For defunct rock groups, 1983 has become the year of the reunion. Among the acts from rock’s golden years re-forming are The Guess Who, The Animals, The Hollies and Simon and Garfunkel. But the most unexpected return is that of The Band, Canada’s most celebrated rock ensemble. Its farewell concert seven years ago was so lavish and final that it made any suggestion of reunion seem dishonest. Now, with a two-week, 11-city Canadian tour that included a July 4 stop in Toronto (at the CNE Bandshell), The Band is back, although without the services of guitarist Robbie Robertson.
From the heady days of the southern Ontario bar circuit in the 1960s to Martin Scorsese’s touching movie tribute, The Last Waltz, in 1976, The Band approached The Beatles and Bob Dylan in its originality. First the group—bassist Rick Danko, organist Garth Hudson, pianist Richard Manuel, drummer Levon Helm and Robertson—established itself as rock’s most versatile backup band with rockabilly star Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins and then, in 1965, with Dylan himself. That apprenticeship led to instant critical and commercial success when the group released its first album, Music from Big Pink, in 1968. Such songs as “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “The Weight” mined a motherlode of gospel, blues and country music. Amid the brash psychedelia of that era, the rock audience was ready for songs that focused on rural images and traditional values.
By 1976, The Band’s musical confidence had begun to waver, and the 16-year-old group decided to disband. Robertson moved to California and began writing film scores. Helm transferred his musical experience from stage to screen, making his acting debut in Coal Miner's Daughter. Meanwhile, Hudson, Manuel and Danko worked independently on various musical projects.
The ambitious reunion is the result of the energies of Helm (the only American in the band), who anchors the group. Last year his performances with Danko led to discussion about the others joining up. Manuel and Hudson were available, but Robertson considered the reunion a “business decision, not an artistic one” and declined. Helm, 43, admits that The Band misses the formidable guitarist-songwriter. “Naturally, you wish for the best,” he says. “But for now this is just a whole lot of fun, and the crowds seem to like it.”
The Band is giving crowds, which should grow to 40,000 by the end of the tour, more than just a nostalgic reprise of their old repertoire. Helm’s Arkansas cousins, The Cate Brothers, complement the foursome, and the sets offer a lively mix of The Band’s hallmark songs and venerable rock ’n’ roll standards. The rousing rendition of “I Don't Wanna Hang Up My Rock 'n 'Roll Shoes” offers proof that the group has not lost touch with its roots.
That sense of history is what rock writer Greil Marcus called the group’s greatest strength—its capacity for “demonstrating just what their years together had been worth.” Despite its missing member, The Band is still demonstrating that depth of experience.
Originally published in Maclean’s 18 July 1983