The time seems ripe for a re-examination of the incredible relationship between Bob Dylan and The Band.
There are several great reasons this year to take a deep dive:
Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature
A new expanded 15th anniversary edition of Martin Scorsese's Dylan documentary No Direction Home came out, containing lots of live footage of Dylan & The Band in 1965 and 1966.
and The Band's 1966 concerts with Dylan were released.
These items, along with 2014's The Complete Basement Tapes and the 1965 Dylan/Band concerts (which came out in 2015), offer us more complete picture, in words, songs, and videos of The Band and Dylan 1965 - 1976 than we've ever seen, heard, or read before. Looking at these materials, along with Planet Waves and the previously released live performances, allow a definitive exploration of this important collaboration which defined the Americana blend of folk, country, gospel, blues, and rock for our times and beyond.
The classic line-up of The Band: Robbie Robertson (guitar, main songwriter, background vocals), Levon Helm (drums, vocals), Rick Danko (bass, vocals), Richard Manuel (piano, vocals), Garth Hudson (organ). All members wrote lyrics and/or music and were multi-instrumentalists. They could play anything Dylan could throw at them.
Here are key moments in Dylan's history during the period he worked with The Band:
1965: Highway 61 Revisited, Newport Folk Festival, July 20. Dylan wants to tour with Michael Bloomfield and Al Kooper from the Highway 61 Revisited sessions. Bloomfield decides to play with The Paul Butterfield Blues Band instead, opening the door for Robbie & The Band. "Positively 4th St" recorded with Michael Bloomfield.
October 1965 - January 1966 - several attempts to record in New York City with The Band (feat two other drummers - Bobby Gregg, Sandy Konikoff) - Dylan not pleased with results
February 1966: Nashville Blonde on Blonde sessions with Robbie and Al Kooper
April/May 1966: Australia, Europe, UK: Dylan and The Band tour (with Mickey Jones on drums)
July 29, 1966: Dylan motorcycle crash, upstate New York, withdraws from public life
1967: Basement Tapes recorded, upstate New York (Great White Wonder 1969 first of many bootlegs of leaked tapes, Robbie's version released 1975, full version finally released 2014)
October 23, 1967: Woody Guthrie passes away
January 20, 1968 Carnegie Hall Memorial for Woody with The Band (The Crackers): "I Ain't Got No Home", "Mrs. Roosevelt", "Grand Coulee Dam"
November 1968: Dylan co-writes "I'd Have You Anytime" with George Harrison, (song on 1970 All Things Must Pass with "If Not For You"). No participation from The Band.
1968: Music from Big Pink, The Band's debut with Dylan painting on cover, feat "I Shall Be Released", "This Wheel's On Fire" (by Dylan & Rick), and "Tears Of Rage" (by Dylan & Richard)
May 1, 1969 - Dylan records at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium for broadcast on The Johnny Cash Show (aired June 7, 1969)
July 14, 1969 - Mississippi River Festival, Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, IL. Dylan played with The Band on "I Ain't Got No Home" (Woody Guthrie), "Slippin' And Slidin' "(Little Richard), "In The Pines" (trad., associated with Lead Belly, recorded by Nirvana as "Where Did You Sleep Last Night"). No known audio or video recordings exist, but here are two photos from the show:
August 31, 1969: Isle of Wight concert, Dylan with The Band. 17 songs, 4 on 1970's Self Portrait, entire concert on Deluxe Edition of Another Self Portrait (2013).
June 1970 Self Portrait, October 1970 New Morning. No participation from The Band on either.
