Moondog Matinee by The Band
1 Mar 2023
When you think of the Band’s 1973 release, "Moondog Matinee," of course at first you might say this could be just an excuse from a prominent rock group of the 1970s to release an album filled with more covers than originals but really it’s not your typical nostalgia album that contains old mainstream rock songs from the past two decades. It would not be considered an oldies album to me when I listen to it. There is more of an authentic theme to it than we might think. It is a celebration of black music. Each of the nine songs, excluding the instrumental, were all originally done by black vocalists. It is a celebration of the music that they laid the groundwork for and pioneered for generations to come. With this year marking the 50th anniversary of this album, I thought this would be a perfect time to talk about "Moondog Matinee."
Even though the style is bringing the roots of original rock ‘n’ roll into it, there are elements that the band uses to make this an original album and a different spin on a tribute to those oldies but goodies. It took five people to make that type of musical magic the band did. Levon Helm as the drummer, Rick Danko on bass, Robbie Robertson as lead guitarist, Garth Hudson on the organ and Richard Manuel as the piano player. What also was a key ingredient in the Band’s formula was Levon, Rick and Richard being the lead singers of the group. Robbie as the creative genius and songwriter, and Garth holding all the pieces together on his lowery organ and being the multi-instrumentalist using instruments such as the tenor sax, clavinet, synthesizer and accordion.
The title of this album is a reference to the legendary 50’s disc jockey, Alan Freed, who was known as “The King of the Moondoggers” and used that in his rock shows that he would put together such as the “Moondog Coronation Ball.”
The album features songs from the 1950’s and 1960’s. What I feel really makes this album authentic is their choice of the 60’s songs they use. I feel it especially has to do with them starting out as the Hawks which were the backing band for rockabilly musician, Ronnie Hawkins. When the Hawks departed with Ronnie in 1964 they went out and performed as Levon and the Hawks before they teamed up with singer-songwriter and legend, Bob Dylan. The original concept for this album was just going to be a recreation of their setlist of songs they did as Levon and the Hawks. However it shifted into just doing a tribute of songs the band admired.
This was their fifth studio album. It definitely was a different type of outcome unlike their first two albums, "Music From Big Pink" and "The Band," which have been claimed to be the best in their catalog and also both are praised highly by music critics and are in the 2003, 2012 and 2020 edition of Rolling Stone Magazine’s, “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” The albums that followed after such as "Stage Fright" and "Cahoots" were also songs made up of original material. "Rock of Ages" was their live album that they put together which really proved their impressive stage presence and also got us to not only hear their studio songs live but hear some new material not on their previous albums such as “Get Up Jake” and Garth’s swan song, “The Genetic Method.” What is the most notable track on that album for me though has to be their uplifting groovy rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “Don't Do It.” So Moondog Matinee definitely reminded fans that when they do covers they can really make it their own.
But yes it can also show an alerting sign to fans when an established rock group releases four albums with fully original material and a killer live album then heading in the direction of an album full of covers. People could think they could be on the verge of slipping. In all honesty the Band was in crisis mode with Levon, Rick and Richard getting high on drugs and it was even more concerning considering they were the members that were the heart and soul of the band.
In an interview that was done back in 2002, Levon talked about why "Moondog Matinee" was the type of album it was. “That was all we could do at the time. We couldn't get along—we all knew that fairness was a bunch of shit. We all knew we were getting screwed, so we couldn't sit down and create no more music. 'Up on Cripple Creek' and all that stuff was over—all that collaboration was over, and that type of song was all we could do." I think this statement represents the bitterness that Levon apparently claimed to have over the years when reminiscing about the Band.
Even though they were known to the public for five years at this point they already had been playing together seven years prior to that so this was really the only thing they could cook up. This album doesn't really fail the public's expectations, in my opinion. It is possible that it is due to the fact that they were established musicians and that with the force of their talent they are still able to put out a top notch record.
So for now why don’t we dive into the songs that makeup "Moondog Matinee."
