Simply put, the Band is one of the greatest bands in rock 'n' roll history. They’ve proven this through their work with Bob Dylan, both during his infamous 1965 electric world tour as well as the famed Basement Tape sessions in Upstate New York. And that’s not even mentioning their impressive, influential solo material, which played a major role in shaping the Americana music movement of the 1960s.
History has been kind to the Canadian-American group composed of Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Levon Helm (the sole American). It’s why we placed them at number two on our list of the 100 greatest Canadian bands ever.
"As far as mixing R&B, folk and country music together, that's the number one piece of history that you're going to have to learn about. The Band is where you've got to start," Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes said about the group.
But what are their best songs? In the gallery below, we present what we think are the top 10.
Just to clarify, to be included on this list, at least one of the Band members has to be co-credited on the writing of the song, so that disqualifies some amazing songs composed during the Basement Tape sessions with Dylan, such as “When I Paint my Masterpiece,” which is credited solely to Dylan but was released by the Band first. The same goes for “I Shall be Released,” penned by Dylan, released first by the Band, and containing the finest vocal delivery of Richard Manuel's career.
With that out of the way, on to the list. What are your picks for the greatest Band songs ever?
10. “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)”
Robbie Robertson was always obsessed with tales of the working man, and nowhere is this captured so well as on "King Harvest," which is told from the point of view of a poverty-stricken farmer who is desperately depending on his crop coming in. “There are a lot of people who think, come autumn, come fall, that's when life begins. It's not the springtime, where we think it begins, it's the fall, because the harvests come in," Robertson said of the song to author Craig Harris for the book The Band: Pioneers of Americana Music.
9. “Tears of Rage”
This is one of the songs to come out of the Band’s famed Basement Tape sessions that is credited to both Bob Dylan and a member of the Band. In this case Richard Manuel, who wrote the melody and handled the vocals when it was released on the Band’s debut in 1968. It’s considered one of the most acclaimed tracks to emerge from the Basement Tape sessions. If you need proof, look no further than the chorus: “Tears of rage, tears of grief, why must I always be the thief? Come to me now, you know we're so alone, and life is brief.”
8. “Stage Fright”
One of the greatest songs ever written about the act of performing, full of anxiety, cynicism and a sort of Sisyphean angst. But after going through all that, which includes some major key changes and an impressive organ solo, it ends back where it begins but with a narrator who is ultimately triumphant.
7. “Acadian Driftwood”
One Robbie Robertson’s historical classics, this one's about the expulsion of the Acadians during the French and Indian War. It’s the Northern version of Robertson’s Civil War ballad “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and even if it has been criticized for taking some creative liberty with the facts, it’s earned its place in the Canadian songbook along the likes of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” One of Robertson’s most evocative compositions.
6. “Up on Cripple Creek”
A song about a trucker, with a tempo and groove perfect to listen to during long overnight hauls. Robbie Robertson, in his continuing attempts to capture the everyday goings on of the everyman, wrote this country-funk romper about a driver who’s headed to see his girl, “Bessie,” in order to drink, gamble and God knows what else. Of note: it’s one of the earliest songs to use the clavinet, made a funk standard by Stevie Wonder a few years later.
5. “The Shape I’m In”
A tragic song in the tragic history of the Band. Robertson wrote “The Shape I’m In” based on what he saw as Richard Manuel’s losing battle with depression, drugs and alcohol. Manual, the lead singer on this song, would eventually take his own life, giving the lines, “Out of nine lives I spent seven. Now how in the world do you get to heaven?” an extra sense of poignancy.
One of the best songs from the Band’s 1975 album Northern Lights - Southern Cross was inspired by Hamlet’s ill-fated lover, Ophelia. Helm’s vocals on this are so perfect, so essential, that the song will always be associated with him. He continued to perform this song well after the Band’s breakup, right up to the end of his life. Even throat cancer couldn’t keep him from belting this one out. Gives you chills watching him strain his remaining voice to nail this.
3. “It Makes no Difference”
The Band had three of the greatest voices in the rock 'n' roll of their time, and “It Makes No Difference” may be one of the best displays from Rick Danko. Danko’s tremulous voice perfectly captures the heartache and pain in Robertson’s lyrics, which are about a former love. “I thought about the song in terms of saying that time heals all wounds," Robbie Robertson said at the time of the song's release. "Except in some cases, and this was one of those cases." Also, the way Garth Hudson comes out of nowhere at the end on sax? Doesn’t get any better.
2. “The Weight”
There are few things guaranteed in life, but one of those guarantees is this: if any band, not even just the Band, closes out a concert with “the Weight,” everyone in the audience will be belting out “take a load off Fannie” by the time the chorus hits. With it’s textured lyrics and biblical allusions, as well as its mix of folk, country and gospel, it’s become a standard of the American songbook, covered by everyone from Aretha Franklin to the Black Keys. It’s the Band’s best known song for a reason.
1. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”
If there’s a greater song about the Civil War written by a Canadian, we haven’t heard it. Robbie Robertson had the melody for this in his head for a while, but wasn’t sure what it was going to be about. Once he decided he was going to write a song about the dying days of the Civil War from the point of view of a Southerner, Levon Helm, a native of Arkansas, told him to hit the books to be sure he got it right. "Robbie and I worked on 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' up in Woodstock. I remember taking him to the library so he could research the history and geography of the era and make General Robert E. Lee come out with all due respect," Helm wrote in his book, This Wheel’s on Fire. From the stream-of-conscious lyrics worthy of Faulkner, which take you into the head of Virgil Caine, to that climactic rhythm section and the way the piano offsets the drums, to Helm’s inimitable voice, it’s one of the finest songs the Band ever wrote. An interesting side note: Helm refused to perform the song after the Last Waltz concert in 1976.
Follow me on Twitter: @JesseKG