In the late-sixties/early seventies, a new genre—pioneered by CSNY, Gram Parsons, Dylan, the Grateful Dead, and a host of others—brought down-home country sounds to mainstream rock audiences. So-called “Country Rock,” however, mostly emanated from a Los Angeles scene that grew farther from both country and rock and strayed into easy listening territory (or “Yacht-rock”; think late-period Eagles), or jam-band land. But one band never dissolved into soft rock or aging psychedelia: The Band. The four hard-working Canadians and a man from Arkansas named Levon Helm took their country sound more from Helm’s hometown of Turkey Scratch than Laurel Canyon. The Band ignored almost every trend in contemporary pop music and focused on tightly crafted, loosely-played songs that hewed close to the roots music that seemingly ran through their veins.
In 1970, when they played the concert recorded above, the five unassuming mustachioed men also graced a Time magazine cover under the banner “The New Sound of Country Rock.” With songs like “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Weight,” The Band earned the distinction. Their journey brought them from backing band for rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, then Bob Dylan, then finally emerging on their own with their nondescript name in 1968. The name says a lot about The Band’s ethos—there didn’t seem to be an ounce of vanity in what they did, with each member contributing to songwriting and vocal duties. It might be said that the “country” in their sound was powered by drummer, mandolin-player, and sometime lead singer Helm (they once briefly broke off from Hawkins and toured and recorded as Levon and the Hawks), but The Band, and Levon, were also a top-notch blue-eyed soul singers, as you can hear clearly in their mid-sixties output.
In the footage above, from a show at Pittsburgh’s Syria Mosque, watch Helm, Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel work their saloon-room country/soul magic and smooth vocal harmonies on four songs: “Time to Kill,” “The Weight,” “This Wheel’s on Fire,” and “Up on Cripple Creek.” And don’t let the term “country rock” put you off. You don’t have to like country music to love what these guys do so well.
Josh Jones is a writer, editor, and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness