The Band – Moondog Matinee (1973): Gimme Five

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Moondog Matinee, the Band’s deeply revealing covers-focused fifth studio effort, arrived on October 15, 1973 to little fanfare. A handful of key tracks, however, bolster our argument that this album was unfairly dismissed …

“SHARE YOUR LOVE [WITH ME]”: Presented as a celebration of the Band’s passion for R&B and blues music, Moondog Matinee features nine vocals originally done by African-American singers — recalling, if not exactly mimicking, their original barn-burning days as the Hawks. In fact, the only song to be included on this covers project from their old setlists was this one, a desperately lonesome ballad that initially hit for Bobby “Blue” Bland.

More important than its direct link to those pre-fame times, however, was the role that this Richard Manuel-sung gem played with the album. Filled with Richard’s depthless longing, “Share Your Love (With Me)” gave Moondog Matinee — which was, as is so often the case with such things, more fun than it was essential — an emotional center, a memorable kind of gravitas.

With “Share Your Love,” we got a sense of why the Band always thought of Manuel as their lead singer, why they stuck with him through his struggles with substance and alcohol abuse, why they were never quite the same when he was gone. Who else could have challenged the great Bland on his own turf?

After all, Bobby “Blue” Bland could growl and snort with the best of the blues belters, but he also had a rare ability to sing a torch song in an unaffected style that helped him cross over to a white audience. (Thus, his designation at one point as the Sinatra of R&B singers.) Along the way, he clearly had an impact on Manuel, on the Hawks, and then the Band. The group also covered Bland favorites like “Turn On Your Lovelight” and “Further On Up the Road” — the latter of which made a gala reappearance as part of the The Last Waltz.

And so, approaching this couldn’t have been an easy thing for Manuel. But he’s bolstered here by Garth Hudson’s billowingly orchestral keyboard work, in a precursor to his fuller explorations on Northern Lights-Southern Cross. And somehow once more, as “Share Your Love” moves into its anthemic middle, Manuel all but snatches the track from its original voice. As resonant, as ribald, as touching and complex as both Levon Helm and Rick Danko could be at the mic, no one in the Band could do what Richard Manuel did on songs like this — bring you all the way into his heart.

Considering the state of things, and the state of Manuel himself, this song stands today as a central triumph. Not just on Moondog Matinee, though that’s absolutely true, but also for Manuel himself. This may be his last best performance, and certainly stands as his most complete since at least “Sleeping.” “Richard was ‘in a period,’ as Rick would say, which meant that he was drinking pretty hard,” Helm remembered in This Wheel’s On Fire. “But once he got started, man: Drums, piano, play it all; sing, do the lead in one of them high, hard-assed keys to sing in. Richard just knew how a song was supposed to go. Structure, melody, he understood it.”

And, it seems, Manuel understood this triumph too, continuing to perform “Share Your Love” into his final period, and always imbuing it with visceral feeling. Today, however, everything about this track points to Manuel’s sad end for me — to that awful moment when he could go no further. It’s so unbearably sad now, this yearning. Like the very embodiment of everything that Manuel might have said, if someone had burst into that Florida hotel bathroom and stopped him in 1986.

I stare at the album’s original fold-out poster, a saloon setting from Edward Kasper that combines Helm’s old stomping grounds of Helena, Ark., with Robbie Robertson’s Cabbagetown, and I can’t take my eyes off Manuel. He’s apart, the only one lost in thought. Robertson is working the jukebox, Hudson and Helm are sharing a drink, Danko is reading a music magazine. But Richard is alone, thinking — staring off into the middle distance. It’s like he can see something, already, that I still haven’t come to grips with more than four decades later: Richard Manuel is already gone.

“MYSTERY TRAIN”: Coming as it did during a fallow creative period for the Band, the covers-focused Moondog Matinee could be fairly seen as a placekeeper album — an aperitif before the next statement of purpose. But it wasn’t without its moments of creative and emotional spark, in particular on a Levon Helm-sung take on “Mystery Train” that underwent a chin-wagging, chicken-fried remodel.