The songs that include the memorable 50’s songs would be Levon’s rocking style of “Ain’t Got a Home” originally done by Clarence “Frogman” Henry, their tribute to Fats Domino’s “I’m Ready” and Richard Manuel’s soft version of The Platters’s “The Great Pretender” but the real memorable track would have to be their cover of Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train” which was also of course done by Elvis when he was with Sun Records.
The band really adds a lot of funk to their version of “Mystery Train” and is the only song that adds lyrical originality with Robbie Robertson writing additional lyrics and with these new additions actually includes Levon singing the title of the song which is not at all heard in the original.
They also do an instrumental of the theme of the 1949 film "The Third Man." This version on the album shows a sophistication of the band instrumentality and also showing a diverse taste of not just picking the classic teen records of that era.
I also do enjoy that the Chuck Berry song they use is more of a recent one and not the classic 50’s songs every kid knows like “Johnny B Goode” or “Roll Over Beethoven.” Levon’s homage to Berry is shown clearly in the 1964 country rock, “The Promised Land.” They also included Allan Toussaint’s composition, “Holy Cow," originally done by Lee Dorsey back in 1966. This song represents that fun dynamic with Danko, Manuel and Helm, all singing and blending their vocals and rotating parts. Also of course like every Band record, Garth Hudson really is holding the group together with his organ work and unique sound that you’ll hear from each song on this record.
Of course what I also can’t wait to listen to when I listen to an album from the Band is hearing songs sung from Richard Manuel. Levon definitely had some great soul but I feel a lot of people overlook Richard as a dominant singer of the group. Whether he is changing his vocal range from doing very gritty soul to plain high falsetto or just being able to gently sing a ballad. There is no greater example on this album than his rendition of “You Don’t Share Your Love With Me.” This was originally done by Bobby Bland who also was credited at having different vocal ranges too. The way Richard is able to add his own flavor to this tune and really put his heart and soul to it says it all. Richard is able to get you so wrapped up into this song and bring so many layers into it. He sings this song like it's one of his own compositions like “Tears of Rage'' or “Lonesome Suzie.”
This song was done in the peak of Richard's heavy drug and alcohol use and even through all of that pain he is able to bring a sense of beauty to listeners. He still is able to show the world and his bandmates that he still has that charismatic voice.
Sadly his demons did catch up to him and eventually commited suicide in 1986 but this song and any other after he did still showed that even though he was going through a ton of pain he was able to still put on a hell of a performance and convince people and even himself that it was all ok. I mean that is a true magical talent there and when you look at it from that perspective, how can you not think of the heavy impact a wounded bird like Richard could bring to music? That is why I will be transparent and call him one of my favorite white soul vocalists because he brings so much vulnerability and can put listeners into such a trance. Another example that shows his full force would be his fast pace rock gospel version of Lieber and Stoller’s “Saved.” His version makes you forget that this song dates back to 1960 and is able to just instrumentally expand a rock tune. Richard is able to channel the charisma and oomph that Lavern Baker put in the original version.
And the song that wraps up this album and will wrap up this review is Rick Danko’s soulful rendition of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.” This song was released near the end of their days as just Levon and the Hawks. Then later of course they played with Dylan. Dylan actually plays a heavy role in Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.” Cooke was so moved by Dylan's work, especially “Blowing in the Wind" in which he did a version of it and then later wrote his own inspirational song about the troubled times which of course became “A Change is Gonna Come."
It later became a civil rights anthem. Rick is able to do a hell of a job channeling Cooke’s vocal insecurity and emotional sadness about a topic that still resonates with people to this day. Even the instrumentation stands out with Garth's noticeable contributions on the lowrey organ and his tenor sax solo adds so much beauty to this beautiful standard.
Rick is another vocalist in the Band that does not get the credit he deserves but is able to bring a soft but soothing flavor to this melodic song that has so much of an impact on music and even the world.
To wrap up my review of this album, I would have to say it is an ear worm to listen to. After getting really into the Band’s catalog, I have made the conclusion there really is no bad Band album which is similar to the argument that there is no bad Beatles album. It has a different vibe for sure than the other albums but they are adding something different and not just recycling old songs. They are able to make you really care for these renditions and are able to bring that band magic that only could be made from Garth, Levon, Robbie, Rick and Richard.