That this song, a legendary outtake from Bob Dylan’s 1983 album Infidels, heralded the Band’s long-hoped-for return to the studio was fitting.
After all, “Blind Willie McTell” — one of the most compelling songs on 1993’s Jericho, the group’s first attempt at studio work in the post-Robbie Robertson era — followed a long line of intersections dating back to their earliest work together under the banner of the Band.
They’d been alongside Dylan for a pair of transformative moments, first as an amphetamine-fueled mid-1960s rebel ex-folkie and then, later, as a back-to-basics troubadour tucked away in Woodstock’s pastoral sanctuary. Work together on The Basement Tapes had an immeasurable impact on each of their subsequent individual releases, Music from Big Pink (which featured three tracks either written or co-written with Dylan) and John Wesley Harding.
They’d circled around to one another, time and again it seemed, for inspiration, for comfort, for a chance to stomp their way through some old favorites — at the Isle of Wight in 1969, at the Academy of Music in 1971, and all over during a raucous 1974 tour. “Blind Willie McTell,” a scarifying parable on the issue of American slavery with these archetypical allusions to the book of Peter in the Bible, illustrates just why.
Rick Danko and then Levon Helm handle the narrative with beautifully articulated, ultimately conflicting emotions — one of them ruminative and sad, the other offering a kind of timelessly dark warning. There is suddenly a conversational drama to this song, as transformed by their coupled voices. Garth Hudson, meanwhile, imbues “Blind Willie McTell” with something else that it never had as an oft-bootlegged Dylan leftover, too: a sense of contemplative wonder, working in direct contrast to the song’s agitated rhythm and mandolin-driven counterpoints.
When Helm and Danko offer a final lyrical pass, the Band then catches a menacing, grinding, seemingly never-ending groove — punctuated by Hudson’s flourishes on the sax, by a sawing fiddle, by Champion Jack Dupree’s piano asides, but never slowed through to the inevitable fade.
In that moment, the Band’s having continued past Robertson’s exit, and past Richard Manuel’s awful suicide, finally made sense. Fittingly, Dylan was right there. He’d had an incalculable initial impact on the Band, which absorbed his lyrical mysteries and his sharply intuited narratives, combined them with their earlier influences and created an as-yet-unheard synthesis. Meanwhile, Dylan’s work with the Band pushed him toward a more country-inflected sound at the turn of the 1970s. Then, after their serrated collaborations on 1974’s Planet Waves, led directly to a more brutally personal, at times viciously confrontational brand of songcraft for Dylan on the subsequent Blood on the Tracks.
Dylan and the Band impacted one another in a similar fashion here, adding new complexities in both directions: Dylan sparked a performance for the ages from Danko, Helm, Hudson and a lineup of contributors that now included keyboardist Richard Bell, drummer Randy Ciarlante and guitarist Jim Weider. In turn, the Band’s reworking of this previously discarded song seemed to stir something in Dylan. He later belatedly added “Blind Willie McTell” to his concert setlists, using an arrangement in keeping with the rejuvenated Band’s now-unforgettable take.