Top 10 Band Songs
The Band first gained attention as Bob Dylan‘s backing band during his whirlwind tour of Europe in 1966. They were known as the Hawks then. By the time Dylan joined them a year later in a ramshackle house in Woodstock, N.Y. (where the singer-songwriter was supposedly recovering from a motorcycle accident) to record the songs that would become The Basement Tapes, they were well on their way to making their first album as the Band. Their first two albums are the ones everyone should own, but they released plenty of great music before the original five-man lineup split in 1977 after an all-star Last Waltz blowout in San Francisco. These are the Top 10 Band Songs.
‘The Shape I’m In’
By the time the Band recorded their third album in 1970, Richard Manuel’s drug and alcohol abuse was starting to take its toll on both him and his bandmates. Robbie Robertson wrote “The Shape I’m In” about Manuel, who sings lead on the song. The track’s funky shuffle reflects the third LP’s shift from the dusty Americana found on the Band’s first two albums.
After 1971’s Cahoots album, the Band settled into a period of transition. Filling the next few years with live records and an oldies cover album, the group didn’t have the same momentum as they did during their nonstop first few years. Chalk it up to a number of things, but in the early ’70s, when artists released at least one album per year, the four-year break between Cahoots and Northern Lights – Southern Cross was downright troubling. There are some good songs on the Band’s sixth album; “Ophelia” is the best.
‘Life Is a Carnival’
The opening song on the Band’s fourth album features a terrific horn arrangement by New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint. It’s also one of the group’s most musically ambitious cuts, a shuffling, funky blast of R&B that shows just how adept the Band were at mixing and mastering genres. It would be another four years before they made another record of original material (see No. 9 on our list of the Top 10 Band Songs).
‘Up on Cripple Creek’
No other record encapsulates Americana like the Band’s self-titled second album – from the famous black-and-white photo of the quintet that graces the cover to the rustic Civil War-era tone of so many of its songs. The slippery porch jam “Up on Cripple Creek” was the album’s first single and the Band’s highest-charting song, reaching No. 25.
‘This Wheel’s on Fire’
“This Wheel’s on Fire” was written by Bob Dylan and Rick Danko and originally surfaced during the Band’s fabled 1967 Basement Tapes sessions recorded with Dylan while he was recovering from a motorcycle accident. The version found on the Band’s debut album is livelier and spacier, rolling through a piercing guitar solo and some wild keyboard effects courtesy of Garth Hudson.
In concert, “Chest Fever” was usually paired with “The Genetic Method,” an instrumental intro played by the multi-talented Garth Hudson. It turned the song into a spotlight-hogging centerpiece. But it sounds almost as magnificent on the original studio version from the Band’s debut album, which features a searing dual vocal by Richard Manuel and Levon Helm.
After The Band painted a sepia-toned Americana hue over late-’60s rock ‘n’ roll, main songwriter Robbie Robertson wanted to wash away the ancient stain on the Band’s third album (see No. 10 on our list of the Top 10 Band Songs). Though it lacks the interplay found on the group’s first two LPs, Stage Fright is their most musically diverse record and features some great songs – including the dynamic title track.
‘I Shall Be Released’
Like “This Wheel’s on Fire” (see No. 6 on our list of the Top 10 Band Songs), “I Shall Be Released” was originally recorded during The Basement Tapes sessions with Bob Dylan, who wrote the song. But it’s the Band’s version on their debut album, featuring a gorgeous vocal by Richard Manuel, that stands as the definitive one. So much heartbreak and hope for redemption.
‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’
After Music From Big Pink, which was mostly made up of songs the Band were working on when they were holed up with Bob Dylan in Woodstock, the group started working on a new set of songs penned by Robbie Robertson about the South. Specifically, the Civil War era. Taken together, the 12 tracks tell stories about the people and places affected by the conflict – some farmers, some soldiers. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is the album’s most vividly rendered cut and its centerpiece.
“The Weight” has taken on almost mythical status since its release on the Band’s debut album. Everyone from Aretha Franklin to the Black Keys has covered it. And it remains one of the finest compositions of the past 50 years. Robbie Robertson loaded the song with references both obvious (all those Biblical ones) and not-so-obvious (who’s this Fanny anyway?) and a hook that’s as timeless as it is golden. An American classic.