, 1971: Dylan records in New York City with Leon Russell - "Watching The River Flow", "When I Paint My Masterpiece". No participation from The Band
August 1, 1971: Dylan at Concert for Bangladesh (George Harrison, Leon Russell). No participation from The Band
November 1971: Dylan's "George Jackson" single recorded and released. No participation from The Band
December 31, 1971 New Year's Eve Show, Bob Dylan and The Band, Academy of Music, New York City. Select tracks from December 28 - 31 concerts released as Rock Of Ages (1972), full concerts released as Academy of Music (2013)
1972: Pat Garrett - Dylan appears in film and records soundtrack, including "Knockin' on Heaven's Door". No participation from The Band
1973/1974 Dylan leaves Columbia Records for Asylum: Planet Waves (with The Band), Dylan (Columbia's revenge for Dylan leaving - odds and ends from Self Portrait and New Morning, no participation from The Band), 40 concerts with The Band (first full Dylan tour ), Before the Flood (live album, Dylan & The Band)
1974/1975/1976 Blood on The Tracks, Dylan back on Columbia Records, Rolling Thunder Revue tour, Renaldo & Clara (film), Desire. No participation from The Band on any of these projects.
1975 Robbie prepares a version of The Basement Tapes (widely bootlegged) for official release.
November 1976 The Last Waltz filmed/recorded (released 1978), Dylan plays with The Band.
It is interesting to read and hear many mentions from various quarters that Dylan needed to dump The Band, and Dylan, at times, had his doubts as well, but Dylan always picked the best musicians to work with, and his collaborations with The Band bore some of the sweetest fruit to harvest, a harvest which never ends.
Dylan shared song-writing credits very rarely. Although he wrote the first lines of "Ballad of Easy Rider", he asked Roger McGuinn to remove Dylan's name from the credits. The fact that Dylan shared two song-writing credits with The Band reveals he trusted them implicitly.
Dylan was unhappy with some of the recordings he tried with The Band after Highway 61, and heard many people telling him the reason people were booing the electric tour was the fault of The Band, yet after the motorcycle crash, he trusted The Band enough to do The Basement Tapes with them, even encouraging them to move to Woodstock and putting them on retainer.
It is amazing to hear The Band back Dylan in concert. The interplay between Richard's piano and Garth's organ is exquisite.
Another sign of the trust between Dylan and The Band is he chose them to be his backing band time and time again, despite having the opportunity to work with others - for the Guthrie Memorial show, the Isle of Wight Festival, and the 1974 tour.
I'd always appreciated Robbie's guitar work with Dylan, especially Planet Waves. I was surprised by two hardcore Dylan fans bad-mouthing Robbie at a concert we went to, but subsequently read Levon's book and came away from the experience definitely Team Levon.
Levon made some very bitter complaints about Robbie in his book. Others have too. He's too flashy. Too "mathematical" (that's what Dylan said - could be interpreted as pro- or anti-Robbie, really), too much of a ball hog, and not a team player. Levon and others thought they were cheated out of song publishing money and credit by Robbie and management (AKA Albert Grossman, manager of Dylan and Janis Joplin) who wanted to portray Robbie as a Native American "auteur" of all The Band's lyrics.
I was curious to see how Robbie handled these charges in his own book. He mostly avoids badmouthing Levon or anyone, except to say the other guys in The Band (namely Levon, Richard, and Rick) were largely sidelined at a certain point by heroin use. He goes out of his way to say that people were given credit on some songs.
Elliot Mazer has complained that Robbie was playing too loud and into Dylan's vocal mic at The Isle of Wight, and they had to do major corrections for release.
Sometimes his guitar is a bit much, but it usually does the trick, and the magical thing about The Band is how it all blended together - Robbie's guitar, the interplay between Richard's piano and Garth's organ (especially live), the marvelous lead vocals from Levon, Richard, Rick, the great harmony singing between Levon, Richard, Rick, and Robbie, Levon's powerful drumming (and lovely mandolin), Rick's steady bass, and Robbie' songwriting.
Dylan has worked with many talented musicians over time - Michael Bloomfield and Mick Ronson spring to mind, but some of his best work was done with The Band. Dylan was on fire at the time, and The Band were the perfect partners in crime to accompany him on that leg of the journey.