonder of that 1968 debut and through the rest of their masterwork self-titled followup.
“Big Pink was a lot deeper, when you got into the whole substance of the record,” Costello adds, “with the combination of voices. You couldn’t really work out where one voice gave off, and another took on — except you could really recognize Levon’s singing, because it was very different. … Every time I put it on, it presents itself to me differently. It’s among the most enduring music, particularly the first two records — but I’ll make a case for the quality of all of them.”
Costello memorably invited Helm to sit in for his UK/Canadian television program Spectacle, where they performed an all-star version of “The Weight” (also from Big Pink) with Allen Toussaint, Nick Lowe, Richard Thompson and Ray LaMontagne in 2009.
That set was recorded at the Apollo Theater in New York.
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