Let’s not front: we all know how I feel about the Band. (Have you missed the memos? Short summary: my favorite band of all time except when it’s the Rolling Stones or Big Star.) So albums full of covers of the Band, I am into those, let us say. “Into” being a polite way of saying “covers of ‘the Weight’ turn me into a weepy puddle of emotional slop, let’s not talk about how I sobbed at the 506 when the Lumineers closed with it”.
Let’s also not front: this is a Garth Hudson vanity project in the worst way, except the thing is, if you are Garth Hudson, you can totally, totally make a vanity project that involves you rounding up your stupidly talented friends like Neil Young and the Sadies to cover songs that you, originally, arranged and made famous, and playing keys and organ on those covers just because you want to. Because you are Garth Hudson, and your organ sound with the Band is legendary, unmistakeable, groundbreaking, totally without peer.
But what Hudson has done here is give the artists he picked for the record free reign to make the songs their own, all accentuated, but not overwhelmed, by his keys and organ. I’ve never heard of Kevin Hearn or Thin Buckle, but their mellow, Cajun-flavored version of Dylan/the Band staple “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” is easily one of the best tracks on the album, a totally viable alternative to the uptempo, cheerful-chorused cover versions you usually hear. And honestly, seriously, haven’t you ever thought to yourself, you know, self, what my life is lacking is Neil Young and the Sadies covering “This Wheel’s On Fire”? Well, of course you haven’t. But you should have, because it was.
One of my favorite things about this record, as I’ve spent more time with it, is summed up in the paragraph above: I’ve never heard of a lot of these bands, and frankly, though I know most of these songs, I don’t know all of them well — this is a glorious love letter to a band (ahahaha … a band, The Band, I kill myself) from someone who does know that catalog well, who could go ahead and pick out songs like “The Moon Struck One” and “Move To Japan” and have bands I don’t know (but he clearly does, with great affection) play the hell out of them, and make a great album.
This album is amazing because it’s a surprise, and that’s not something that even I, with my unfettered adoration of Garth Hudson and the Band, could have predicted. I have other tributes to the Band records; they’re full of the songs you expect. “The Weight” is on all of them, even though it almost wasn’t on Music From Big Pink. (My favorite trivia about the Band. My second favorite is Garth Hudson talking about selling shoes.) I love “The Weight”. It’s my favorite song of all time (except when my favorite song is “Dead Flowers”), and I would have loved what any of the bands on this record, these bands I had never heard of but who I am now going to investigate, would have done with it. It’s hard to fuck up “The Weight”.
It could have been easy to fuck up any of the songs on this record, except for maybe “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”, and like I said: even that slightly sad, slightly wistful version is brilliant. These bands could have fucked them up because these songs are the Band’s songs, which is what Garth Hudson wanted. These are not the songs that the Band are known for, but they are clearly the ones that Garth Hudson loves. Only a member of the Band could have curated this collection, and that’s what makes it special.
When the lovely Roberta of ROMO*PR sent me this record, I am pretty sure that this isn’t the review she was really hoping that anyone would write. But like this album is Garth Hudson’s, this review is mine, because this is the only way I can really write about the Band, whose music has moved me since I was a very wee person just forming my own musical opinions.
Musically, this is a very good tribute album in the vein of very good tribute albums that have been released over the last few years; historically, as a love letter to one of the most influential rock and roll bands around, it is brilliant.