A recent nation-wide telephone poll on Northern Lights-Southern Cross, the Band’s first collection of new songs in four years, has produced a solid consensus. All respondents agree that the new album is the Band’s best since Stage Fright, and probably their best since The Band. Representative comments Include, “I can’t stop playing it”, “My favorite song changes every time I hear it”, “This is the way a Band record is supposed to sound”, and “What’s the last verse of ‘Acadian Driftwood’ about, anyway?”
This consensus, however, includes only those who have listened to the record, and if the Billboard charts, which notch NL-SC in the middle fifties after nearly a month in the stores, are any indication, said consensus excludes numerous people who heretofore found great pleasure in the Band’s offerings, and who are now risking serious cultural deprivation for no good reason. This, to me at any rate, is understandable; I came late to the NL-SC consensus myself. When I first heard this album I found the music flat and the lyrics obvious, and stayed with the record more out of blind hope than curiosity. The album sounded inordinately modest. Bits I didn’t like—and still don’t much care for, though I don’t hear them anymore—kept me away from the music. Some choruses are sing-songy (“Forbidden Fruit” for one, though that now reminds me of some long-gone Coasters’ B-side more than anything else); the words are often too literal or too vague to be very interesting. “Hobo Jungle” is flatly sentimental: “And though nobody here really knows where they’re going/At the same time, nobody’s lost.”
However, I must confess that the album is so good I’m even starting to like that.
I like the feel of NL-SC. It is music of great confidence. After so long without a really “new” album you’d expect the Band to be a little nervous; maybe they are, but they certainly don’t sound it. Richard Manuel’s singing is restrained yet right on the mark; Levon is typically off-the-wall and sounding very pleased to be there. Rick Danko, though still troubled by the choke-in-the-throat mannerisms that began to affect his vocals around the time of “Stage Fright,” is as convincing as he is emotional on the new “It Makes No Difference.” But the real action is between the lines, in the playing. The rhythm section is lighter than in the past, but very firm; Robertson’s solos open up the tunes without ever by-passing them. Best of all, there is the way in which song after song the musicians break away once the singers have said their piece, and blithely take off, doubling back over the traces of the tunes in a way that is unprecedented in the Band’s recordings—or, for that matter, in their live shows. They sound as if they’re aiming their music at each other, not, as on Cahoots, at a finished product. They’re taking chances.
About Garth Hudson, who is in a word magnificent. He has never played with such imagination, nor with such deceptive anonymity—I heard the album only when I began to hear him. Playing organ (and less often synthesizer, though a lot of what sounds like synthesizer, or horns, or strings, is in fact just his organ), Hudson takes an ordinary melody or riff and makes magic out of it (there is that moment at the very end of “It Makes No Difference,” when Hudson sneaks out of hiding, wraps the tune up with a shivery midnight hush, and steals the piece). At other times he seems to lead everyone else into possibilities in the songs that might otherwise have lain dormant. More often he is simply a presence, painting his tapestries in the background, letting a listener catch glimpses between the cracks left by the other musicians, until finally you see the tapestry whole.
Hudson uses a Lowery organ (“souped up” says Robertson) and makes it sound like an orchestra; this is not merely a technical accomplishment, but mostly an emotional one. What Randy Newman got from a string section on his luminous and tragic “Louisiana 1927” Hudson gets on his own, on almost every song. No nuance escapes him—no shading of feeling, no matter how elusive, seems beyond him. With supreme delicacy, he wraps his sound around the Band, enfolding their performance with a warmth of spirit (listen to him in the middle of “Jupiter Hollow” or all through “Rags & Bones”) that may well prove to be what this album is best remembered for.
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“Acadian driftwood, gypsy tailwind,” runs the lovely chorus of “Acadian Driftwood,” the centerpiece song of NL-SC—a tale of people who dream of northern lights as they bear a southern cross. The tune has to do with the Acadians, French settlers in the Eastern part of Nova Scotia, who were expelled after the British defeated the French on the Plains of Abraham in 1759. Acadia had perhaps the best farmland in Eastern Canada, and the British were not about to share the spoils; they herded the few thousand Acadians onto ships and sent them far enough to make sure they’d never come back. The ships went to New Orleans; the Acadians settled there, and became the Cajuns. They preserved, to this day, their own language (though of course it changed, and today a fight is raging over the government attempts to keep Cajun instruction out of public schools), their own music, and their own cooking—holding together and keeping apart, though a black Cajun culture, the Zydeco, grew up alongside the white. (Given that the French were forced to leave Acadia for America, it is neatly ironic that less than twenty years later Acadia was populated by Tory refugees from the American Revolution. There are virtually no French in Acadia even now, but descendants of the Loyalists hold a sort of anti-Independence Day celebration every Fourth of July.)
The story Robertson has made out of these events—all very low-key, with a little martial piccolo from Garth Hudson, mournful and tough Cajun fiddle from Byron Berline, and beautiful singing from Manuel and Helm—is quite interesting.
After the battle, an Acadian family hears from relatives that life is better in the south; and not forced to leave but choosing to, they set out for America. They head out of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, stopping at St. Pierre, a nearby island still under French domination. They attempt a further landing further down the coast, perhaps in Maine, but they are turned away. Finally they reach Louisiana—America, where they can start over.
The only thing wrong is that they don’t like it. They don’t accept America, its weather or its government; they don’t really make a new home. They don’t make peace with the new land or with themselves. They spend their days working the sugar fields, noting the color of the trees and the feel of the land, with “winter in their blood,” dreaming of the return they will never make. “Acadia, I am sick to my heart for my homeland,” runs the last verse of the song sung by Manuel in Cajun, the shift from English to Cajun representing the shift from French to Cajun, and giving a listener a sense of how far their journey really took the Acadians, how much it changed them in spite of themselves. “Acadia, the snow cries tears in the sun/You know I’m coming, Acadia… teedle-um teedle-um teedle-oo,” one last Cajun shout of joy as the tune fades out to Berline’s fiddle, repeating the same pattern over and over again.
I doubt that Robertson would have written this song in this way when he was writing numbers for Bing Pink or The Band; but today the tale he is telling must say something about the strangeness the Band still feels, that they cannot evade nor transcend, as Canadians living in America (and what must Levon Helm have felt singing this song, a Southerner imagining himself, for a few moments, as an exile in a land he truly knew as home?). “Acadian Driftwood” (and what an image that is!) reflects the Band’s story; it seems like an autobiography concealed in history. As with Levon’s performance of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” that is the kind of history the Band has a claim on, just as their versions of such stories have a claim to make on their listeners.
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When I first heard this record, and found it dull, the line that came to mind was from Crash Craddock’s hit: “Ain’t Nothin’ Shakin’ But the Leaves on the Trees.” Listening now to Garth Hudson and the rest of the Band play their way across the album to the final tune, “Rags & Bones,” a song that captures the Band’s idea of what music is about and where it comes from as well as anything could, I still think Crash Craddock’s line sums up the record—its success, not its failure.
After a time with this music, it doesn’t matter if nothing’s shaking but the leaves on the trees; that is, in fact, the point. When the leaves on this album shake, you hear them.
Creem, March 1976