Rockin’ before she could walk, a vinyl hound who can’t remember a thing because the words to all songs from 1960-2019 are stuck in her head.
The Band were already veterans of the road by the time Woodstock rolled around. Levon Helm had been playing and touring since 1957 or so, Robbie Robertson since 1960. They had seen it all.
This series of articles—32 in all—covers each of the artists who performed at the original Woodstock festival August 15-18, 1969. Ten Years After had just played what was arguably one of the most memorable songs to come out of Woodstock, and after The Band, Johnny Winter was on the bill.
The five original members of the Band—Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson—first came together as The Hawks, the backing band for Toronto-based rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. They played with Hawkins mostly around the Toronto area, but they also did some limited touring during their time with him.
The guys were all excellent musicians in their own right. Hawkins had actually lured Robertson, Danko and Manuel away from competing bands on the circuit. All-night jams after their gigs ended meant that the band was tight as an outfit, and it didn't take long for them to outgrow Hawkins musically. That, and Hawkins' heavy-handed style of managing the band, caused the guys to split from him in 1963. They performed for a time as Levon and The Hawks, and even recorded a few singles and worked periodically as session musicians. One of these sessions would lead them to their big break. In 1965, Robertson, Helm and Hudson had worked on an LP being recorded by American bluesman John Hammond. When Bob Dylan was looking for a backing band, Hammond recommended The Hawks. The Band was born.
Bob Dylan and The Band toured from September 1965 through May 1966, though Helm spent only a month with the tour and was replaced by a couple of different drummers. On July 29, 1966, while on a break from touring, Dylan was injured when he crashed his beloved Triumph motorcycle near his home in Woodstock, NY. After the crash, Dylan retreated to his home in Woodstock, and though he continued to write and record, he made few appearances and didn't resume touring again until January 1974.
In February 1967, Dylan invited the guys to join him in Woodstock. They rented a house near Woodstock that had distinctive pink siding. They named it "Big Pink," and set about recording a number of tapes with Dylan, either in the basement at Big Pink or in Dylan's home studio. These recording sessions ended in October 1967, by which time Helm had rejoined the band. They began writing and recording their own songs, and the house they lived in in West Saugerties, New York was the inspiration behind the name of their debut LP.
Music from Big Pink was released July 1, 1968 to critical acclaim but sparse sales. Dylan had offered to sing on the album, but realized that it was important for the band to establish themselves as a unique musical act and not just his backing band. Instead, he gave them permission to include three songs he had written or co-written, "This Wheel's on Fire," "Tears of Rage" and "I Shall Be Released." Dylan also contributed a painting that was used as the cover for the LP. The song "The Weight," written by Robertson, peaked at #63 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart. This classic album sounds just as great today, and I still play my vinyl copy regularly. Music From Big Pink was recorded in only two weeks, with no overdubbing. A remarkable feat.
In the spring of 1969, The Band embarked on their first tour as a stand-alone act. Their very first performance was at Stony Brook University on New York’s Long Island. Their manager, Albert Grossman, who also managed Dylan, booked them to play Woodstock.
You kind of felt you were going into a war. There weren’t any dressing rooms because they’d been turned into emergency clinics...The crowd was real tired and a little unhealthy.
— Levon Helm, recounting his Woodstock experience in his memoir "This Wheel's On Fire."
The Band's Woodstock
Dylan was one of the few big acts not on the bill at Woodstock. But seeing his former backup band listed among the acts appearing gave the festival goers hope that Dylan himself would put in appearance...he didn't.
The Band—Robbie Robertson (guitar, vocals), Rick Danko (bass, vocals), Levon Helm (drums, vocals, mandolin), Garth Hudson (organ, piano, clavinet, synthesizer, saxophone) and Richard Manuel (piano, organ, vocals, drums)—finally took the stage at 10:00 p.m. on Sunday night. They opened their set with the bluesy number “Chest Fever” from their LP, with Helm and Danko taking care of the vocals. They then performed a great cover of Marvin Gaye’s R&B classic “Baby Don’t You Do It.” Next up was a beautiful version of the ballad “Tears Of Rage," co-written by Dylan and Manuel, with Manuel handling the lead vocals.
The Band Performing "Tears of Rage" at Woodstock
“We Can Talk” was next on the list, a beautiful song written by Manuel that graced side two of their album. It was Danko's turn at lead vocals next, with a wonderful cover of "Long Black Veil," also from Big Pink. A fun number written by Dylan was next, and saw Helm pick up the mandolin and come out from behind his kit, with Manuel doing duty on the drums for this number. "Don't Ya Tell Henry" was a song they had recorded with Dylan at Big Pink.
Up next was "Ain't No More Cane," a soulful take on this traditional prison work song. That was followed by a pair of Dylan tunes, “This Wheel’s On Fire” and a fabulous rendition of “I Shall Be Released.”
