It took me a few years to realize that The Band was working, subliminally, to become one of my favorite musical groups. Whether it was a gateway or a back door, I couldn’t really tell you, but the key figure in unlocking this mystery: Bob Dylan. I had a friend in high school that was Dylan-obsessed, and he would always try to educate me in all things Zimmerman. WhenI was commanded to get hip to one of the “greatest recordings of all time”, Blonde on Blonde, the track that made the strongest impression on me was “Sooner or Later (One of Us Must Know)” which had The Band backing Dylan (then known as The Hawks). When Bootleg Series: Vol.4 was commercially released, I’ll give you one guess as to who backed Dylan on the notorious, absolutely stunning second “electric” disc. What put the icing on the cake though was when I attended the Newport Folk Festival in 2004, and Garth Hudson joined my favorite band, Wilco, for an incredible rendition of “California Stars”. With my curiosity absolutely peaked, I finally broken down and rented the The Last Waltz from the Pawling, NY Blockbuster Video, and it was only then that I was formally indoctrinated with the Gospel of Helm/Danko/Robertson/Manuel/Hudson.
Northern Lights-Southern Cross is my favorite (and in my opinion a sorely overlooked/slept on/underrated) album from The Band, and there are a few details that make it such a vital part of their legendary canon. One major element that comes into play was the recording process: This was the first album done recorded entirely at Shangri-La, the then-state-of-the-art 24-track recording studio they [The Band] built in Malibu, California. This allowed them to layer track upon track of different textures, which give a polished, synthetic veneer to their trademark ‘rustic’ sound.
Most will mention how the classic tracks “Acadian Driftwood” and “It Makes No Difference” are featured on this record, but a good example of the excellence of this is the 6 minute opening track “Forbidden Fruit”. I don’t think it’s lost on anyone how versatile and accomplished they were as musicians, but allowing themselves to add multiple layers of synthesizers, organs, trilling guitars, and Helm’s innovative work behind the kit opened up a new realm of possibilities (i.e. “Jupiter Hollow”). What’s truly fascinating, though, is how I can’t recall an instance where it interferes with the songwriting. “Hobo Jungle” could have been a standard Richard Manuel piano-led ballad, but with a good pair of headphones, you can easily pick apart Robertson’s tasteful wah-wah and acoustic guitar overdubs and Hudson’s decidedly modern contributions. It’s a testament to their talent how it all comes across completely cohesive. That that being said, I have no choice but to say that my favorite track from the record is “Ophelia”, because I’ve always been sucker for songs where Helm’s vocals are featured. That sticky-sweet melody, replete with Allen Toussaint-esque Orleans horn arrangements, got me from the jump.
This record came out in a year that included a bevy of incredible albums (Born to Run, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, Horses, and Court and Spark, just to name a few), so it’s easy, yet not excusing, to see how it got lost in the shuffle. But with an overall tone that would’ve been comparable to a Malibu sunset going down over Shangri-La, or the beachside fire at dusk that graces the album cover, it’s even easier to see why Levon Helm, in his 1993 autobiography, thought this was their best work since The Band. I agree wholeheartedly.