I don’t remember anyone as close as late Richard Manuel to the spirit and music of Ray Charles in The Band’s last two neglected studio sessions. Is that something? Let me tell you brother that in context of American 20th century music, it could be everything and it is. Ray musically was a huge junction between long dusty roads of jazz, blues, soul, R&B and most important of them all, country and the rich and eternal music of Hank Williams.
The Band also was a big combo of all kind of American music plus new sensation, Rock ‘n’ Roll. You can hear everything, from sound of the swamps of Louisiana to elite urban voice of Tin Pan Alley cats in their rich structured musical journey. Maybe that’s the reason why the band always seems so archaic and so contemporary at the same time. They could ignore boundaries of time masterfully in the albums like Music from Big Pink, and it’s hard to connect these songs to a certain period of history. They elusive quality, more that surrealistic poetry of Robbie Robertson, came from the combination of the most old and the most recent. And Manuel, this Fallen angel (a song that Robertson wrote for Richard Manuel after his suicide for his first self titled solo LP), could recollect some of the most precious styles of American music. Hismournful, ragged sound and his brief moments of consolation make you feel that you’re hearing Hank and Ray in one sound. He seems very tired and lonesome in these last records and even in The Last Waltz you could feel his outness from the whole scene, like he is somewhere else and certainly not in this glorious farewell party. When Martin Scorsese’s camera, accidentally misses him in his last vocal part of The Last Waltz (I shall be released), it seems like fate has condemned him to his permanent solitude. You could hear:
Vocals of magnificent Northern Light-Southern Cross (1975) is divided between Richard Manuel’s after-hour picturesque songs and Levon Helm’s New Orleanian ramblings that is accompanied with a great horn section. And of course Rick Danko has his unforgettable moments of grief in It makes no difference (In Last Waltz it created a moving climax in terms of Danko’s vocal and interaction between Robertson’s guitar solo and Garth Hudson’s response with Alto Sax.
Manuel has three unforgettable vocal pieces in this album. The first one is Hobo Jungle, the second Jupiter Hollow (only partially) and the set closes with the Rags and Bones, a musical description of a daily urban scene with lots of great vocal characterizations. It gathers all the best things in Manuel’s voice, the movement and the feeling of switching from one image to another, from one rich tableau to the second one, all as fast as a steam locomotive and without any tediousness or slackness.
The Band’s last album, Islands (1977), that actually was recorded after The Last Waltz due to an unfinished contract with Capitol (so The Last Waltz is not actually the end of The Band!), is a neglected classic. There are some of the brightest and cleanest rock recordings (in both Musical and engineering terms) of all times in this comely pack of songs. I must confess the connection between urban songs, sagas , love song and straight rock ‘n’ roll cuts in this particular album is somehow weak , but each song stands its own ground. Beside Rick Danko’s ennoble narration of Jesus birth in Christmas Must be Tonight (in my view it’s the best rock Christmas song ever), it’s Manuel that steal the whole set. I don’t know why this gentleman, Michael Gray in his Bob Dylan encyclopedia accuses Robertson of confining Manuel’s talent in The Band’s latter albums. Nowadays we are used to this kind of inaccurate commentary and I’m sure this statements result from simple reasons like “not listening to the albums” and only playing with words to win a irrelevant argument, for whom or why, I don’t know.
I can’t remember any opening track as easy going and comforting as Island’s Right as rain, and truly it is as "right" as rain! In Let the Night Falls Manuel reaches its Ray Charlsian peak with his yearning voice and when he begins to sing Georgia on my mind, it’s Ray himself.
Island ends with Knocking Lost John, the most unrecognizable The Band track in vocal parts, but as far as music in concerned a splendid example of songwriting and performance. At the end, Richard Manuel is a genius lost in drugs and alcohol. A fallen angel who reached the end too soon. He was one of the best vocalists of 20th century in the same class with giants like Ray Charles and Hank Williams and a hell of a musician on keyboards, drums and guitar. I can still hear his voice:
Inside my lonely room, there is no in between
Whispering pines, rising of the tide
If only one star shines
Thats just enough to get inside”