Helm was behind his kit for their next number, a song the crowd was already familiar with. The Woodstock crowd had been waiting for a big number, and they roared their approval at the opening notes of "The Weight."
The Band Performing "The Weight" at Woodstock
Called back to the stage for an encore, The Band performed a great cover of the Four Tops’ R&B hit “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever,” with Danko taking care of vocals on this one.
They wrapped up their set just before 11:00 p.m. The Band didn't think their performance was up to snuff, so didn't allow it to be used in the 1970 film or on the soundtrack.
The Fabulous Mr. Levon Helm
Life After Woodstock
The Band's original lineup released six more studio albums from 1969-1977, with each of them reaching a respectable position on the Billboard album chart. Their second self-titled effort in 1969 reached the #9 position and went on to be certified Platinum. "Stage Fright," their 1970 release, reached the #5 spot and was certified Gold. After they relocated to LA, they continued to tour off and on, with all of them falling victim to substance abuse at one point or another.
The original lineup performed their last concert on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1976. Called "The Last Waltz," the event at The Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco featured Thanksgiving dinner for the audience of 5,000, followed by a star-studded concert that was filmed by Martin Scorsese. Guests included Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Paul Butterfield, Emmylou Harris, Ringo Starr, Neil Young, Ronnie "The Hawk" Hawkins, Dr. John, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, Muddy Waters, Ronnie Wood and Eric Clapton. The film and album from the concert were released in 1978.
The Band continued to reunite and perform in various forms beginning in 1983, but never again performed with all of the original members present. Manuel took part in some reunion work and also performed with Danko, but depression and drug use took their toll, and in 1986, Manuel took his own life while touring with The Band. Danko worked with a number of well known artists including Ringo Starr, Paul Butterfield and members of The Byrds. He died of heart failure in 1999 after years of drug abuse. Helm was extremely busy as a solo artist, and started his famous Midnight Rambles in his barn in Woodstock, New York. He died of throat cancer 2012. Robertson continues to write, perform and produce music and has also worked on a number of movie scores. He released a biography in 2016 called Testimony. This is a great book for any fan of The Band, and contains lots of background on their early days. I highly recommend it if you love "stories from the road." Hudson has continued to work as a session musician, and in 2010, released an album of covers of The Band's songs, all performed by Canadian artists, including Blue Rodeo, Cowboy Junkies and Neil Young.
Five Musical Facts
- Levon Helm had actually been invited by Ronnie Hawkins to join The Hawks while he was still in high school. His mother insisted he had to finish school first, so in 1958, Helm joined The Hawks and moved from Arkansas to Toronto, Canada.
- Bob Dylan and The Hawks were booed by folk purists everywhere they went. It was this abuse from audiences at their shows that led Helm to quit the group during the 1965-66 tour.
- Speculation whirled about Dylan's motorcycle accident. Many claimed that he hadn't been in an accident at all, but was trying to kick a heroin habit. Dylan himself said he was just burned out and wanted to get away after the accident. In his book Testimony, Robertson says that Dylan was actually pretty banged up, and had to wear a neck brace for several weeks after the spill due to some fractured vertebrae.
- The reason the crowd at Woodstock recognized the song "The Weight?" It had appeared on the soundtrack for the movie Easy Rider, which was released July 14, 1969.
- Throat cancer would initially claim Helm's voice, but he battled back, regained his voice and even released a comeback album in 2007. Dirt Farmer went on to earn the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album in 2008. In November 2008, Rolling Stone added Helm to its list of 100 Greatest Singers of All Time at #91.
© 2019 Kaili Bisson
Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on July 07, 2019:
The Weight is a great song, that's for sure. I have watched The Last Waltz a number of times, and if you haven't seen that before, it is worth checking out.
John Hansen from Gondwana Land on July 06, 2019:
The Band were great, reminding me a bit of Creedence Clearwater Revival. As Flourish and Pamela said, it is such a shame that drugs effected so many talented artists of the time. The Weight will always be remembered as their signature tune.
Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on June 27, 2019:
Drugs were everywhere in the '60s, which made it hard for any of these artists to avoid. It was just part of the music culture it seems...maybe still true today?
FlourishAnyway from USA on June 27, 2019:
I’m glad Levon Helm’s mother made him finish high school. That is a good example. It’s be interesting to know who of the big stars were high school dropouts. Drugs have really been a huge encumbrance for so many artists.
Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on June 25, 2019:
Yep, only Dylan's former backup musicians, The Band, were there, not the man himself. Though, the audience apparently was hooting throughout the set and wanted him to appear.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on June 25, 2019:
I didn't think Dylan played at Woodstock. It is sad that so many musicians at that time ended up using such strong drugs as their music was great. This is another interesting article about musicians in that era.