It may, or may not, have been about the Band’s actually getting busted at the Canadian border by the Mounties, but you’d never know it. “Ring Your Bell,” rather than conveying a survivor’s somber tale of caution, unfolds like this wink-filled memory shared among very old friends.
Levon Helm, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko each take turns, just as they did in their heyday, leaping in as if finishing one another sentences — even as Danko and Helm fashion a teeth-splintering groove for Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson to work their way out of. Taking up guitar and all manner of instruments, respectively, they trade the kind of greasy, funk-focused licks that must have made Gamble and Huff turn green.
“This track to me,” Robertson tells us in an exclusive SER Sitdown, “was almost like an inside joke. It made you just wanna have a good time — and, in a lot of cases, that allows you to play in a much looser and fun way.”
So complete is the Band’s symmetry, so tumbling and loose their delivery, that the idea that these same men, a year or so later, would cease forever performing in this five-man formation remains utterly unfathomable. You can almost hear them goosing each other along as Levon coos “gimme some skin,” with a lip-smacking salaciousness. It’s why I never, ever tire of this one.
Of course, third-act triumphs like the preceding “Acadian Driftwood” will always dominate any conversation about Northern Lights-Southern Cross. It remains, after all, one of the most complete efforts the Robertson and Co. ever had. For me, though, their often-overlooked 1975 studio release makes its case as one of the Band’s masterworks through perfectly conceived deep cuts like “Ring Your Bell.”
There is, inside the warm congeniality of this track, an equal and opposite gravitational pull away from the sense of desperate homelessness that surrounded “Acadian Driftwood.” At last, after four long years and more than their share of wrong turns and dead ends, the Band had found their balance once again — between big thoughts and small, between individual performance and collective genius, between themselves and the towering expectations that had seemingly always surrounded them.
And I’ll be damned if they don’t sound like they’re having a ball again, too.
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