Published on May 8th, 2020 | by Kim Kurtenbach0
Once Were Brothers
Kim helps us unpack the legend that is The Band by recapping some highlights from their illustrious career, which was recently compiled into a concise documentary.
If you’re old enough to have lived some of it in your childhood, or lucky enough to have been musically guided through history by loving hands, you know that Canada is responsible for one of the best bands the world. The documentary piece Once Were Brothers explains this with help from some friends, fans and collaborators of The Band that include Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Martin Scorsese. If you don’t believe me by the end of this article, you will believe these people by the time the credits roll on the 100 minute ode-to-a-time-capsule that is Once Were Brothers. Look, there are some people you just have to take at their word. If Mike Tyson says he’s going to knock you out; if O.J. Simpson says he’s ‘going to go crazy’; if Bob Dylan says they’re a magnificently talented band, you better sit up and pay close attention.
If mention of The Band leaves you struggling the name the members, ten songs or even two albums, you’re not alone. Surprisingly, notoriety of The Band and their achievements and exploits seem a little too below-the-surface of rock n’ roll history. Maybe they’re too Canadian (save Levon Helm, drummer, singer, songwriter, b. 1940, Elaine, Arkansas).
I’m going to dance you through some history and highlights, and fill in a little bit of missing pieces, all while avoiding too many specifics of the documentary itself: the pleasure of that discovery is all yours. Think of this as your first waltz.
The swirling tale of the band begins in Toronto and migrates south of the US border until concerts supporting the newly electric Bob Dylan become the daily routine. Dylan was a misunderstood artist, continually stretching his abilities beyond the borders of comfort and familiarity. He grew bold and strange and electrically Morpheus. He never played the same song the same way twice, and even the best musicians couldn’t figure out what the fuck he was going to do next at any given moment. He was fluid like Bruce Lee and needed to be surrounded by other musicians so practiced and so pure that they could easily bend without breaking.
Enter the Canadian musicians that Dylan would later refer to as his ‘knights in shining armor’. Dylan toiled and bled to reshape his folk persona and the band toured in support, resolutely, for months. Every night they were booed. But they soldiered on in the face of this adversity, crafting and shaping a world to come. And that’s what a musical revolution looks like. You’re welcome, rock n’roll.
Later, the group would take up residence in Woodstock, NY at Big Pink (a disgustingly pink bungalow in the country) to record further evolutions. Bob Dylan would join them to make The Basement Tapes, but they were already doing their best work regardless of the Mighty Bob Dylan, or the fact that Eric Clapton made his way up to Big Pink to ask if he could join their crew. C’mon! This is where the band became The Band.
The rock n’ roll stories we all tune in for crept into their grasp and routines: drink, drugs, women, car crashes and magnificent recordings. Boys struggled to become men, men to become husbands, spouses to became families. There were tales of mental health problems and addiction, but little was known on these topics at the time, and so their toll is incalculable. The Band was comprised of sweet and sensitive men, something rather against the celebrity statue of the times, where Dirty Harry and Death Wish stood tall as the masculine example.
Just as I began to ask myself “what still identifies these guys as Canadian?” a nice little story pops up: For the 1968 album Music From Big Pink, The Band insisted on having an album photo that included all of their families, based on the notion that they loved their parents and wanted to express that admiration, appreciation and respect on their record sleeve. Fold the record open and there it is. Not cool, by the estimations of so many American kids rebelling against their parents’ generation (the ones responsible for the Viet Nam war). But The Band didn’t care who knew they loved their mum and dad and all their brothers and sisters, and I can’t think of anything more Canadian.
Robbie Robertson once had a spark in his life to start playing music. A fire started and the flames rose, billowing above our heads in its majesty and might. Songs dripped down like a rain of embers, but we didn’t cover our heads. Instead, we laughed and danced. The Band became the Great Canadian Bonfire of beers and friends and bonds and dance. We smiled at one another, tears of delight in our eyes. But just at that moment, we realized it was all going to pass on like our grandparents before us, and all we would have are memories. And so, Robertson contacted Scorsese to make a film, a movie of the last concert The Band would ever play together. And they would bring all their friends. This is The Last Waltz.
On November 25th, 1976, American Thanksgiving, 5000 people paid an astronomical fee of $25 each for a feast and a concert. Most concert tickets at the time were an average of $6. Scorsese directed, filmed, and edited the occasion to perfection, never showing the reaction of the crowd, but rather concentrating on every look, nod, smile, toe tap and drip of sweat from the players on the stage. It was biblical. It was the end. Everyone knew it, so they treated the event like the way we treat a funeral when we call it a ‘Celebration of Life’. Few concerts have ever captured so much joy.
Once Were Brothers is a labour intensive patchwork of photos, film and music that provides viewers an excellent education of the overlooked and underestimated group of Canadians who provided the world with the music we now know as Americana.