Moondog Matinee, The Band (Capitol)
I first fell in love with this record growing up in Boulder, Colorado, after I saw Dylan play with the Band at the Denver Coliseum in early 1974. I had Planet Waves in my ear, and knew the early Band albums, but this record hovered over them all with an aura of thankless bar gigs and spilt beer, where passion for music transcended terrible working conditions. Mainstream culture had just discovered the fifties catalog with American Graffiti, but the grandeur in these songs reframed George Lucas’s small-town fable. Although the Band’s lead singers (Levon Helm, Rick Danko, and Richard Maneul) took on singers as lofty as Bobby Blue Bland (“Share Your Love [With Me]“), Sam Cooke (“A Change Is Gonna Come”) and Allen Toussaint (“Holy Cow”), there was no pretense at competition. Helm, Danko and Manuel had too much humility, and no small courage, to compare themselves to their exemplars. In the best possible way, these models were too out of reach. Those earlier singers were so incomparable, imitation would have yielded mere flattery. The point was: Sam Cooke & Co. had set the Band’s singers free, and they pursued these songs like personal narratives, stories they had long since internalized as true musical north. These tracks also gave you a map to the Band’s subconscious, making weaker efforts worthwhile in ways they wouldn’t have otherwise been: if they could fail with this set list as looming subtext, who could possibly write them off? Why would anybody want to? Worth tracking down the exquisitely quiet Japanese limited edition remaster from 1998, and tricked out as a Spotify list with other covers, such as “Back to Memphis” (more Chuck Berry) or the Rock of Ages “(I Don’t Want To) Hang Up My Rock’n’Roll Shoes” (Chuck Willis), newly remastered on Live at the Academy of Music 1971. Way more fun than a box of chocolates, and sadder than any carnival.