Freddie and Bowie. Crosby and Bowie. Crosby and Nash. Mahalia and Mavis. Aretha and George Michael. Michael McDonald and Joni. Laura Nyro and Patti Labelle. Dynamic Vocal Duos R Us.
Still, to these ears, those lustrous double acts can all doff their caps to a union 50 years ago this September. The day Van Morrison and Richard Manuel, the most soulful of white bluesmen, crossed larynxes. That the result, 4% Pantomime, was almost entirely off the cuff merely magnifies its ragged glory.
As the old chestnut has it, Van could make a phonebook sing. Richard’s less celebrated baritone, equally flexible and distinctive, warrants further insight. A couple of years after writing Holy Mother, allegedly inspired by Richard’s suicide in 1986 at the age of 42, Eric Clapton, his chum and drinking buddy, obliged: ‘I felt insecure and he was clearly insecure, and yet he was so incredibly gifted... there was something of the holy madman about Richard. He was raw. When he sang in that high falsetto the hair on my neck would stand on end. Not many people can do that.’
An ivory tinkler, drummer and singer whose horde of fervent admirers also included George Harrison, Richard Manuel was the pivotal member of a band that had both the audacity and modesty to call itself The Band. Somewhat demeaningly, the capital T in a band’s name has largely disappeared (when was the last time you saw The Beatles in print, rather than the Beatles?). But it remains a vital distinction when attempting to define the earthy magic of Richard and his mates – Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson: Canadians all bar Helm, an Arkansas good ole boy if ever there was.
Given the divisions that led to last year’s melancholy documentary Once Were Brothers, a visualisation of Robertson’s memoir Testimony, it seems only right and proper to list the personnel alphabetically, even if this does leave the chief songwriter bringing up the rear.
To the devoted, this unquiet quintet were, and remain, THE Band. Robbie (lead guitar) and Garth (keyboards and horns) are the lone surviving constituents of the team responsible for The Weight, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, Rag Mama Rag, It Makes No Difference, Acadian Driftwood et al. Long gone, too, are founder Levon (drums, piano, mandolin, guitar, accordion and vocals) and Rick (bass, fiddle, vocals). Theirs, nonetheless, is a vibrant legacy.
How many other giants of the post-Elvis era have boasted such a phenomenal array of multi-taskers, never mind three such singular and distinctive voices? None. When Bob Dylan went electric, there was only one band he was ever going to hire to help rub those folk-club grumps up the wrong way.
From their formative days as The Hawks, shit-kicking sidekicks to Ronnie Hawkins, The Band were magpies from out of town. Drilling into the roots of music born south of Lake Michigan, they blended blues, country, Cajun and more into a bubbling bouillabaisse with progressive seasoning (the latter courtesy of Garth, a professor of musicology in all but name). The upshot was a slow-burning new genre, Americana. As Lowell George would surely have testified, they also fashioned another subdivision: slow rock.
Yet on the face of it, evidence for The Band’s canonisation seems skimpy. After all, their reputation relies largely on the strength of two supreme gigs (preserved on Rock Of Ages and The Last Waltz) and three defiantly untrendy studio albums – Music From Big Pink (1968), The Band (aka The Brown Album, 1969) and Northern Lights, Southern Cross (1976). No matter. Never mind the quantity, feel the breadth. And the depth.
4% Pantomime, though, is an outlier, loose, charming and disarming – and, to some, alarming. To dispense swiftly with that obscure title, 4% is the difference in alcohol content between Johnnie Walker Black and Red, to which neither Van nor Richard was wholly averse. Unsurprisingly, theirs is not a plea for the restoration of prohibition.
The ‘plot’ required them to masquerade as two musicians stranded in LA with nowt but a bottle of Red for sustenance or company. It wasn’t a terribly big stretch. ‘They were acting this whole thing out,’ remembered Robbie. Richard sets the scene with an air of whimsical resignation:
The management said they were sorry For the inconvenience you are suffering And Mr Booking Agent, please have mercy Don't book the jobs so far apart We went up to Griffith Park With a fifth of Johnnie Walker red And smashed it on a rock and wept While the old couple looked on into the dark
All of which makes it odder than odd to revisit Jon Landau’s verdict in Rolling Stone: ‘There is a sadness and near hysteria in the cumulative sense of desperation that pours out of both of them that is more than just moving.’ Granted, they do bemoan aspects of life on the road, but I’m not sure how Landau failed to catch the jocularity, the sense of a passion shared, the spiritual brotherhood or that spine-tingling exuberance. Happily, Landau’s senses were in better order by the time he got around to helping Bruce Springsteen create that minor widescreen epic Born To Run.
Then again, the context in which 4% Pantomime caught fire was anything but promising. The session could scarcely have been in starker contrast to the recording of the vast majority of parent album Cahoots.
