Tuesday, August 3, 2010

August 3: The Band, "The Weight"

Artist: The Band
Song: “The Weight”
Album: Music From The Big Pink
Year: 1968

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Songs that fall under the label of “Americana” though large in number, are few in a truly authentic feel.  While many bands have attempted to capture this feeling over the decades, in a majority of cases, the song pushed too far into a particular genre, and it becomes “that” style of music as opposed to the delicate blend that is “Americana.”  Pulling elements of country, blues, soul, and folk into a one-of-a-kind mixture, when this style is done correctly, it almost instantly becomes a timeless and endearing song.  Most bands would be satisfied with finding this “magic” combination once in their career, and yet there was one group that seemed to know it so perfectly, it flows from nearly every song in their entire catalog.  Rarely taking a break from their serious and complex musical creations, there was a time when few bands in the world were held in as high esteem as the outfit simply known as The Band.  The fact that even on their debt record, the group was able display such a high level of musicianship that was in many ways far from the mainstream, instantly made them a success in every sense of the word, and that album, 1968’s Music From The Big Pink, remains nothing short of a classic.  Filled with tales of traveling and amazingly introspective lyrics, all wrapped around some of the deepest and most diverse music of their generation, everything that makes The Band so superb can be found in their iconic 1968 single, “The Weight.”

In the entire history of recorded music, there are few songs that have as instantly recognizable an opening as one finds on “The Weight,” as the light acoustic guitar gives way to the somehow looming, count-off on the kick drum.  Moments later, the rest of the band comes in, and the resulting musical arrangement remains one of the most uniquely simple, yet somehow it overflows with sonic beauty.  The music centers around the interplay between the acoustic guitar of Robbie Robertson and the piano of Garth Hudson, and the duo create a sound that evokes the mood of a Western saloon or a campfire on the prairie.  As the song moves into the chorus, the piano moves forward in the mix, and the saloon feel becomes far more powerful.  Working in fantastic fashion alongside these two is the equally talented rhythm section of bassist Rick Danko and legendary drummer, Levon Helm.  The rhythm section at first seems a bit out of place, as they are almost playing a waltz-like beat, yet after a few bars, it clearly works and this is one of the many reasons why there are few songs that can compare to “The Weight.”  Somewhat buried in the mix is a Hammond organ played by Richard Manuel, but on later masterings, it is far more audible.  The collective sound found on “The Weight” stands in a category all its own, as the combination of a folk base and strong sounds from both soul and gospel yield a product that has yet to be equaled.

These moods of soul to an almost religious point can be more clearly heard within the absolutely phenomenal vocals of Levon Helm, and it is on “The Weight” that he instantly cemented himself as one of the finest singers in music history.  With one of the most naturally emotive voices one can find anywhere, Helm rarely pushes his voice on the song, and the slight twang in his singing (he was a native of Arkansas) gives “The Weight” an authentic feel that has rarely been matched.  This mood is pushed further when the rest of the band joins in on the harmonies, and one can easily make the case that these group parts are as good as any harmonies ever recorded.  The final verse of the song is sung by Danko, and one cannot overlook how perfectly he takes the mood set by Helm and gives it a fantastic ending.  When speaking of the lyrics, first and foremost, it is perhaps the most common  musical misnomer that the opening lines of “The Weight,” which go, “…pulled into Nazareth, I was feelin’ ‘bout half past dead…” are NOT referring to the biblical city, but to a small town in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania.  The town, in this sense, is significant as it is the home of Martin Guitars, and most of the characters that fill the lyrics were pulled from real life friends and family of members of The Band.  While “Miss Anna Lee” was in fact Helm’s girlfriend, every character in the song can easily be related to by anyone, and this universal feel that runs throughout “The Weight” is yet another aspect that makes it such a classic.

Serving as a notice that the landscape of music was about to change, The Band stormed out of the gates behind the power of their flawless 1968 debut record, Music From The Big Pink.  Masterfully blending folk, soul, blues, and many other styles into a sound all their own, The Band also represents a group that (for many reasons) “bowed out” of music at the right time.  With a career spanning just under a decade, it is truly impossible to find even a single sub-par song anywhere in the groups’ catalog.  Standing among their greatest musical feats, “The Weight” remains as fresh and musically influential today as it was more than forty years ago.  Though it is one of eleven extraordinary songs on their debut record, the song stands out as the albums’ finest for the overall mood, emotion, and musical performance one finds.  The song also was given a far wider exposure when it was perfectly placed into the classic 1969 film, Easy Rider.  Its presence in this film not only brought the music of The Band to a word-wide audience, but it also cemented the groups’ place as one of the finest purveyors of true “Americana.”  From the almost mesmerizing musical arrangement to the unquestionably heartfelt, soulful vocals, there are few songs that can be seen to be as “perfect” as The Band’s iconic 1968 single, “The Weight.”