Monday, December 07, 2015
NORTHERN LIGHTS-SOUTHERN CROSS
Few groups have had such a radical influence on their peers as The Band. The first two releases ("Music from Big Pink" and "The Band") sent psychedelic taste makers reeling, leaving them face down on the canvas in the late sixties. Eric Clapton listened to "Big Pink" incessantly and wanted to join the quintet. After hanging out with them late in 1968, George Harrison's playing during the "Get Back" sessions echoed what Robbie Robertson was doing, who, in turn, was inspired by Curtis Mayfield. (That opening guitar figure in "Don't Let Me Down" is a very close cousin of the one which heralds "The Weight") Triumphant in invoking the true spirit of roots music, their gift for reading each other as ensemble players made it all seem effortless. Those songs have retained their power over time, still fresh and pure as the three voices that shaped them. Having set the bar quite high, it was inevitable that the third LP would come under heavy scrutiny. Pressure to produce another masterpiece, along with escalating indulgences on the part of key members of the team, would see a tapering off of the creative momentum that pushed them into the realm of recognition that they now inhabited in 1970. "Stage Fright" and "Cahoots" had the goods, though the reception for each was somewhat chilly compared to what had come before. Robertson was the main composer, though it seemed that his muse had temporarily checked out. The stop-gap measure would involve issuing a double live set (Rock of Ages), taking a brief group hiatus and recording a brilliant album of material by artists that had inspired them (Moondog Matinee).
Diminishing commercial fortunes now greeted the group as the seventies ticked on. In the dying months of 1975, The Band gently sent this quiet beauty out on the stormy seas of a consumer culture that had changed quite dramatically. "Northern Lights- Southern Cross" would be their first LP to feature all original compositions since "Cahoots".
Boards on the window, mail by the door,
Why would anybody leave so quickly for
Ophelia, where have you gone?
Curiously, this would be considered as a "comeback", though they really hadn't gone away.
"Acadian Driftwood" is the strongest track, with Manuel, Helm and Danko all taking lead parts in this epic tale that loosely describes the plight of Acadians displaced by the French and English conflicts that arose in the 1800's. Robertson chalked up two instant classics with "Ophelia" and "It Makes No Difference." Rick Danko's performance of the latter lifts the song with an aching soulfulness that few singers ever achieve, regardless of experience or technique.
Filling the spaces with tasteful keys and horns is the always brilliant Garth Hudson, employing synth textures that give the sound a contemporary feel. The professor was one of the early pioneers in exploring this technology, sometimes designing models to his own specifications. Genius is an underestimation of his capabilities. Manuel and Helm turned in their usual spot-on vocal and instrumental contributions, with the shuffling rhythms of the dance floor showing up in a couple of places. There are no serious concessions to the robotic disco beat that was steadily hijacking the popular music scene at that time, though "Jupiter Hollow" and "Ring Your Bell" are pretty "four on the floor" for these guys. Levon and Rick were masters of creating space as the rhythmic quarterbacks of the band, though their secret was to never overplay.
Despite all moves toward working together productively as they once had, the tight knit unit of old was coming apart. Interpersonal issues around writing credits and aforementioned substance abuse ("Forbidden Fruit" doesn't even come close to the real story) were now taking a serious toll on the group dynamic, though they managed to rally in Malibu to deliver this last truly great effort. An upbeat energy pervades this project, which is quite remarkable in light of their circumstance at that point. This return to form is an enjoyable listen in all respects while remaining criminally overlooked in their catalog.
Within a year, the five original members would take their final bows together with "The Last Waltz".