Ever since we went to see “Once Were Brothers” at a local theater, I’ve been trying to get some words down about The Band and how I feel about the state of music in general. Now is as good a time as any with the sound of “The Last Waltz” floating up the stairs.
I’m not old enough to have listened to The Band when they were at their peak. I was a little over a year old when they filmed “The Last Waltz”, after all. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-20s that I was exposed to them in any real way. I’m sure somewhere in all my teen years listening to classic rock I must have heard “Cripple Creek” at least, but it didn’t draw me in at the time.
Something happened when they finally did click for me. I think grunge was winding down and I was moving out of my prog rock phase. Tara got into The Band first and then, as she’s wont to do, pulled me along with her. At first I had to work a little to really get them, but there was something about the way The Band played and sang and wrote that touched on something I was missing. There was a gut-punch and an elevation at the same time. For lack of a better way to put it, they felt like real music. Root in my heart as well as “roots” in their style.
I had a fair amount of immersion in their stuff at the time. I got to see Rick Danko and Garth Hudson play at The Tin Angel in Philly. I followed Levon Helm’s Barn Burners around for a bit and then went to a couple Rambles up at Helm’s farm. I knew at the time I was seeing something special, something fading. I embraced it an enjoyed it as long as it lasted.
Life moves on and phases come and go and somewhere along the line I stopped listening to them so much. Other bands came into focus, music styles changed, and my taste evolved, as it continues to do. Lately though, I’ve been feeling like something’s been missing.
I don’t listen to the radio. Top 40 has no draw for me anymore, I can’t connect with it. I’ve found bands here and there that have been played often enough for me say I’m a fan. As a sampling, Stars, The Decemberists, Titus Andronicus, Charly Bliss, The Unlovables, all great stuff.
The last year or so I’ve been finding it harder and harder to uncover new music I connect with. Around my house we say there’s too much “boop boop” music, which is the only way we can come up with to describe the heavily produced, computer-generated sounds that dominate the airwaves and charts (and ugh, Grammys) today.
But it’s not just the instrumentation that’s a challenge for me. I absolutely adore Sylvan Esso, after all, and they are purely electronic, while managing to hold onto an ephemeral balance between warmth and the digital. They are unfortunately a rare exception for me. I have trouble finding a soul in what I’m hearing out there.
For that matter, I’m also having trouble finding truly new and original sounds for all the hours I spend trawling through Spotify and Bandcamp. I listened to a recommended playlist recently. As each track came on I listened with an open mind, hoping for something new. I found myself repeatedly saying “ooh, that sounds like XYZ artist. I didn’t know they had a new thing out” only to check the playlist and find it was someone I’d never heard before. There is so much disappointingly derivative stuff out there.
I have a sense that this is where the democratization of media has gotten us. Curation is non-existent now and while I would not go back to the old gate-keeping days, there is something to be said for those DJs and others who once waded through the flood of releases for us and helped bring the cream to the top. Honestly, the same goes for books, though that’s another essay for another time.
All in all, I’ve been feeling pretty dejected about the state of music, or at least the kind I might be interested in. I wasn’t sure how to accept that all the discs on my shelves were the best I was going to get. Then we went to see the documentary “Once Were Brothers”. It was the story of The Band, from their origins through the end. There in the darkened theater, I felt my heart lift again.
Sure, I knew all the songs, but I had let them fall by the wayside. Here they were coming back to me, as if I was hearing them for the first time. I was entranced, I mouthed the words, I felt rooted once more. When I got home, I stayed up late for the first time in ages. 2am found me listening to King Harvest and wishing the night didn’t have to end.
The Band is rock’n’roll. They’re country. They’re blues. They’re Americana in such a true way that you forget they’re largely Canadian. They’re also, from where I sit, timeless. Vocals by pretty much everyone in the group, instrument swapping as easy as breathing. Lyrics of deep emotion that range from joy to pain. They’re storytellers. They’re mine and yours and anyone else’s willing to give them a listen.
I’m still not sure what to do about finding new music to listen to. I don’t like being one of those folks who stops looking because “it’s not the way it used to be”. I suppose it’s true that music isn’t like it once was. Times have changed, technology has changed. For better or for worse, the world that produced a group like The Band doesn’t exist anymore. But I’ll go ahead and say it, The Band was part of a golden era of music, one we can’t get back, but we can visit now and then.
My approach now is a mix of comfort and challenge. I still keep digging and poking and turning over rocks to find something that hits me. I live in hope and those few rare moments I’m reward it make the effort worth it. At the same time, when “I pulled into Nazareth, was feeling ’bout half past dead. I just need some place where I can lay my head” and The Band will be there to take my load off and give me a “little love” who’ll dip a donut in my tea. Hee hee.