hen I first heard The Band’s 1968 debut, Music From Big Pink, I was 13 years old. It struck me then as it strikes me now every time I put it on: As the best album ever recorded by anyone, ever, end of story. And that’s about as far as I’d like to go at this point; the album has been talked to death. Its quietly adversarial stance picked to pieces by nearly every article and review written about it, Big Pink seems to hold more importance for its divergence and influence than for the actual music contained within. Affected as I was by the album, I rarely stopped to consider how exactly the group was seen by its peers, past, present, and future. I find now that ignoring the interpretations of The Band’s work denied me the enjoyment of hearing these songs in new ways, which can be a wholly revitalizing experience. I set about looking for cover versions of the entire album and came out with this sequence. Listening to it now goes a long way in reminding me why I fell for this music so hard the first time. What’s more, it’s like being surrounded by a group of people that, for 42 minutes, loves these songs as much as me.
01. “Tears of Rage” performed by Gene Clark (from White Light, 1971)
Stretched to an increasingly doleful gait, former Byrd Gene Clark supplants the slow-motion tumble of Levon Helm’s drums with a more straightforward beat, and attacks the song with wistful regret rather than the sheer devastation that Richard Manuel so memorably brought to the original. His brooding, but marvelously stable, voice is a far cry from the one that hummed out the Byrds’ most reflective early material, and works beautifully here. The chorus flows like a lost outtake from the Flying Burrito Brothers’ Gilded Palace of Sin with its lonesome desert harmonies and buried steel pedal guitar. When Clark fades out with the crystal clear declaration that “life is brief”, his voice drips with enough hushed solitude to rival The Band themselves.
02. “To Kingdom Come” performed by The Beatles (from the Let It Be sessions, 1969)
Culled from the endless reels of tape that were whittled down into the Beatles’ final release, this succinct, vocal-less cover illuminates the plucky restlessness of Robbie Robertson’s unassuming guitar. The Big Pink version of the song is a playful piece of timeless mountain-bred, mythical rock, but the isolated six-string points closer to portentously sprite gospel blues. Recorded less than a year after the release of the album, this quick moment of inspiration shows that people, important people, were indeed listening.
03. “In A Station” performed by Olivia Newton-John (from If Not For You, 1971)
This absolutely gorgeous Manuel song always called out for female interpretation, and the future Grease star gives it a reverent treatment on an album that puts a somehow lighter spin on already wispy-to-the-brim tracks by Bread, Gordon Lightfoot, Kris Kristofferson, and Tom Rush. The instrumental backing is pure 70s MOR, but Newton-John’s soaring voice hits every graceful note, and sublimely elevates the song heavenward, where it belongs. It’s a wonder more people haven’t grasped onto this song’s pastoral cadences. At the same time, maybe it’s better that no one else has.
04. “Caledonia Mission” performed by Rick Danko (from Live On Breeze Hill, 1999)
Rick Danko’s quaking, endlessly expressive voice gave this song wings 31 years before, and Rick Danko’s quivering, shattered vocals shot it down in the months before his sad death in December 1999. By that time, his voice was absolutely ruined, reduced to a cloying whine that makes the song sound like it was as hard to sing as it is to listen to. After scaling a brilliant three-album peak, The Band fell hard, both artistically and emotionally. At least on terms of the former, no one fell harder than Rick Danko, and when you go back to the originals, it’s utterly heartbreaking.
05. “The Weight” performed by The Staple Singers (from Soul Folk In Action, 1968)
Dozens upon dozens of versions exist of this, The Band’s most famous song, but the choice for this compilation was unthinkably simple. The Staple Singers, often cited by The Band’s members as a prime influence on Music From Big Pink, are without a doubt the greatest gospel ensemble of all-time, and their cover of “The Weight” is as good of evidence of that than anything. Their voices lifting with a grounded swagger, the Staples make this deeply Biblical song the dreadful hymn that it always hinted at being.
06. “We Can Talk” performed by The Band (recorded at Royal Albert Hall, June 2, 1971)
And so we reach the roadblock in this project. Or do we? No cover versions exist of side two’s opener, but then again, how can any? One of The Band’s main selling points is the vocal prowess of its three singers, Manuel, the soul; Danko, the heart; and Helm, the fist. This particular song is a complicated web of overlapping vocals, and finds the group at its most playful until “Rag, Mama, Rag” on the next album. This live version only further recreates the joyful spree of this track, and goes to show than no one can really do The Band like The Band.
07. “Long Black Veil” performed by Johnny Cash (from At Folsom Prison, 1968)
Who better to represent the only cover on the album than the man who’s made a career of epitomizing the song’s subject. A tale of murder, accusation, betrayal, and adultery, Cash indeed gives the definitive rendition of "Long Black Veil", and does so on Folsom Prison, where his very audience could have lived his words. Many point to this song as Music From Big Pink’s unequivocal lowlight, and, as good as it is, they’re certainly right. The Band did it beautifully mournful, but Cash does it sinisterly real. In other words, the right way.
08. “Chest Fever” performed by The Godz (from Mongolians, 1987)
The Thurston Moore-approved Godz tackled this massive Garth Hudson-led tune on a strangely polished 1987 outing. On second thought, they were probably covering the Three Dog Night version that I didn’t have the heart to include here.
09. “Lonesome Suzie” performed by Blood, Sweat, and Tears (from 3, 1970)
This straightforward cover sinks admirably in a vein attempt to match Richard Manuel’s aching falsetto and The Band’s tranquilly reassuring playing, and just leaves you wishing for a truly soulful rendition that doesn’t call Michael McDonald to mind. Things get a little more interesting when the moaning horns come into play, and when they do, this overblown version begins to feel like a positive guilty pleasure.
10. “This Wheel’s On Fire” performed by Siouxie & the Banshees (from Through The Looking Glass, 1987)
Opening with “Turning Japanese”-like strings in place of Hudson’s eerie keyboards, this slice of terse 80s Goth rock exemplifies The Band’s far-reaching influence-- in choice. Musically, it’s pretty far removed, but Siouxie Sioux’s inspired wailing goes a long way. In hindsight, The Byrds’ equally looming take on the track would be a better fit here, but frankly, theirs didn’t do much to inspire the version that operated as the theme song to Absolutely Fabulous.
11. “I Shall Be Released” performed by Nina Simone (from To Love Somebody, 1969)
Mostly due to its Dylan affiliations, this song, too, has seen numerous cover versions, and nearly all of them are terrible. Eager to play into the song’s anthem-like undertones, countless acts have staged ridiculous, grandstanding performances. But only Richard Manuel and Nina Simone had the grace to play it with an understatement that crushes so hard that it sounds like a wilting torch song. This track undoubtedly finds Simone at the top of her game. Among minimal, echoing backing, she sings with a refined ease that masks the desperation inherent in the lyrics. The operatic ending is evidence of the stunning power of her admittedly stunted vocals. Like the prisoner in the song, Simone grasps for everything she has and finds final release in a God-given gift.
Reviewed by: Colin McElligatt
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01