Steve Gunn: Five Essential Songs from The Band
Steve Gunn (photo courtesy of Pitch Perfect PR)
Over the course of more than a decade, Steve Gunn has been astonishingly prolific, handily releasing 14 albums — both solo ventures and collaborations with friends like drummer John Truscinski, Hiss Golden Messenger's M.C. Taylor, and Kurt Vile. The Brooklyn-based Gunn, who once played guitar with Vile's backing band The Violators, most recently released the graceful Eyes on the Lines, a dreamy, restless walkabout of songs on the road. (He traveled a mere borough north to the Bronx for an FUV Live session in May 2016.)
Like many of Gunn's releases, Eyes on the Lines might appeal to an unstructured way of drifting through the world, but every song is deeply rooted in serious craft and adroit musicianship. Gunn's method is not dissimilar from The Band's approach — and Gunn is a faithful fan of Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and Rick Danko and he writes about the quintet with warmth, keen observation and deep respect.
Steve Gunn: Five Essential Songs from The Band:
"In a Station," Music from Big Pink (1968)
Richard Manuel, my favorite vocalist in rock and roll, has that deep soulful tone of Ray Charles, with an added vulnerability of a truly lost soul. The pain that this lost genius is going through, particularly in this song, is very clear as Manuel sings his life. "In a Station" starts strangely with a dreamy clavinet from Garth Hudson. Robbie Robertson cuts into a rousing lead, and a shadowy slide guitar provides a tremendously sad, Beach Boys-like innocence.
"Long Distance Operator," Music From Big Pink (bonus track from 2000 re-release)
Levon Helm provides the rolling New Orleans funk beat, while Robertson guides the song with a supreme circular guitar riff. This is probably The Band's most simple song, without much shifting at all. Another remarkable vocal delivery from Richard Manuel.
"King Harvest (Has Surely Come)," The Band (1969)
A sad tale of a farmer facing the impending doom of a hard year. Sound familiar? His barn burns down, his horse goes crazy, how can it get worse? When I listen to this song I can see Manuel driving around in a Cutlass in Woodstock in autumn. A simple song arrangement with Manuel’s voice providing some hope for a hard road ahead.
"Chest Fever," Music from Big Pink (1968)
Another amazing intro from Garth Hudson’s organ. Probably his first stepout to showcase his skills in The Band and take his claim of the Guru and secret weapon. Double vocal duties from Richard and Levon give the song an anthemic strength. Robertson has a super-cool strangled guitar tone on this one, it sounds like he’s playing through a tiny shoebox amp turned up to 10.
"I Shall Be Released," Music from Big Pink (1968)
Yet again, Garth Hudson comes through with some great synth textures again, providing the perfect amount of moodiness and longing. Richard Manuel’s high-pitched vocal delivery makes this one of the band’s more heartbreaking songs, as the hopeful words resonate with his own tragic story. Robertson provides a very cool high-pitched Telecaster chop, and Helm gives us the marching drum roll and a perfect light beat.
The Band were under contract to be Bob Dylan’s band when the motorcycle accident happened that reconfigured his career, and their time together. The group moved near Dylan’s home in Woodstock, and began recording tracks that eventually became The Basement Tapes. "I Shall Be Released" was one that Dylan wrote and the band adapted, down in that basement. This seemed to be one of the more notable songs from their first album, which came out as Bob was recovering.
- Steve Gunn
Note: Steve Gunn plays Brookyn's The Bell House on December 9, 2016 with his band, The Outliners, and embarks on a U.S. tour in January.