On Thanksgiving Day in 1976, The Band performed for the last time at a concert in San Francisco that was filmed and released as the documentary film, The Last Waltz. The idea behind the final show was to invite all their friends to come play with them, friends who The Band had supported throughout the years. And as the story goes, the band's name originated from its own flexibility to back up any performer, referring to the talented group of tight musicians simply as The Band.
With so many special guests at the historical concert, such as Eric Clapton, Ronnie Wood, and Ringo Starr, it made sense that there would be a jam at the end of the night to showcase the extended talents, the result is included as a bonus feature to the film. In theory, the jam potential is monumental, but in reality, when musicians spontaneously get together to play it tends to be a loose affair. As you can expect, much of the jam slowly grooves in no real direction; the drummers just maintain the pulse, the guitars add bluesy fills without taking any leads, the bass and keyboards try not to step on any one's toes. And after a few minutes of noodling, someone plays a blues riff that wants to resolve to the V chord. Apparently, everyone onstage hears where the riff wants to go, and in an instant, the entire band walks up to the V chord and the jam suddenly turns into a traditional blues jam.
Why a blues jam? Because everyone knows how to play the blues, and it has a logical structure that gives the music a frame in which to play. It is much more fun to play within boundaries than it is to aimlessly wander. But the amazing thing about the blues is that it is a natural feeling, it is the way the music is played that dictates where the music is going.
To go back a little further to the 1968 instrumental album, The Popcorn, by The James Brown Band (the James Brown version of The Band), it is obvious to hear how tight of a band it had become, the instant flexibility from the years of being on the road playing the stage show. No matter how far the band traveled, the pathways it was forced to journey in that crucial year, the message that the band conveyed always came back to the blues.
The tune "Why Am I Treated So Bad" automatically suggests that something is not right. The music resembles the traditional blues form, but there is something unfamiliar about it. The arrangement is not strict and an extra bar is thrown in here or there, or even just half a bar, but it is all based around how the melody feels. The band always knows exactly where the downbeat is because of that bluesy feeling, it can always find its way back home.
An interesting thing happens during Fred Wesley's trombone solo: the band drops the beat, twice in fact. But this imperfection tends to go unnoticed because of how perfectly tight the band grooves. It is truly remarkable that around bar 18 of the Fred's solo, just after the band comes back in, there is a slight hesitation in the beat that produces a bar of 7/8 meter; that the groove is "treated so bad" for that one bar, and that it happens again in the second half of the solo (bar 37), and that it does not happen anywhere else in the tune.
Dropped beats such as those would never have found their way into James Brown's live show, or else the band members would have been fined or even fired. Perhaps this album was a gift from Brown to his band, an opportunity to record without the boss hovering over the project. The looseness of this tune suggests that someone else may have been directing the band through the changes, and yet when the beat is dropped, the band is still tight enough to hold it all together, the overshadowing expectation of a James Brown production. This was a good band that not only played together but also backed each other up, a band that could feel exactly where the music was going: back home to the blues.
Somehow this series of YouTube videos got by me, but thanks to the Smithsonian Institute this brief interview with Fred Wesley from 2011 will be preserved. And listen to the trombone solo playing in the background!
Recommended Reading: Hit Me, Fred: Recollections of a Sideman by Fred Wesley Jr. Published by Duke University Press.
AND: A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn. Published by HarperCollins Publishers.