Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
Just five years on from the release of the rapturously-received Music From Big Pink album in 1968, simmering tension had already begun to erode The Band’s all-for-one-and-one-for-all dynamic. “We couldn’t get along… ‘Up On Cripple Creek’ and all that stuff was over,” drummer Levon Helm told GRITZ magazine in 2002. The decision to record an album of covers appears to have been something of a tension-relieving exercise, a chance for The Band to let their hair down and remind themselves why they had started making music together in the first place. No Civil War epics or songs lamenting the plight of the American farmer to be found here: Moondog Matinee was designed to be nothing more than a straight-up party. Ironically, however, it’s the diversions into more sombre territory that provide some of the the album’s strongest moments.
Things kick off with Levon taking on Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s “Ain’t Got No Home”, complete with a weird “froggy” vocal effect and some very effective horns. Rick Danko sings Allen Toussaint’s “Holy Cow” with tongue firmly in cheek, but it’s not until Richard Manuel’s showstopping take on Alfred Bragg and Deadric Malone’s “Share Your Love” – originally recorded by Bobby “Blue” Bland – that the album truly announces that it means business. According to Wikipedia, this was the one song chosen for the album plucked directly from the group’s days as Levon & The Hawks in the mid-’60s, which explains why Manuel nails the song so comfortably.
Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train,” a song that will forever be associated with the young Elvis Presley, features Manuel and session man Billy Mundi pulling double-drum duty, recreating the clattering of a train hurtling down the tracks while the intertwined voices of Helm and Danko mimic the sound of the train whistle blowing. This is followed by easily the most left-field selection on the entire disc, a cover of Anton Karas’s “The Third Man Theme,” which exists as a kind of monument to the eccentricity of Garth Hudson. (When considered alongside The Band’s later “Theme from The Last Waltz,” it makes you wonder what an entire album of Band instrumentals might have sounded like.)
“The Promised Land,” by Chuck Berry, represents one of those great moments when the members of The Band swap places: Helm moves to rhythm guitar, Manuel takes Helm’s place at the kit, and Hudson makes the short walk from his organ to Manuel’s piano, also finding time to lay down a great saxophone solo. But the best is still yet to come, with another tour de force from Manuel in the form of The Platters’ “The Great Pretender.” This song has since come to be associated with Freddie Mercury, but Manuel stakes his claim to it with a wonderfully fragile vocal. Listening to this, it’s easy to understand why fellow vocalists Helm and Danko often referred to Manuel as The Band’s “lead singer.”
Energetic takes of Fats Domino’s “I’m Ready” and Laverne Baker’s “Saved” deliver more good-time rock ‘n’roll’ fun, before the album concludes with Rick Danko attempting to scale the mountain that is Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” This is one of those songs where the original is so perfect that it should almost never be covered (although Bob Dylan’s version from the Apollo Theatre in 2004 is well worth your time), and despite Danko’s best efforts, The Band’s reading of it ultimately can’t hope to match the the visceral power of Cooke’s classic original.
Where is Band-leader Robbie Robertson in all this? He’s around, apparently content to just be “the guitarist” again. For all the accusations of self-promotion and spotlight-hogging frequently leveled at Robertson, he deserves plaudits for his willingness to often take a back seat on The Band’s recordings, stepping aside to allow the other four members to shine. His guitar on Moondog Matinee is often pretty low in the mix, but close attention reveals inspired playing.
Critics at the time were generally unimpressed by the album, comparing it unfavorably to the twin peaks of the group’s first two LPs. This is partially justified: Moondog Matinee contains none of the sprawling ambition of those groundbreaking records, but, then again, it was never meant to. Gradually, people have come to accept the album for what it is – there’s even a band named after it. Fans of The Band’s original work might crave something with a little more weight (pun intended), but it makes a nice change to see the group temporarily ditch their old-timey personas and have some fun. In just three short years it would all be over, but Moondog Matinee proved that The Band wasn’t finished just yet.
Read about and watch other artists covering the songs of The Band in our feature on The Last Waltz 40th Anniversary Concert