The Band, “Let the Night Fall” from Islands (1977): Across the Great Divide

I think what I hear on “Let the Night Fall,” as on the more synth-laden moments from the Band’s preceding Northern Lights-Southern Cross, is a group trying to move forward. As celebrated as their journeys back into the American mythos had been, that path ultimately becomes a dead end if you continue long enough. The terminus is at a been-there, done-that moment of freeze-dried ennui.

And so, the Band — in fits and starts, I’ll grant you — appeared to be turning toward a redefinition, toward something with elements of modernity that might clear the way for new explorations.

It didn’t always work, particularly on the hodge-podge contract-filler that was 1977’s Islands, but at the same time I think we wrongly ignore what might have been by wishing too much for what once was when it comes to this period with the Band. That they never completed it, since this was the last studio album to be issued with Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel, only seems to muddy our perceptions.

The early music is perhaps over-fetishized, the latter-day stuff too quickly dismissed. It’s a shame, in particular when unabashedly lovely things like Richard’s “Let the Night Fall” become forgotten. It’s not essential, so much as deeply intriguing — the sound of the Band with one foot in their fertile past and another in the then-current melding of pop and soul being fashioned by the Michael McDonald-led edition of the Doobie Brothers.

There is, if you dig deeper, plenty of conjectural subtext. Is Richard Manuel, in the way he sweetly calls for twilight’s comfort, bidding a sad farewell to the Band? After all, by the time Islands appeared, both Rick Danko and Levon Helm had already signed solo deals. The Last Waltz, their much-ballyhooed ’70s-era farewell, was in the editing stage. It was, without a doubt, all over. He stands, as always, apart — a wise old owl with something important to impart, though (as with many of Robbie Robertson’s best lyrics) we know not what.

The Band would, ultimately, disappear surrounded by a similar sense of mystery. Much had changed for them, in the intervening years — and, in particular, for Richard Manuel, who struggled to regain his muse while his voice became spidered with oaken cracks. As he recedes into that gathering dark on “Let the Night Fall,” Manuel’s brethren encircle his still-very-resonant vocal for one of the final times on record. Robertson urgently plucks at his guitar, and Danko’s voice trails behind like the moon’s silvery light. Garth Hudson jabs at his organ, even as Helm unleashes fills that work like a warm summer breeze at Manuel’s back.

Nevertheless, as we now know, that night was most assuredly falling. It’s almost unbearably sad.

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