First, there’s Garth Hudson: Channelling his inner Billy Preston at the clavinet, he has never, ever been funkier. Helm, who sings with a gothic portent, switched to oaken stand-up bass — while Rick Danko played rhythm. Then, recording at Capitol Records’ studios in Hollywood, the Band brought in a second drummer (Billy Mundi, a late-1960s member of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention) to add to Richard Manuel’s enigmatic propulsion.

The song is completed instrumentally by Robbie Robertson’s clickety-clack, rockabilly asides on the guitar, something that might have seemed too on-the-nose in any other context, but within this R&B-soaked cadence strikes a note-perfect balance between ageless and as-yet-unheard.

Same with the lyric. Robertson, after getting permission from Sun Records impresario Sam Phillips, wrote two additional verses for the Junior Parker/Elvis Presley hit. (Parker hit with the song in 1953, with Presley’s song following in 1955 — both for Sun.) The results add dark new shadings to a song that always spoke so starkly to a cuckold’s terrifying loss, even as the Band take a series of gutsy musical chances.

Sadly, these R&B edges were eventually played out of the song. Paul Butterfield joined the Band on harp for “Mystery Train,” during the 1976 concert later released as The Last Waltz, and already it had largely reverted to its familiar Sun roots. The transformation continued as Butterfield sat in with Danko on a manic 1979 concert version, later posthumously released on 2005’s Cryin’ Heart Blues. By the time the Band reunited for its post-Robertson era, Danko had taken over lead for good, Helm had taken up his harmonica, and “Mystery Train” was just another cover song — well meaning, but probably not much more.

Stick with the Moondog Matinee edition — then, as now, a gut-punch groover. This “Mystery Train” is meant to be played loud, as if the tracks were running right behind your couch.

No, it wasn’t the original music so many had hoped for, some 30 long months after the uneven Cahoots had arrived. (In fact, we’d have to wait until 1975’s Northern Lights-Southern Cross before the Band would produce a worthy follow up to Stage Fright.) Still, something sparked here, something that spoke to more than nostalgia — something that spoke to the Band’s innate ability to reanimate old things and help us understand them in new ways, to honor tradition even while building upon it. And to funk it like their back ain’t got no bone.

“THE GREAT PRETENDER”: Sweet and goofy, haunted and doomed, Richard Manuel found in “The Great Pretender” a song that spoke words he couldn’t, by then, speak.

Long past the point where his muse had left, but a full decade before he’d tragically hang himself, Manuel was becoming best known for his mishaps — car crashes, chiefly. He would also be seriously burned while lighting a grill, and get involved in a scary boating accident. It’s commonly understood that the Band gathered at Bearsville studio to record the covers-focused Moondog Matinee as a kind of musical intervention for the badly faltering Manuel.

Some of this, maybe all of it, seemed to be related to his predilection for Grand Marnier, or something harder. But there was something else going on, something darker and much more heartbreaking. And that, after one bad night a Florida motel bathroom, became the larger part of Manuel’s legacy — more, sadly, than moments like this, moments when he would grab someone else’s song (always, from Stage Fright forward, someone else’s song) and become its very embodiment.

Forget that other stuff, then, if only for a moment. Listen as Richard Manuel focuses his considerable talents on a song that mirrors his own story, even as he transcends that story. When Manuel moves into the its second half, he’s no longer interpreting, no longer mimicking the original Tony Williams lead for the Platters, he’s feeling every word — making them brand new. He swoops upward, into a range that you might have thought long gone, pushes his voice back down into a dimly lit place of need and then charges forward into a moment where he almost loses control.

He never does, of course. Instead, as Garth Hudson’s expressive organ fills ride along with Levon Helm’s active but never cluttered cadence, Manuel gives “The Great Pretender” a visceral sense of yearning — too white hot for the melancholy of “Share Your Love (With Me),” too meaningful to ever fade. This isn’t the broken-down Richard of lore; he sings with a palpable hunger.

In that way, this is every bit as gutsy a performance, as risky and interesting and full of life, as the Band’s far more widely praised re-imagining of “Mystery Train” elsewhere on Moondog Matinee. Manuel, who could become the consummate professional as soon as a mic was turned on, stays away from the campiest sentiments in Buck Ram’s lyric — instead imbuing it with very real desire. If this was their plan in doing Moondog Matinee, it worked. An old song had Richard Manuel sounding like his old self again.

