The Band, “Ain’t That a Lot of Love” from Islands (1977): Across the Great Divide

One of two cover songs collected on the Band’s 1970s-closing odds-and-ends package Islands, “Ain’t That a Lot of Love” felt like a one-off from a group ready to be anywhere else. And, in some ways, it was. But, as it builds, we learn something all over again about this increasingly distracted quartet.

Robbie Robertson was, at this point, fully focused on The Last Waltz concert and film, while Rick Danko already had his solo debut in the pipeline. Helm, meanwhile, was talking about putting together a guest-packed amalgam that would become the RCO All-Stars — and building his dream studio inside a Catskills barn. The Band’s most recent tour had been a hit-and-miss affair, perhaps most memorable for a scary off-stage moment when Richard Manuel seriously injured himself in a boating accident. Even Capitol Records, the Band’s long-time label, seemed to have wandered off. Plans to release “Christmas Must Be Tonight,” a lovely Danko-sung holiday paean dedicated to Robertson’s son Sebastian, had somehow never been finalized.

It’s easy to see why the Band would return to something from the likes of Homer Banks, a staff writer at Stax Records who originally released “Ain’t That a Lot of Love” on New Orleans-based Minit Records. Time and time again, chicken-fried R&B leftovers like this one had provided sustenance for the Band, even in the worst of times — as during the long creative drought between 1971’s Cahoots and 1975’s Northern Lights-Southern Cross.

Still, though it’s meant to be in the same vein, “Ain’t That a Lot of Love” doesn’t rekindle the offbeat fire of “Don’t Do It,” isn’t as imaginatively reworked as “Mystery Train” had been and, most particularly, wasn’t as unexpected as the Chuck Wallis’ b-side “(I Don’t Want to Hang Up) My Rock and Roll Shoes.” After all, Spencer Davis lifted this song’s basic riff for massive hit “Gimme Some Lovin.'” Taj Mahal also memorably performed a torrential take on it for the Rolling Stones’ Rock ‘n Roll Circus in 1968, having included “Ain’t That a Lot of Love” on his then-current studio album The Natch’l Blues. More recently, the song had gotten a similarly rootsy, but far more direct remake by the Flying Burrito Brothers on Last of the Red Hot Burritos.

“Ain’t That a Lot of Love” is also slow to get started, as most loose jams often are. And yet for all of those obvious caveats, “Ain’t That a Lot of Love” has its lasting charms — principally because of the presence of Helm and Garth Hudson, who simply never give up on it. As Hudson squawks and rolls on his saxes, creating his own Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, Helm’s vocal begins to intertwine with Danko and Manuel’s to form a lonesome train whistle.

And it just keeps getting better. In fact, over this take’s second half, after Robertson’s roving turn on the guitar, “Ain’t That a Lot of Love” catches its most assertive groove yet — a reminder of the power of music to bring these now-disparate bandmates together, even if only for a song. Or, really, half a song.

Just like that, however, it was over. Helm was next seen performing “Ain’t That a Lot of Love” with his RCO group on Saturday Night Live. Meanwhile, Banks went onto success writing or co-writing songs like Johnny’s Taylor’s “Who’s Making Love,” the Staple Singers’ “If You’re Ready (Come Go with Me),” Luther Ingram’s “If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right” and Elvis Costello’s “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down.” The Band wouldn’t issue another studio releases until the early 1990s — and by then Manuel and Robertson were gone, one to suicide and the other to a separate solo career.

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. The series runs on Thursdays.

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