Music from Big Pink
Let’s get the prerequisite qualifier down first; this writer has made an exception and is covering a cover band. It’s only happened three times before, and for the same reason – love and respect for the music of The Band. Two of these were with Jim Weider-led The Weight Band, one a cover effort and another with more an original thrust. The third was with Mrs. Henry covering The Band’s The Last Waltz. Chest Fever is the San Diego-based alter ego of Mrs. Henry, with members playing in both. Although not covered by yours truly, Chest Fever also did a version of Rock of Ages. Chest Fever is now back with Music From Big Pink, reimagining it with a different sequence, different arrangements, and some lengthier songs, while instilling their psychedelic tinge in the process. The latter is a rather interesting twist as the iconic album was The Band’s first and in the words of the late Robbie Robertson, “at the time everyone was going psychedelic, so we went the other way.” Speaking of Robertson, he apparently gave his blessing to the group to carry on The Band’s legacy.
Chest Fever is guitarist Daniel Cervantes, keyboardist John Bagley, bassist Blake Dean, organist/saxophonist Ben Pinnola, and drummer Allan Ritter. These five, along with keyboardist Dour Organ credited on the album, replicate the quintet configuration of the original. Cervantes, Bagley, and Dean also play in Mrs. Henry. Both bands would protest the label ‘cover band’ as they render other material, especially in the case of Mrs. Henry, besides The Band but Chest Fever, given the name itself, seems devoted to The Band material. No three voices, of course, can possibly replicate the impact of Manuel, Danko, and Helm and loyalists would certainly also argue that no organist, guitarist, or drummer is in the same league as Hudson, Robertson, and Helm respectively. Chest Fever would likely concede as well, priding themselves on, though being faithful to the vibe, it’s not a note-by-note replication. They insist on putting their own stamp on the material. The initial result for those so immersed in the original sequence alone, is jolting as the album kicks off with an up-tempo rollicking version of “This Wheel’s On Fire” followed by “Kingdom Come.” As if that’s not enough, they relegate the opener “Tears of Rage” to track nine. Suffice it to say, they’ve jumbled it up.
While the musicality is often on a par, and maybe even a little brighter on such tunes as the Robertson-penned standout written for Manuel, “Caledonia Mission” the vocal treatment, though harmonious, doesn’t’ nearly convey the emotional poignancy of the original. But we’ve made that point about The Band’s three voices – there just aren’t viable substitutes. Couple that with the notion that the Manuel songs are just not easy to sing – “Tears of Rage,” “Lonesome Suzie,” and “I Shall Be Released.” The salient track is the eponymous one, “Chest Fever,” as The Band often did when performing the tune live, it’s given a lengthy 15-minute treatment here but instead a long organ intro, vocals ensue early before the group engages in a ecstatic, unhinged jam rife with reverberating guitars, swirling organ and pounding keys. This is where Chest Fever finds its best footing and best sets itself apart.
- Jim Hynes
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