London, Forum, 20 Jun 1996

22 Jun 1996
The Guardian
Robin Denselow
Once they were dubbed the best in the universe. They're back -but not on form- at the Forum
And The Band played on...

TWENTY years ago, a five-piece praised by George Harrison as "the best band in the universe" bowed out with a spectacular concert that featured everyone who was anyone in the rock establishment of the day, including, of course, Bob Dylan, for whom they had once worked as a legendary backing band. The Band's 'last waltz' was recycled as a triple album and a feature film directed by Martin Scorsese.

That should have been that. A memorable full stop to the career of the Canadians who, remarkably, had managed to evoke and celebrate the spirit of rural America and the South with their unique blend of country, New Orleans funk and balladry. Their songwriter and guitarist Robbie Robertson left for a patchy solo career in Los Angeles, but the rest kept getting together for reunions, even after the suicide of Richard Manuel 10 years ago.

Now, with two new albums behind them and three newcomers added in, The Band were back in London for the first time since their glory days, playing not Wembley Stadium but the Forum, and trying to prove they can still recreate the old magic.

They failed, alas, but there were moments when they almost got it right. The now-overweight Rick Danko was out front on bass, with the wizened and cheerfully gnome-like Levon Helm hidden behind the drums, and the gloriously bearded Garth Hudson looking like some wild sea-captain as he swopped from sax to keyboards and accordion.

They started out like an efficient bar-room band, with a burst of R&B and a dip into the back catalogue, all given heavy-handed treatment thanks to their second drummer but enlivened, briefly, by the mysterious arrival on stage of John Martyn. Then suddenly they provided a reminder of why they were once so special, as Helm swopped to mandolin, duetting with Danko in his distinctive strained but laid-back voice, as they revived Rag Mama Rag and provided two great cover versions - Dylan's Blind Willie McTell and Springsteen's Atlantic City.

Then, just as they should have taken off, they fell apart. Danko began to look decidedly unwell, and achieved the impossible by apparently forgetting his cue on The Weight, which he followed, with a horrible irony, with some sub-standard vocals on The Shape I'm In. One can but guess. He left the stage and didn't reappear for the decidedly unremarkable encores. Sad.

Robin Denselow

This account was published in The Guardian of Saturday 22 June 1996 and proves that John was present - nothing more.