“BACK TO MEMPHIS”: The Band simply stole this song from Chuck Berry, who recorded it in Memphis but had never lived there. Vocalist Levon Helm’s nearby roots give his take on “Back to Memphis,” completed for but not originally included on Moondog Matinee, this sense of yearning that Berry simply wasn’t equipped to muster.

The song originally grew out of a lightning-fast three-day session in 1967 that saw Chuck Berry working with local legends like Andrew Love at Memphis’ Royal Studios in service of a debut album for Mercury. Only, in a suddenly psychedelic age, “Back in Memphis” ended up as the opening cut on a largely forgotten album.

That is, until the Band revived it, several years later. Helm sings with a raw desire to return to the Mississippi Delta’s endlessly unique, endlessly unkempt environs, while Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson jostle back and forth within the song’s rambling groove. As the only American in a group that became a worldwide phenomenon from an initial home base of Canada, Helm frames this outsider’s tale with just the right touch of pathos. Where Chuck Berry tended to wink, Levon Helm finds something more emotional.

And yet “Back to Memphis” somehow didn’t make the final tracklisting for Moondog Matinee, replaced by “The Promised Land,” another Chuck Berry favorite. Instead, the studio version of this track remained unheard until Moondog Matinee was given an expanded reissue in 2001. In the meantime, however, it became a concert staple for the Band, and subsequently for Levon Helm.

“Back to Memphis” was memorably performed during their long-bootlegged 1973 stop at Roosevelt Stadium, and later featured on a strange 1995 release purporting to be from the same year at Watkins Glen — but actually including a series of studio songs with overdubbed crowd noise. The song remained part of the Band’s setlists into the post-Robbie Robertson era too, appearing as early as 1983. The track “Back to Memphis” from the Band’s penultimate 1996 studio effort High on the Hog was, however, a separate composition – written, ironically enough, by longtime Chuck Berry sideman Johnnie Johnson.

“SAVED”: Not many rock bands would approach something like Leiber and Stoller’s “Saved,” originally a Top 40 Billboard hit for LaVerne Baker in 1961. But not many had an ace in the hole like vocalist Richard Manuel or a history quite like the Band’s.

It wasn’t just that this kind of rock and roll gospel was his forte, his raison d’etre. It’s not just that his winking admonitions about past misdeeds ring so true. It’s that when he sings (when Richard Manuel gleefully crows, really, as he does so often here), you get a welcome glimpse into what originally brought the Band to this place.

They are, for a moment at least, as they once were: These hard-headed, soul-stoked roustabouts who stood between two worlds, with one dusty boot in R&B and another in rock — long before Bob Dylan, Big Pink and even bigger fame sent them to a different place.

The choice of material was just as inspired as the performance. In placing “Saved” on Moondog Matinee, the Band connected a straight line from LaVerne Baker to her appearances on the old package tours sponsored by Alan Freed, whose original Cleveland-based Moondog Rock ‘n’ Roll Party radio program in turn inspired the name of this 1973 tribute album.

But Moondog Matinee wasn’t, despite intimations from all around, a nostalgic return to their glory days as the pre-fame Hawks. Instead, this consistently underrated album from the Band was a memorably vibrant re-construction, something brand new sewed together from older strands.

Moondog Matinee — and you hear that so clearly across Richard Manuel’s romping take on “Saved” — found a group of jointly committed musicians, guys with a lengthy history with this music, not simply recreating an old bandstand setlist but bringing new life into music that once inspired them. Clearly, it still did, as “Saved” became the rare Moondog Matinee cut to appear in the Band’s live shows.

So, why is Moondog Matinee so little mentioned? In a strange inversion of what’s typical for covers-focused albums, the project was compared more to the Band’s earlier successes rather than to the originals which it sought to redefine. It was somehow seen not as a passionate homage, but as a career retrenchment. It was, to be it more directly, no Music from Big Pink, no Brown Album.

Thing is, Moondog Matinee was never meant to be. The thrill of riding along for Richard Manuel’s rapscallion rush through “Saved,” decades past those of-the-moment expectations, make them feel ever more hollow. This song’s charms are simply undeniable.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, 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 U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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