Deep Cuts from the Band’s Self-Titled 1969 Masterpiece: Gimme Five

The Band’s self-titled sophomore release, released on September 22, 1969 is rightly remembered for signature moments like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up on Cripple Creek” — both of which became concert staples and, in the case of the latter, a No. 25 hit.

Anyone who’s purchased the myriad repackaging of the Band’s works via Capitol over the years is probably familiar with the likes of “King Harvest,” “Rag Mama Rag” and “Across the Great Divide,” as well. Yet, The Band — still the group’s highest-ever charting album — continues to yield important insights, despite nearing its fifth decade.

Search further still, as we do here, and you’ll find that even some of the somewhat lesser-known tracks from this masterpiece highlight a group at the peak of its considerable powers as songwriters, as singers and as musicians. Here are our thoughts on five deeps cuts from The Band

“JAWBONE”

After a mirage of an intro, “Jawbone” — certainly, one of the most underrated moments on The Band — catches a shambolic groove even as Richard Manuel explores the story of a unrepentant ne’er-do-well. From there, this thrillingly episodic track moves with an easy-to-dismiss grace between its two wildly differing musical impulses, swinging from a woozy irreverece to something more loose-limbed and down in the groove. Call it front-porch prog.

Manuel eventually gives way for a outburst of funkified Telecaster jangle from co-writer Robbie Robertson, adding yet another layer of musical intrigue, before “Jawbone” returns to its deeply fascinating to and fro. Manuel, for whatever troubles (vocal and otherwise) that awaited, sings here with a piercing honesty, taking you with deceptive intellect deep inside the complex web of justifications and easy excuses that must surround a life of petty crime.

Meanwhile, Levon Helm — and this is the kind of thing that he almost never gets enough credit for — manages the song’s tricky 6/4 time signature with the blithe ease of a jazzman. Blame the multi-talented Manuel for putting him in that position with “Jawbone” — though, it was no where near the first time, of course.

“Richard wasn’t happy until he made me change rhythm patterns at least twice,” Helm once said, laughing. “I could always depend on a good workout when Richard was helping to write the songs. He might want to go from a shuffle to a march, and vice versa. It was stuff that kept you on your toes all the time. That sort of thing was easy for Richard, so he didn’t give a damn. He could play drums left-handed or right-handed. It didn’t matter.”

Listen, too, as Helm shadows Manuel’s vocal. It’s a moment of pained conscience, but — like the song itself — is endlessly varied, sounding at times like a hurt-filled rebuke and at others like a helpless moan. Helm said, in This Wheel’s On Fire, that he and Manuel recorded a portion of “Jawbone” in his bathroom, and the acoustics bear that out. For all of the galloping sense of fun on its surface, the song’s chorus (I’m a thief, and I dig it) echoes deep into the heart of a lonely loser — someone who knows everything is wrong but is simply helpless to fix it.

“THE UNFAITHFUL SERVANT”

While “It’s Makes No Difference” is commonly understood to be Rick Danko’s career peak as a vocalist, “The Unfaithful Servant” is in many ways just as observant, and maybe more interesting.

Its complexity starts with an instrumentation that works in brilliant opposition: Richard Manuel’s piano (ruminative, perfectly in tandem with Levon Helm’s crying cadence) lures you ever closer from the left, while Robbie Robertson’s acoustic guitar (urgent, determinedly unsentimental) pulls to the other side. That essential entanglement of emotion is encircled by a series of mournful moans — like musty levee breezes — from Garth Hudson and The Band producer John Simon on soprano sax and tuba, respectively.

Allen Toussaint’s muscular charts for the Band’s 1971 Academy of Music performances, remastered and collected in a terrific 2013 box set, might be criticized for upsetting this delicate balance, but — more important to that update’s success — they also fill the song with new depths of sadness.

Standing in the middle of it all is the loping bass and trembling ardor of Danko’s utterly unforgettable voice. A studious, yet seemingly effortless singer, Danko said he nailed his take on the Robertson lyric in one try. He later admitted that he and Simon attempted a number of additional takes — maybe as a many as 40, Danko surmised — before returning to the initial version.

A wonder of heart-rending honesty, and a rare solo performance from an album so often featuring layered performances, Danko’s vocal gives billowing life to an enigmatic narrative — perhaps about a master bidding goodbye to his hand maiden after an embarrassing affair is revealed. It’s one that represents the other side, the gothic side, of a Southern tableau laid out with such resonance on the earlier “Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” — but with a nameless “Tears of Rage“-style guilt replacing the darkly romantic stoicism that surrounded “Dixie.”

Robertson, by switching to electric guitar for the Academy of Music version, even more completely inhabits the steely sense of duty that drives the narrator. Danko’s vocal, meanwhile, is softer but no less sepulchral — until the final climatic goodbye at the live track’s midpoint, when he seems to be coming apart at the seams at the very thought of the beloved servant’s departure. The sense of finality is thunderous.

“JEMIMA SURRENDER”

A lip-smacking, knuckle-dragging hoot, “Jemima Surrender” won’t win any awards for cosmopolitan thinking, but it couldn’t be more fun. From Levon Helm’s tongue-wagging double entendre to Richard Manuel’s gloriously off-kilter drumming, this song unfolds like a boozy roadhouse encore.

Helm always had a kind of carnal joy on the microphone, and that’s perhaps nowhere more true than on this second side-opening cut. He’s in a randy mood, of course, but not just for anybody. This is a song about wanting one woman, and very badly. Yet Helm, even in this moment of outsized sexual frustration, winks his way all the way to the boudoir. Ultimately, that’s in keeping with both this album’s ageless sensibility and its party atmosphere.

