The Band, “When I Paint My Masterpiece” from Cahoots (1971): Across the Great Divide

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The introduction of a new studio to experiment with might have seemed like a happy challenge for another Band, in another place. Instead, Albert Grossman’s just-opened Bearsville facility ended up feeling, as Robbie Robertson once said, “too bright and cold.”

Much of the music on 1971’s Cahoots, to be honest, did too — with some notable exceptions, among them this oaken, deeply emotional reading of Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece.”

Its theme couldn’t have been more appropriate, both for Cahoots and, sadly, for the Band itself. Dylan, who had first recorded “When I Paint My Masterpiece” in mid-March of 1971 with Leon Russell, seems to be admitting — and not even tacitly — that his muse had left him during the period surrounding New Morning. Of course, a lyric intent on reconstructing Rome, after it had been left to dilapidation and despair, seems indicative of someone still pushing back against this creative ennui. And yet, as we hear on Levon Helm’s mournful vocal, even a change of scenery in Brussels is shadowed with thoughts of what came before.

Typically opaque, and very darkly poignant, “When I Paint My Masterpiece” sounds like something the Band would have done with Dylan during the Basement Tapes sessions, an era that must have seemed like a very long time ago at this point for both. The worry, as evidenced in the Dylan narrative (and quite frankly across the whole of Cahoots, which finds the group standing in front of what looks like a mausoleum), was that Rome might never be rebuilt — that their best days, memorable though they may be, were behind them.

Fast forward more than two decades later, and the song’s old-world textures (courtesy of Garth Hudson’s pensive accordion), its hillbilly bravado (thanks to Helm’s plucky mandolin, not to mention the way his voice intertwined like frayed rope with Rick Danko’s), and its central melancholy remained as the Band took the stage at the 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration for Bob Dylan.

What was missing: Richard Manuel (then dead for six years) and Robertson (who never returned after their initial split in the 1970s). The Band was, alas, in much the same situation it had been as they approached “When I Paint My Masterpiece” the first time, only the details had changed.

They’d continued on with three more studio efforts as a fivesome through 1977 before initially calling it quits. The Band then returned without Robertson in the 1980s, but as an oldies act. Both with and then without Manuel, they did a fine job of recapturing the feel, but unfortunately not the creative fire, of their early days — the fault of a heavy touring schedule and, to that point anyway, no new music.

As resonant as “When I Paint My Masterpiece” still was on that star-flecked evening at Madison Square Garden, now set for hi-def reissue on March 4, 2014 via Columbia Legacy, the question of whether the Band would ever return to the brushes and easel remained. Happily, they did — with a belated post-Robertson studio recording that arrived just months after the Dylan tribute was initially issued as a gala concert set in 1993.

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. Click here to see past entries.

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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