Vigorous boozing and drugging (Richard, Rick and Levon) had left Robbie shouldering ever more of the burden, and it told. Greed and envy, furthermore, had begun to rear their ugly mugs. For decades, Levon would rage. Instead of being scooped up by Robbie – the spiritual opposite of conductor-songwriters such as Fagen, Becker and Bacharach – compositional credits should have reflected how the arrangements were achieved in unison, and thus been shared, à la The Doors. Since I’m unaware of any solo demos, I dare say he wasn’t being unreasonable. Robbie jabbed back, pointing out that Levon turned down a considerable sum to sell his publishing rights.
Regardless of whose side you take, Cahoots remains a deep disappointment. Delivered as it was during rock’s annus mirabilis, it feels like an also-ran. Aside from 4% Pantomime, only two other songs are worthy of the canon: Levon’s own magnificent rendition of The Bobster’s When I Paint My Masterpiece and the swinging, horn-fired ebullience of Life Is A Carnival (take a bow, Allen Toussaint). Most bands would have been mightily chuffed with both this and predecessor Stage Fright, but The Band had set the bar so high that, even if they had remained brotherly, their third and fourth albums were always likely to be a steep comedown from those dizzy early flights.
Back, then, to one of those fleeting reasons to be cheerful. While Cahoots was being recorded at Albert Grossman’s neighbouring Bearsville Studios, Robbie was at home in Woodstock one day when in popped Van. ‘The Man’ had recently fled upstate following some terrifyingly close encounters with the Big Apple’s more music-minded mobsters. He had also made another big decision: the only way he could be happy and remain in the States – far from war-torn Belfast or decaying London – was to persuade the Texas-born partner he’d dubbed Janet Planet to marry him. And so she did, possibly against her better judgement.
Where finer to lay his hat next than the same artistic community that had stimulated cocky whippersnappers such as Todd Rundgren (who engineered Stage Fright) while bringing a fruitful serenity to such admired peers as Richard, Robbie and The Bobster? The Band had declined as Richard’s productivity as a composer ground to a halt; so highly did Dylan rate him, they co-wrote the epic Tears Of Rage for Big Pink. Nor was it a coincidence that Tupelo Honey, Van’s 1971 album, found him at his warmest and most Tiggerish.
For all Robbie’s stinging fretwork on the Telecaster, Garth’s sumptuous fairground organ and Richard’s own jaunty joanna-ing, the wonder of 4% Pantomime lies in that instinctive vocal interplay. Despite the absence of rehearsals, this was not exactly a shock. These, after all, were the throats and lungs and grunts and howls and yowls behind such varied gems as Sweet Thing, Moondance, Fair Play, I Shall Be Released, King Harvest (Will Surely Come) and The Shape I’m In.
Van sounds mildly competitive, but both men exude awe for the way the other embellished, and gave life to, the written word. Even when those words are dafter than a brush.
Sounding ever more like Ray Charles, Richard kicks things off languidly, limbering up for his stunning rendition of Georgia On My Mind (Islands, 1977). Van grabs the gauntlet in his slightly higher register, almost beseeching ‘Oh, oh Richard’, then proclaiming that ‘everybody got stoned’ with a carefree abandon matched in his own repertoire only by the live versions of Domino and Caravan on It’s Too Late To Stop Now. ‘Ooh, ooh, Belfast Cowboy,’ replies Richard, revelling in the name Robbie coined as an alternative to the Irishman’s somewhat unmelodic stage moniker. ‘Ooh, ooh Van’, as he justly concluded, lacks oomph, let alone poetry.
Never has the Grinch of Notting Hill sounded jollier. Ditto Richard. As the climax beckons, Rick freshens the funk and Levon drives up the beat, whereupon those cloud-scraping voices merge and take flight, defying gravity as well as adequate description.
Robbie stood and marvelled: ‘For a second… it became soundless, all hands and veins and necks. It was almost like this whole movement thing was going on and the music was carrying itself.’
On A Musical History, 2005’s extras-loaded treasure trove, there’s an earlier, slower and even more graceful take, complete with false start. ‘It’s always better live,’ asserts Van as the first stab dribbles to a halt after 65 sloppy seconds. The ‘closer to the wire’ the better. Cue giggles from what sounds suspiciously like the eternally boyish Rick.
‘Is that it?’ wonders Van as the instruments peter out. ‘That was really good.’ In the droll, gentle, beard-stroking tones that persuaded so many to carry on loving him despite his carelessness and irresponsibility, Manuel corrects him: ‘That was spectacular.’
No quarrel here. Occupying the same stage as they were, how spiffing it would have been had Richard and Van contributed an encore to The Last Waltz. THE Vocal Duo singing THE Band. But maybe it’s better this way.
So far as I know, the only time 4% Pantomime has ever been performed was at Bearsville. Van and Richard didn’t simply capture the timeless allure of the bottle; they even caught lightning in one.