Robbie Robertson’s recent receipt of an Order of Canada award reminded me that I had not posted anything about music lately and that I’d been looking for an opportunity to comment on both Neil Young and The Band.
One of those cultural semi-secrets about which many of us in the States are unaware is how much of what we consider to be American entertainment derives from Canadian performers. Sticking just with music, notable Canadian performers with numerous fans in the States include not only Neil Young and The Band, but also Arcade Fire, Tragically Hip, Hidden Cameras, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, The Rakish Angles, Leonard Cohen, Shania Twain, Gordon Lightfoot, Celine Dion, k.d. lang, Sarah McLachlan, Joni Mitchell and Matthew Barber, to name just a few. But of all these, I have a special regard for the classic folk-rock sounds of Neil Young and The Band.
Although born in Toronto, Neil Young spent much of his teen years in Winnipeg before later taking up a long time residence in California. While there are many things to appreciate about Young, his deep lyrics and the shades of knowing melancholy in his delivery are what stand out most for me. So many of his songs — “Old Man,” “Heart of Gold,” “Ohio,” “My My, Hey Hey,” “Helpless,” and “Don’t Let it Bring You Down,” among others — stand up well in the test of time. It’s amazing that well after his initial rise to prominence in the 1960s this guy is still going strong all these many years later, even having released two new studio albums since 2009.
It’s probably no coincidence that The Band also initially hit it big in the rock music scene in the 1960s, carrying a bright musical torch until their break up in 1976, which was famously captured in Martin Scorsese’s documentary of their valedictory concert in “The Last Waltz”. While all but one of their members was Canadian, the one non-Canadian, Levon Helm, was hugely influential in that group as the rare drummer with so much talent that he brought his Arkansas-twanged voice to bear as lead singer on two of the group’s most notable songs, “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Nevertheless, as with NHL teams, which count many “cross-over” countrymen from both sides of the border among their ranks, it’s fair to regard The Band as being as much a product of Canada as it is of the States.
The following video nicely features Young performing with The Band at The Last Waltz concert, with Joni Mitchell providing back up vocals.