The Band – Cahoots

Cahoots (1971)


1. Life Is A Carnival 2. When I Paint My Masterpiece 3. Last Of The Blacksmiths 4. Where Do We Go From Here? 5. 4% Pantomime 6. Shoot Out In Chinatown 7. The Moon Struck One 8. Thinkin’ Out Loud 9. Smoke Signal 10. Volcano 11. The River Hymn


The decline and fall continues. For all my bitching, this is the first Band album where absolutely nothing of interest happens for looooooong stretches at a time, not unlike taking a road trip to Cleveland. You know you might get to listen to some good tunes along the way, and you might even see Van Morrison driving drunk in the lane next to you at some point, but for 95% of the trip, you are consumed by a boring landscape populated by yellow lines and useless telephone poles (buy a goddamned cell phone! Who needs a land line anymore?), and ultimately you will find your destination unsatisfying. Cahoots is that road trip to Cleveland. Yes, I realize that isn’t a particularly funny metaphor, but I’m sticking with it.

Look, nobody would accuse these guys of not being able to play, and they sound tighter than ever on Cahoots. Other than Robertson, who could singlehandedly turn a Mantovani recording into a sloppy shitshow, the band’s musicianship is unimpeachable. No, you’re unlikely to find a studio drummer laying down Levon’s caveman beats, but man, nobody sounds like Levon. See, but that’s the thing: they went from scrappy upstarts making unpolished music in a basement to consummate studio professionals in just three short years. I need only to direct you to my review of Big Pink to remind you how aggravating I find a lot of the amateurism of that record. But there’s no denying that something was lost when they decided to clean up their sound.

Fortunately for you all, I know exactly what that something is! No, it wasn’t something silly and vague like “their edge” or “their camaraderie” or even “their sobriety,” though that last one is true. It was “the ability to write more than one or two good songs.” It’s no coincidence that the best song on the album was written by Bob Dylan. This country-carnival version of “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” released before the haggard, inferior version Bob did for his Greatest Hits Vol. 2, is just dandy, and proof that even during his least creative pre-Christian period, Bob’s throwaways were still way better than what Robbie Robertson was coming up with at the same time. Robbie’s only real keeper is “Life Is A Carnival,” co-written with Danko and Helm, but even there, all the overbusy stuff they pile on top—the intertwining call and response vocal lines, the guitar overdubs, the frantic New Orleans-y horn arrangement by Allen Toussaint—feel tacked on to bring excitement to a song that probably wouldn’t have a whole lot going for it otherwise. Fortunately, these elements are successful toward that aim, but I can’t imagine an acoustic version of this song being much of anything to write home about.

Sadly, that’s really it for greatest hits worthy material. Richard Manuel, quickly becoming consumed by his drug and alcohol habits, doesn’t get a single co-write, and in fact “Sleeping” and “Just Another Whistle Stop” from Stage Fright marked the last time he ever would. Oddly, he still sings lead on over half the album, and sounds very good, but Robbie’s songs just aren’t quite there. “Last Of The Blacksmiths” and “Where Do We Go From Here?” are just kind of generic Band songs; there’s not much to say about them, but at least they have pretty nice melodies that I can actually remember when the songs are over. But following those two is a meandering, formless bore called “4% Pantomime,” punctuated by a nearly incoherent Van Morrison popping in to duet with Manuel. And from thereon out, it’s a long, uneventful slog until the album finally ends. It’s all totally competent (well, except for “4% Pantomime”), and nothing really offends badly… though I wouldn’t blame my Southeast Asian brothers and sisters if they were to be offended by “Shoot Out In Chinatown.” Me, all I can think about is “Hey, the Band the corny, racist ‘Oriental’ guitar riff thing twelve years before David Bowie did it with ‘China Girl’”! Even regardless of that, it’s pretty weak stuff. So, come to think of it, is “The Moon Struck One,” which is yet more of Robertson’s schmaltzy, old-fashioned Tin Pan Alley slop. The only attempt at a “rocker” is the lumbering “Smoke Signal,” which is energetic for the Band – but remember, energetic for the Band still means, slow, plodding, and in this case, over-repetitive and needlessly long at five minutes. But that’s what drug addicts do, you know? They play slow. Unless they’re speed freak punk rockers. Then they play really fast and loud and KICK ASS.

The lesson: don’t do smack. Do speed and coke! We did coke and succeeded, so it must be all right!

-The last two presidents of the United States


  1. Robin wrote:

    A trip to Cleveland (going east to west), includes the entire state of Pennsylvania, which is quite pretty.

  2. victoid wrote:

    Got no beef with your harsh out of this piece of pork. I do like ” Life is a Carnival” as a stand alone unqualified hit, and I also dig “Smoke Signal” because, well…LEVON! (OK, and Danko too). The rest may be tight as a parson’s kiss, but who cares? Not I. As far as white boys’ Chinese fetish- fuck them and Bowie too! The only real masterpiece that mines this vein is “Chinese Song” from the boundless troubled genius of Alexander “Skip” Spence on the criminally overlooked 1971 Moby Grape LP 20 Granite Creek. This was post-Bellevue schizoid freak out Spence, so he only cameoed here, but this tune is unlike any other on sooo many levels. A sparse instrumental, played on some form of traditional stringed instrument, it possesses a haunting and exotic aura that is virtually untranslatable. Granted, it is more akin to Imperial Japanese tea room muzak than anything Chinese, but hey! This is from a legendary psycho, so allowances must be made. I can’t imagine anyone listening to this who would identify the composer and performer as anyone other than an indigenous Asian musician. Give a listen HERE and see if you agree. And don’t let me get started on Grape. I could easily get all link manic on yo’ ass.

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