Robbie Robertson, who receives a songwriting co-credit with Helm, offers a series of knifing riffs — highlighted by his fizzy retort after the lyrics “I’ll bring over my Fender, and I’ll play all night for you” — even as Garth Hudson contributes these patently brilliant, saloon-shaking runs on piano. Meanwhile, Rick Danko, always such a sympathetic background vocalist, gives the song’s cocky boasts a memorably lonesome counterweight.

That’s as close as the rollicking “Jemima” ever gets to the taut emotional plangency of the preceding “Whispering Pines,” though. This track sounds as free wheeling as it does old, as timeless as it is off the cuff — thanks, in no small way, to an all-akimbo turn at the traps from Manuel. “The thing about it was, Richard was an incredible drummer,” Helm said in This Wheel’s on Fire. “He played loosey-goosey, a little behind the beat, and it really swung.”

Manuel had first begun playing while the group worked with Bob Dylan on The Basement Tapes in Helm’s absence: “Without any training, he’d do these hard left-handed moves and piano-wise licks, priceless shit — very unusual,” Helm added. “So I was coming back into a situation where I heard what Richard was accomplishing and had to say, ‘Hell, Richard plays drums better than me on this one. We better leave it that way.’ That’s how we got two drummers in the band.”

This embarrassment of riches ultimately gave Helm a chance to make his way up to the front of the stage, and to rediscover his passion for the mandolin. Helm would bring the same expressiveness that made his drumming so unforgettably emotional to his tough little stringed contributions on Band offerings like “Rag Mama Rag,” “Evangeline,” “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and “Atlantic City” over the years.

With “Jemima Surrender,” Helm was even known to strap on an electric guitar — but its his vocal turn that will remain with you, long after this good-time ride has ended. Helm might never have been more grinningly lascivious, and the feeling is simply contagious. The song enters through your tapping toe, shoots up into the bottom of your spine for a quick waggle, then right to the corners of your already smiling mouth.

“WHEN YOU AWAKE”

A triumph of narrative balance, “When You Awake” features the voice of a small boy in the verse and his grandfather’s response in the chorus. It perhaps could only work within a performance by Rick Danko, whose unique singing style was forged in a time before rock ‘n’ roll had been codified — when black music and white music, when sounds old and new could be combined without genre questions.

These disparate threads intertwined to form not just the framework for Danko’s special gift with a lyric (part blues, part rock, with a twinge of Appalachia — like mountain-man soul) but of popular music itself. And it’s all there, inside his vocal. He finds more than simple emotion, as he climbs to impossible heights, then storms back down with the greatest of ease, but also real insight and no small amount of wit.

Danko, as this often overlooked song on an album filled with career-making moments so clearly shows, was always the most underrated of the Band’s three principal vocalists.

Even as co-writer Robbie Robertson builds the song up from a Merle Travis riff, while fellow co-writer Richard Manuel (this time on drums) and Garth Hudson add a ragtime feel atop it, Danko directs us through the story of a young man who has been bedeviled by the often sharp words of Ollie, who is perhaps a family member, older sibling or friend. Ollie has given the young man the hard line on this world — the warts-and-all version, with difficult truths and dark portents.

That’s sent him to the comfort of his grandfather, who doesn’t so much untangle the child’s worries as provide the comfort of undying love. As with Manuel’s earlier “We Can Talk,” the lyrics here are more about feel than literalism, more about emotion than interpretive detail. It seems to be a song, at least at first, about the joys of home.

Midway through the track, however, Robertson and Manuel shift forward into time — and the boy appears to be all grown up, and reflecting back now. His grandfather, it seems, has passed on, leaving the adult descendent in a contemplative mood about the fates — right up to a fade-out quote from “I Bowed My Head and Cried Holy,” a traditional gospel number.

It’s hard to not find yourself lost in the same rumination as “When You Awake” departs, what with Danko gone now some 15 years. It’s hard to believe, but he’d still only be around 70 today.

“ROCKIN’ CHAIR”

The idea of reaping rewards — from community, from longevity, from the generations — is perhaps nowhere in sharper focus on The Band than during this key deep cut. In many ways, “Rockin’ Chair” is also the connective tissue between this far more varied follow up and the group’s determinedly rustic debut from a year before.

Richard Manuel completely inhabits Robbie Robertson’s central character, a wisened sailor who hopes to retire back to Virginia after years on the high seas to share porch-side tales with his buddy Ragtime Willie. Whether they ever get there or not is part of the song’s lasting mystery. Robertson, meanwhile, switches to acoustic for an old-timey, drummer-less arrangement, made complete with Levon Helm’s mandolin and Garth Hudson’s accordion.

Manuel is soon joined, first by Helm and then by Rick Danko, for some of the album’s most poignantly touching, deeply intimate harmonies. Underscored by Danko’s sensitive approach on the bass, the Band’s fallen voices couldn’t be more memorably ardent.

All of that only serves to further underscore how out of time the Band was. Working within an art form that has always been about currency, they reached back into the 19th century for inspiration. That very sense of dislocation, however, of rebellion against the new for an embrace of tradition is what makes these early Band themes so timeless today.

Of course, any discussion about life’s final chapter, about the trajectory our fates take — whether we’d planned it that way or not — remains all but verboten in the youth-obsessed world of rock. That a group of young men in their 20s, as the Band was at this moment, could say so many things about the pull of old ways, old friends and the old home place remains simply remarkable.

It’s wisdom still received as if just uttered.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has explored music for USA Today, 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 nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso