Sunday, August 4, 2019

Bob Dylan and The Band - The Seeds of Woodstock

In 1965, Mary Martin, who was working for Bob Dylan's manager Albert Grossman, suggested to Dylan that The Hawks, which included Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Harvey Brooks and Al Kooper, might be the perfect accompaniment to the new electric tour. The Hawks were engaged in a four-month stand at Tony Mart's in Somers Point, New Jersey, playing before a nightly crowd of over a thousand with their heady brew of blues and R&B. 


Dylan checked them out and hired Robertson initially for two gigs in late August at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in New York and the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. Robertson, unimpressed with Dylan's drummer, suggested Dylan also hire Helm. From there, Robertson, Helm, Harvey Brooks on bass and Al Kooper on keyboards were hired on to endure the cacophony of boos that greeted Dylan's second and third electric gigs. (The first was the Newport Folk Festival, where Dylan was backed by Al Kooper and members of the Butterfield Blues Band. Kooper would go on to form Blood, Sweat and Tears shortly thereafter.)

Dylan wanted Robertson and Helm to continue backing him in his attack on middle America's consciousness, but the pair responded that they couldn't see doing it without the rest of The Hawks, which also included Rick Danko and Richard Manuel. After rehearsal in Toronto in September 1965, Bob Dylan and the Band took to the road; the moniker, of course, would stick.


They then moved to Dylan's Catskill home of Woodstock and every week they would fly out on Dylan's private Lodestar airplane, play two or three nights before an audience of "folkie purists" engrossed in ritual booing, regarding an electric Dylan as a sellout to the values of folk music (rather than comprehending music that was years ahead of its time). For many, an electric Dylan was nothing but betrayal; Peter could have done no worse.

The negativity quickly became too much for Helm, who left and headed back south. "I don't think Levon could handle people just booing every night," said Robertson. "He said, 'I don't want to do this anymore.' He didn't feel that you could do anything with it rhythmically and there was no room and there was no way to make it feel good. To me it was like 'Yeah, but the experience equals this music in the making. We will find the music. It will take some time but we will find it and eventually we'll make it something that we need to get out of it.'"

The experience culminated in late May 1966 at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Columbia Records recorded the event for a possible live LP. The recordings show that, indeed, Dylan and the Band had discovered "this thing". an entity that continually ebbed and flowed as quiet sections alternated with moments of awesome volume and apocalyptic power. 


Skip ahead a year. "The next I knew," said Danko, "I found that big pink house that was in the middle of a hundred acres with a pond. It was nice." Danko, Manuel and Hudson all moved into the house, while Robertson ensconced himself nearby. "Everyone remembers the period very fondly. It was the first time since they were kids that they hadn't been on the road. It was the first occasion that they had space, room to breathe, time to think about what they were doing." 

The Band at the Big Pink
Hudson felt similarly: "It was relaxed and low-key, which was something we hadn't enjoyed since we were children. We could wander off into the woods with Hamlet [their gigantic dog]. The woods were right outside our door."

Every day Robertson, Danko, Manuel, Hudson and Dylan would congregate at what had come to be referred to as "The Big Pink," and for two or three hours they would write songs, throw ideas back and forth, play older songs from a multiplicity of genres and occasionally lay some of it down on a two-track recorder in the basement. It was there in Woodstock that the Band, still under Dylan's tutelage, became The Band.