This story is over 5 years old.

Retrospective Reviews: The Band's 'Music From Big Pink'

On the humble beginnings of the legendary Canadian-American rock group.
July 4, 2014, 6:14pm

One of the most eclectic rock works of all time, Music From Big Pink was the debut album for Toronto roots-rockers The Band. Don’t worry if you’re unfamiliar with this simply named outfit, you’re among the large number of popular music listeners living in complete ignorance. Oh the joy I get when someone asks me who I’m listening to and I say The Band only to be asked the question over and over again.


Try combining the sounds of roots rock, Americana, country, folk, blues, and jazz, and THEN mix it with three-part harmonies and a badass organ, and you have the foundation for Music From Big Pink. In their ability to create such a musical assortment, The Band truly were musical pioneers. Levon Helm of Arkansas, Rick Danko of Simcoe, Richard Manuel of Stratford, Robbie Robertson of Toronto, and Garth Hudson of Windsor started out backing infamous showman Ronnie Hawkins before parting ways and testing out their luck as a main attraction. However, as Big Pink demonstrates, luck was never needed.

The Band moved to West Saugerties, New York, where they purchased a small home in the Catskill Mountains which they called Big Pink (due to the house’s brightly colored exterior). It was here that the members of The Band, alongside good friend and frequent collaborator Bob Dylan, sat and wrote the songs that would make up their debut album. Among the most notable of these songs sits “The Weight”, a track that has been used countless number of times throughout popular culture and remains one of The Band’s greatest hits. Listed at #41 on Rolling Stones 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time, “The Weight” possesses a certain southern-gospel aesthetic and perfectly combines the unique voices of Manuel, Danko, and Helm to create a passionately soulful vocal blend.

Their ability to showcase each individual member’s talent is perhaps what made the album so successful; Levon’s tasteful drum fills and farm-boy vocals, Robbie’s raunchy guitar licks, Rick’s hoppy bass-lines and eccentric vocals, Garths classically tasteful musicianship, and Richard’s soulful presence and piano abilities all take their turn at the helm (pun intended) of Music From Big Pink. And these talents are seldom overlooked; Rolling Stone Magazine lists the album at #34 on their list of the 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time, and headlining acts such as Pink Floyd, My Morning Jacket, and Wilco have all listed the album as a major influence.

Music From Big Pink also came at a time when the British were musically kicking North America’s ass. The Yardbirds, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles; the British Invasion was in full effect and showed no signs of slowing down. Thankfully The Band showed up and proved to the world that Canadian music was still significant and influential on its own. In fact, Big Pink was so influential that it was a major factor in Eric Clapton’s decision to quit his then-successful rock trio Cream (he’s even known to admit that he always dreamed of being a member of The Band). If that doesn’t convince you of the importance of this album then I don’t know what will.

I could go on for hours about each tiny little detail of every single song on the album — how “Chest Fever” has some of the coolest drum fills I’ve ever heard, how the lyrics to “Long Black Veil” tell one of the greatest, most ironic stories in North American folklore, or how Richard Manuel’s falsetto whimpering in “I Shall Be Released” stills puts a lump in my throat to this day — but really, what’s the point? The most incredibly poetic assortment of words wouldn’t do this album an iota of justice. You just have to sit back, take a load off, and get lost in the music.

Adam Lalama is a writer living in London, Ontario. He's on Twitter.