By Paul Casey
Part four in a continuing series on THE BAND’s discography.
To read the whole series, go here.
“Where do we go from here?”
Cahoots was the last album of new material THE BAND would record until their last great work, Northern Lights – Southern Cross, in 1976. On the basis of the songs, and the disconnect between the constituents of THE BAND, it was a tough album to make. There is little thematic cohesion here. It is a leap around America in a manner—from the fairground to Chinatown—but it lacks the conceptual feeling of The Band or the personal confession of Stage Fright. It does have some of the eclectic feeling of Big Pink, if little of that album’s mood. It is when the burn out became an issue and when it became apparent that THE BAND could not muscle through their creative and personal issues. They do give it a hell of a try, though. Cahoots is not a classic, like the previous three, but it is a good record.
Another Levon Helm co-writing job opens an album. “Life is a Carnival” is credited to Danko, Helm, and Robertson, and introduces big time horns to THE BAND’s sound. This addition would be a major part of THE BAND’s live album Rock of Ages. Few of the songs on Cahoots appear to be the product of a completely satisfactory process. Whether it is a production or arrangement that doesn’t quite do it, or a goofy set of lyrics, the album does not quite reach the superlative standard set by the previous three LPs. There is some real quality here though. “Life is a Carnival” retains the sound of a BAND in synchronicity. It has the same high-energy group vocals of Music From Big Pink, the presence of Danko and Helm on writing duties perhaps providing an added motivation. What’s more, the addition of horns feels is perfectly suited to the song.
Would you like to buy a watch real cheap
Here on the street?
I got two on each arm
And two on my feet.
Life is a carnival
Believe it or not
Life is a carnival
Two bits a shot.”
Perhaps as a symptom of the problems during the writing and recording of Cahoots, a writing credit goes to Bob Dylan, for the first time since THE BAND’s debut. “When I Write My Masterpiece” was played for Robbie Robertson at his house, by Dylan during the sessions for the album. Robbie procured the song, giving the album a much needed heavyweight hitter. Bob would record his own version of the song, which would turn up on the superb Greatest Hits Volume 2, along with two newly recorded songs from The Basement Tapes, “I Shall Be Released” and “Down in the Flood” (Crash on the Levee). Levon gave an entirely different flavor to the song, and it became as much associated with THE BAND, as it was with Dylan. Levon would perform this song at Bob’s 30th Anniversary Celebration, along with Rick Danko and Garth Hudson, as the reformed BAND.
“Masterpiece” has some killer accordion on it, and a low down sleepy feel that is not present on Bob’s version. Whether intentionally or not, Bob Dylan wrote perfectly for Levon’s voice, and gave him the kind of words a Southern rouser can sink his teeth into. This and the studio recording of “Don’t Ya Tell Henry” makes the absence of Levon’s voice on The Basement Tapes all the harder to take. Have a listen to Levon here, chewing on these words, and then imagine him on “Yea, Heavy and a Bottle of Bread,” or “Please Mrs. Henry.” Bob Dylan performed the song with THE BAND during the New Year’s Eve concerts of 1971, which is featured on the brilliant remastered edition of Rock of Ages.
“Oh the hours we’d spent inside the Colosseum
Dodging lions and wasting time
Oh those mighty Kings of the jungle
I could hardly stand to see ‘em!
Yes it sure has been a long hard climb
Train wheels running through
The back of my memory
When I ran on a hilltop
Following a pack of wild geese
Some day everything’s gonna sound like a rhapsody
When I paint my masterpiece.”
Although Richard Manuel didn’t write any songs on Cahoots, he gave a very good showing in delivering Robbie’s material. “The Last of the Blacksmiths” hits the sweet spot and is one of the strongest tracks on the album, but not from the same kind of show-stopping performances that featured on the previous albums. “The Moon Struck One” is clearly intended to fill the role of “Tears of Rage” or “Whispering Pines.” It does not quite get there. It drags a bit, and the arrangement shows none of the confidence in marrying mood and music typical of THE BAND.
Richard does his best, and it has some of the meditative charm of both his and Robbie’s best work. There is real quality here, waiting to come out. Another pass and a more confident group might have done it. It is precisely the dissatisfaction expressed by Robbie Robertson that sets Cahoots out from their previous work. There is a feeling that the participants themselves are not feeling it.
Richard’s best vocal on Cahoots is on “4% Pantomime,” written by Robbie Robertson and Van Morrison, who also does his amazing, meandering vocal jazz. This has all the energy and fun loving spirit of their best work. On the superb box-set A Musical History, Van can be heard taking the first verse before the song falls apart, before they start again. Van Morrison, like Bob Dylan, provides some relief to an album that was in danger of pushing a struggling Robbie Robertson, and a largely uninterested BAND, to their limits. Van fits right in with THE BAND, and brings the best out in them during a tough time.
“Oh Belfast cowboy!
Lay your cards down on the grave
Oh Belfast cowboy
Can you call a spade a spade?”
“Where Do We Go From Here?” is the creative struggle of Cahoots put to use. The chorus explodes with the glorious energy of “Look Out Cleveland,” THE BAND answering the call when needed. Rick Danko needs the answer, quickly, and it doesn’t come. Such is life. Even more so, such is life in THE BAND.
“Where do we go from here?
I hear from no-one.
Where do we go from here?
Could you tell me someone?
Not going anywhere.”
Cahoots has some goofy lyrics. “Shoot Out in Chinatown” is a prime offender, but the song has charm and spirit that others on the album do not. It has a hokey quality—particularly the shlocky guitar parts—but as another eye on Americana, it is playful and winsome. “Smoke Signal” has a good measure of Robbie’s obsession with movies to it. Movies come real. The American Movie West come real. As a rocker, it doesn’t quite rock, and just sort of carries along until it finishes. It is not particularly offensive, but carries on much too long.
“Volcano” is the worst song on the album. It is pure goofball. Big goofy horns, goofy lyrics, and a chorus that kills something that could have been sweet and/or rockin’. “Volcano, I’m about to blow.” Please don’t. I don’t want to imagine any of THE BAND ejaculating. It is at odds with their class. Fucking, yes. Fucking is fine. Fucking is Rock n Roll. Ejaculating is rubber gloves and plastic jars, and baaaad back room fetishes.
Cahoots ends strongly, and carries on the tradition of superior album closers. “River Hymn,” Levon going deep down, and giving humanity and light to the song. The rest of THE BAND do something unusual and provide a traditional backing of aaahhhhs behind the man from Arkansas. After “Smoke Signal” and “Volcano,” Cahoots offers up its best. It’s the need to be washed clean and born again. Perhaps the next record will be easier?
“Son, you ain’t never seen yourself
No crystal mirror can show it clear
Come over here instead
Son you ain’t never eased yourself
Till you laid it down in a river bed.”
Sometimes great creators can provide their most interesting work during their toughest periods. Cahoots is not THE BAND’s best work, obviously. It is however exceedingly interesting, and is home to more than a few great songs. It is THE BAND going to battle with themselves, their growing separation, and creative apathy. And not quite winning. That is a compelling story. And for all of its flaws, Cahoots is a compelling album.