“We have an announcement,” says the drummer between songs. “There’s lots of corn left! So alla you who feel like havin’ a cob…” Just another glamorous gig for Levon & The Hawks, the group that less than a year later would be shattering folkie ear drums with Bob Dylan, and by decade’s end would be known as The Band. Even at this early date, the Hawks were seasoned vets, having existed in one form or another since 1958. But this lineup, featuring Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson is the one the world would get to know.
This fairly miraculous (if decidedly lo-fi) tape captures what was undoubtedly just one of hundreds of similar shows for Levon & The Hawks, as the band made its way up and down the eastern seaboard, playing every dive along the way. Their repertoire — including standards by James Brown, Ray Charles, and Chuck Berry — could probably be heard in nine out of ten juke joints in the country. But one listen will show that this was no ordinary bar band. Levon and co. may have been a ways away from Big Pink, but a lot of the essential elements are in place: Manuel’s boozy croon, Robertson’s stinging guitar lines, Hudson’s swirling carnival organ and Helm’s unstoppable thump. Of course, a few things would be dropped along the way — the punky energy of the Hawks would be tamed in favor of The Band’s bucolic reveries, and of course, Robertson’s original tunes would come to the fore. And check out the flute solo that wafts in during a storming version of the theme from “Peter Gunn.” Hard to imagine that happening during “The Weight.” Turn this tape up and travel back in time. Maybe even have a cob or two … words/ t wilcox