Across the Great Divide: The Band’s “Brown Album”

The Band
The Band

When it comes to legends in rock ‘n roll, the Band seemed to have left its mark in so many different genres and on so many influential musicians that it’s hard to keep track. Raised on the road by Ronnie Hawkins and later battered into shape by touring with Dylan during his conversion to electricity, the Band went on to influence everyone from George Harrison to Neil Young to and Eric Clapton (in fact, the Band may have been one of the factors for getting Clapton out of Cream), and has since served as a template for the resurrected Americana movements of the last decade.

From a critical standpoint, the group first managed to wow critics and fans with their debut homemade masterpiece Music From Big Pink (1968) and its return to simple, stripped-down songs and arrangements. However, it would be the Band’s self-titled sophomore record from 1969 (sometimes known as “The Brown Album”) which would catapult it into a stratosphere of commercial success.

Previous to the recording and release of this album, the Band had become somewhat of a rock ‘n’ roll mystery, elusive to the press and almost totally absent from live venues for nearly a year. For the recording of this album, the band members holed themselves up in a house in Los Angeles they rented from Sammy Davis Jr., converting his pool house into a recording studio. It would be within these strange and isolated confines that the Band would emerge with a follow-up to Big Pink. All but three of the album’s tracks would be finalized in this fashion, the latter three hashed out later at New York’s popular Hit Factory.

This would be the album that would come to define the sonic identity of the Band, which Robbie Robertson has described as that “woody, thuddy sound”. This was intentional on Robertson’s part as he strove to fully realize a rebellious sound that veered away from slick production, instead borrowing heavily from the old records that he cherished so much. From this sound of yesteryear came an album that seemed to emanate a vision of haunted Americana, delving into New Orleans Ragtime, Civil War tales from the Deep South, and countrified tales of betrayal and gospel redemption.

The three most recognizable tracks “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, “Across the Great Divide”, and “Up on Cripple Creek” stand out to this day as instant musical classics. As a songwriter, Robertson hit his stride on this record and as a group, all five members found a communal vision for translating these North American journeys through music and myth. However, there is more at work in the whole of the record that exceeds the strength of a few solitary classics. Songs such as the dark and enigmatic “Whispering Pines” and the heartbreaking “Unfaithful Servant” (which features a truly amazing vocal by Rick Danko) are equally essential in providing the album with its character and timeless ability to recast the lives of people struggling to survive.

Helm, Robertson, and Co. showed their passion for all genres of music and instrumentation by incorporating whatever was at their disposal in order to interpret each song. Whether pipe organs or tuba solos, the sound itself became the primary agent in dictating these stories of American Folklore. Such is the variety to be found here that a song like “Across the Great Divide”, which bears the marks of Curtis Mayfield and old Stax and Chess records, while “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” directs your imagination to a saloon filled with musicians that lived through the burning of Atlanta, Georgia. Credit for this must be given to Garth Hudson, an avid thrift store junkie, who was constantly acquiring and suggesting strange and bizarre instrumentation (including the now-famous wah-wah clavinet sound on “Up on Cripple Creek”), as well as to co-producer John Simon for helping to achieve such a bold sonic vision for the record.

Eventually, “The Brown Album” would climb up the Billboard charts, eventually reaching the notable position of number nine, and “Up on Cripple Creek” would be the group’s first and only Top 30 hit, eventually hitting number 25. After its release, the Band would carry on with other records, but tit would never again ascend to the same heights of writing and production as reached on this release. As evidenced by its countless fans and devotees, the magnitude of the album’s sound and conception continues to be felt over 40 years later.