Friday, November 27, 2009

Great Guitar Solos #3: The Band, "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" (Robbie Robertson)

Available on: The Band (1969)
Solo bits: 2:52-3:39

If Robbie Robertson comes to be considered the guitar hero he deserves to be and "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" becomes his representative track, it will be in spite of Robertson's protests. A guitarist/songwriter who could play loosely with economic use of character while retaining an encyclopedic knowledge of all the disparate elements that would play a roll in rock music (i.e. country, blues, gospel), he makes perfect sense as a foil for someone like Bob Dylan, whom he played with during his fabled electric tour of the mid-60s. During this time, as Robertson put it, the chances to show off were plentiful, and Robertson's chops were such that he would have made mincemeat of any normal front man who was not Dylan. When the Band finally broke with Dylan and set up shop in Big Pink, Robertson made the crucial decision of jettisoning guitar solos altogether in favor of a type of songwriting that would sound homier and more authentic than what he observed in the San Francisco psychedelic scene. Nothing wrong with that, really, but it also could have been the catalyst in making Robertson the de facto leader of a group whose original strength was that they were all powerfully capable musicians and songwriters. Maybe if Robertson was less disturbed by the sort of guitar playing being utilized by Jefferson Airplane and the like, he wouldn't have gotten burned out as fast. But that's a subject for another thesis.

The Band is, in case you didn't know, an amazing band. Truly, one of the best this world has ever seen and ever will see. In fact, I wager I listen to their first three albums Music From Big Pink, The Band, and Stage Fright more than I have any Dylan album, which I realize puts me into a minority. People talk about the Beatles as an insane cross-section of talented individuals, but in terms of sheer musicality and individuality, it's difficult to beat Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Levon fucking Helm. In addition, they are also one of the coolest- looking bands. Anyway, Robertson must have realized this early on, that no matter how much he worked, he still wouldn't be considered the Band leader. So, he had to assert his dominance in other ways. He wrote most of the songs, and slowly phased out the songwriting contributions of his fellow band members, for instance (even though he couldn't sing). However, this obviously wasn't good enough, as Robertson was merely considered to be doing his part in what was still ostensibly a democracy: though he wrote all the songs, he didn't sing lead on any of them (unlike the rest of them, sans Hudson), and he didn't play anything besides guitar. He was a good-looking guy, but nothing compared to the paragon of manliness that is Levon Helm (again, I'm editorializing). He compensated by bogarting all of Scorsese's interview time in The Last Waltz and placing himself squarely in the middle of the stage, even though, I repeat, he didn't sing. This is obviously a man in a conscious, anxious battle with his own ego.

I say all this because that's exactly what the guitar solo at the end of "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" sounds like--that is, a battle with ego. Throughout the entirety of The Band, wonderful album as it is, there is a conspicuous absence of solos, although Robertson offers several brilliant lead lines in songs like "Up On Cripple Creek" and "When You Awake" in lieu of this. On the last two songs, Robertson breaks this formula. "The Unfaithful Servant" has an acoustic solo at the end. It's not particularly groundbreaking, but it's bracing enough and serves as a nice counterpoint to Danko's affected aches. "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)," the following song, is another creature entirely. This is a mode of songwriting that has no serious precedent as far as I can tell, especially in how the chorus is so spare and minimal as opposed to the verses. I have a theory that this song may have influenced the Pixies in some way. I know everyone talks about how they were the first to employ the quiet verse/loud chorus formula, but these same people fail to mention how Frank Black flipped that structure around in songs like "No. 13 Baby," where Santiago stops playing and all that's left is Kim Deal's bass and Dave Lovering's drums. Obviously this is far more harmonically complex and utilizes a lot of techniques the Pixies never used, but the point still stands.

"King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" is one of those storytelling songs Robertson was so fond of in those days. This one is about a farmer who has a tough time making it but survives due to his union membership, or something. Richard Manuel, the late pianist, sings it at a lower register than what we are used to. Levon Helm contributes some brilliant drumming, particularly during the chorus when he pauses and then taps the high-hat for a snaky-sounding effect. Hudson is somewhere in the back, pumping on the organ. Rick Danko plays the bass, clipped and deliberate as usual. But it's Robertson who is the obvious center of the song. Throughout, he plays guitar fills that almost seem like the start of solos, but then retreats. It's a great moment when the chorus comes along and Robertson reduces his playing to single notes, in tandem with Danko; it's the sort of moment where he deliberately underplays for fear of breaking into self-indulgence.

The solo itself is one of those album-capping solos that I am particularly fond of. Yet even here, Robertson deliberately underplays. Given where it's placed in the song and how Robertson has set up the dynamics so far, this makes perfect sense. It's the kind of solo that's meant to sound quiet, but that doesn't mean it's any less intense. In fact, Robertson ratchets up the tension by trying to maintain that sort of feeling instead of going into all sorts of crazy directions. You can tell that some notes are barely being plucked, but it never seems like he's playing a wrong note. In interviews, Robertson has noted how hard it was to play a solo like that, which depends both on perfect timing and an insane sense of dynamics, and it seems here that he found the perfect medium between showing off his blooze skills from the Dylan days and acting like the socially responsible songwriter he obviously wants to be. Therein lies the tension, and therein lies the success of the solo.

I particularly like the end, where the instruments start picking up again, and Robertson plays two notes in tandem before breaking off into more familiar territory. The song ends so abruptly that you wonder where Robertson could have gone from there, but something tells that this isn't a situation, like "Little Wing," where the song is simply the victim of bad editing. Everything has a purpose, and it makes you appreciate the minute beforehand that much more.


  1. The Band (the album) is slowly working its way onto my list of desert island discs (top 3). The Last Waltz (although it could be better) is my favorite music film.

    Robbie's kind of a bitch though.

  2. Yep! It is the solo that you want to make every young hotshot guitarist listen to, to make him or her realise that there is yet another higher aim beyond mere technique that they have to aim for. But if you want to here the greatest unknown guitar solo ever which is just stacked do full of feeling listen to Dave Mason on Look at You, Look at Me on his wonderful Álone together'album. Simply staggeringly beautiful