News and notes from Fredericksburg's entertainment scene
Equalizer: Living Among The Ruins
BY JONAS BEALS
THE FREE LANCE-STAR
My favorite rock ’n’ roll legend is the one about The Band causing the breakup of Cream. Although Cream had plenty of reasons to call it quits in 1968, its fate was allegedly sealed when guitarist Eric Clapton heard “Music From Big Pink” and realized his increasingly aggressive power trio would never approach the rootsy, ramshackle sound of The Band.
Even a simplified (or fabricated) myth is revealing. In this case, it suggests the greatest living rock guitarist of the time was humbled by a ragtag and largely egalitarian group of road-worn backup players recording in their basement.
It’s an easy myth to digest. Clapton was in the middle of a three-ring ego circus with Cream, and the easy collective swagger of The Band’s music must have been both frustrating and fascinating.
What floored Clapton about The Band in 1968 is the same thing that floors people whenever they hear “The Weight” for the first time. The Band is one of the few popular groups to successfully make music that maintains its significance without relying on its contemporary cultural zeitgeist for interpretation. Despite traditional rock instrumentation, The Band’s songs sound ancient—filled with gospel flourishes, ragged harmonies and the muted thumps of hardscrabble community marching bands. It’s a timbre that gives every song a sepia tone, a sound that is particularly appropriate when the lyrics deal with historic events.
In the winter of ’65, we were hungry, just barely alive
By May the 10th, Richmond had fell
It’s a time I remember oh so well.
Summers in high school involved a lot of driving around at night, which meant a lot of listening to the radio as the trees and farms of Spotsylvania County slid past our open windows.
Garth Brooks was usually there, with Alan Jackson and Reba McEntire. So were Nirvana and Pearl Jam and plenty of other mopey rock bands that toyed with the rampant boredom and natural insecurities of teenagers. Some of our parents’ bands were there: The Rolling Stones, The Who, Crosby, Stills & Nash.
And one night, driving under the thick canopy of hardwoods overhanging Jackson Trail, The Band came on. It was a song we were all familiar with. The car slowed and eventually came to a stop. The driver cut the engine. The radio stayed on, Levon Helm’s voice echoing off the trees and the gravel road below our tires.
The three of us got out of the car and stood in the darkness, listening as Helm’s exquisitely tortured voice sang about, if not the ground we were standing on, then a place linked in the popular imagination with our hometown.
We listened for the heartbreak of all the boys who had stood where we stood, who had marched in a weary pack to whatever home they were destined for. The foundation they built was there under our feet, in the very street names of our neighborhoods, in the name of our elementary school, where Robert E. Lee lost all historic significance from overuse on innocent lips.
Levon Helm sang “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and The Band made it sound like the rebirth of the world. We thought about the futility of fighting the wrong battles, the pain of losing, and the glory of living to cry about it. And we thought about how The Band taught us more about where we were from than any teacher ever did.
JONAS’ IN-TOWN PICK: Zach Deputy at The Otter House. Deputy plays island-infused drum ’n’ bass gospel ninja soul, or so he says. Friday at 10 p.m.
OUT-OF-TOWN PICK: Nick Lowe & His Band at The Birchmere in Alexandria. This legendary British singer/songwriter has had more influence on your favorite music than you think. Monday at 7:30 p.m.
LISTENING TO: “Furr” by Blitzen Trapper. Clever lyrics and a balanced mix of country, folk and rock make for a beautiful song by this Portland, Ore., group.
Jonas Beals: 540/368-5036