The far-reaching influence of The Band’s debut “Music From Big Pink”

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This week marks the 50th anniversary of the release of The Band’s seminal debut album Music From Big Pink.

In 1968, the musicians who would become The Band had mostly grown to prominence under another name, the Hawks. They were Bob Dylan’s backing group during his turbulent 1966 world tour.

A year later, while England and the West Coast were exploding with psychedelia, both Dylan and the Band would hole up in the basement of a pink house in New York and quietly draw the blueprints for a new direction in rock music.

Those blueprints would be influential in itself, but they would also inform the Band’s debut album, “Music From Big Pink.”

Dylan’s fingerprints remained on this album because he co-wrote three of the included songs that had taken shape during the “Basement Tapes” sessions. Those sessions stirred together blues and folk, country and classical, and would influence the Band’s own songs like “In A Station” and “Lonesome Suzie,” while bringing a new unique fragility to an already-classic Dylan-penned “I Shall Be Released,” thanks in no part to Richard Manuel, one of rock music’s most melancholic vocalists.

The album as a whole is ramshackle and messy, but never sloppy. Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel’s voices freely mix with each other as one voice, many voices, each one of them taking the lead vocals for every other song.

This interplay is perhaps what remains so influential about the album. It was perfected in their next self-titled album (1969) but the groundwork was laid here – – the camaraderie of a band playing back-to-roots music

Case in point is the Robbie Robertson-penned “The Weight,” but it sounds like a song that was uncovered and dusted off by five unique individuals. Helm, Manuel and Danko trade verses and all three meld into one for the chorus, encapsulating the “all for one, one for all” mentality that was the defining characteristic of the Band’s career.

Many of the Band’s contemporaries would later admit how much the album and the Band itself influenced them. Eric Clapton, who tried and failed to audition for the Band, abandoned the psychedelic Cream to pursue the more organic-sounding Blind Faith and Derek and the Dominoes into the early 1970’s.

Even the Beatles would attempt to cover the loose jamming feel of the “Basement Tapes,” even covering a few Band songs, during their “Let It Be” recording sessions in January 1969 with decidedly more depressing results. (Trivia: Paul McCartney ad-libs the three-month old “The Weight” during the play-out of “Hey Jude” in the official promo video, around 5:24.)

“Music From Big Pink” continues to draw a line that started with the Anthology of American Folk Music and continues to connect artists like Dave Matthews, Wilco, My Morning Jacket and the Lumineers. These bands take part in the constant pursuit of the new American roots music, but even more bands try to re-capture the musical democracy that remains the Band’s endearing legend.

Grab the album on vinyl here.

 

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