Spinning today in the ‘rock room’ is a 30 minute archival tape of
24k musical gold. Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks captured live and in action on magnetic
tape in London, Ontario, Canada, February 24, 1964. Three weeks removed from the arrival of the Beatles, music was on a spacecraft to the stars and the ‘Hawks’ were riding shotgun. Live performances by the
‘pre-Band’ Hawks are quite rare and range from acceptable to acceptable minus
as far as audio quality goes. This capture finds the ‘Hawks’ ready to soar on their own as they would within a year leave the ‘Hawk’ on their way to becoming the ‘Band’ via Bob Dylan. The tape has circulated for a number of years and is a proper document of an evening with ‘Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks’
This particular recording was made by an enterprising audience member and captures the band in full flight with only some distortion on the vocals. Unfortunately Rick Danko’s bass playing is not very audible on
the tape in addition to some rough spots on the reel. This is also the shortest of the currently circulating ‘Hawks’
recordings, but it does contain Ronnie Hawkins fronting the group which makes
the recoding that much more exciting! There is no specific venue listed with
the tapes information but it’s easy to tell that the crowd is amped and the
band is playing well. In spite of the tapes sonic limitations, it really does place you right in the room. There are a number of discernable comments by concert goers and some humorous on stage tom foolery. You are going to want to put your bootleg ears on for this one, but it will be well worth the sacrifice!
This band line up of this particular recording is Rick Danko (bass), Richard Manuel (vocals, piano), Garth Hudson (organ, saxophone), Levon Helm (drums), Robbie Robertson (guitar) and Jerry Penfound (saxophone, percussion) who would only be the group for a limited time more and of course the ‘Hawk’, Ronnie Hawkins. The quintessential front man and star of the show until the ‘Hawks’ started to fledge.
The recording picks up with the band already grooving in
progress with ‘Who Do You Love’. The groove is rutted deep as a Canadian two track and Robertson’s
guitar growls on the tape. I don’t think much music is missing here. The recording’s fidelity is such that you can
discern individual voices from the crowd in addition to Hawkins shouting on
stage direction. The issues with the tape come from the substantial sonic maelstrom emanating from the grandstand and causing distortion. The band is chugging along dynamically while the ‘Hawk’ primes
the pump. Fans of the female persuasion can be heard close to the taper with
remarks and giggles. The ‘Hawk’ in typical fashion plays with their emotions and
stirs up their excitement.
Soon after Hawkins snarls the opening lyrics the group detonates the
central jam into a frantic whirlwind of sound. Manuel’s fingers clang around the upper
register of the piano as Robertson peels of reams of swollen licks. Hudson is audible and shifts the floorboards underneath the venue with thick coats of rich organ. The tension
is delicious as the group falls back into the verse groove. Manuel and
Robertson volley licks back and forth. Helm’s ride cymbal is crystalline driving the rhythm. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, ‘The Hawks were the best band in the world at this point in time”. Wow.
There is a plethora of kinetic passing of the musical pipe as the ‘Hawks’ quiver with energy. Another detonation of sonic madness takes place with Robertson getting ultra demented. The ‘Band’ brings it back down yet again before Hawkins calls
for Garth Hudson to lay down a solo. Hudson sneaks in low with a musical army crawl, spreading a wash of unique sound with Helm popping off rim shots. At a bit past seven minutes the ‘Hawk’ says, ‘Ok Robbie’, as the jam undulates between an aggressive ‘Bo Diddley’ beat and that of a sonically serrated hand saw slicing wood. Robertson, in his infancy as a player, cuts deep with distorted slices and jabs distilled through the sheet of sound.
Manuel rattles along underneath and soon links up with Danko as the sonic haze gains some clarity. The sound improvement is in addition my ears becoming accustomed to the recording. The ‘Hawks’ increase the tension with Robertson hitting on a circular lick and Helm riding the train right next to him. Hawkins screams and the band opens the tap. The tension is thick, palm mutes, and rock and roll screams grind the ‘Who Do You Love’ jam to a thrilling and sexy conclusion.
A respite to the onslaught of sound comes with Hawkins lubing up the crowd, ‘We got a lot of requests, we gotta do some slow ones for
the sake of the people rubbing around on each other out there’. There is alot of cool dialog and audio verite gold that I will leave you my dear reader to discern on your own. That’s the fun!
Giving the ‘Hawk’ a break, ‘Beak’ gets the spotlight for ‘Share Your Love’ a song the later ‘Band’ would revisit on 1973’s Moondog Matinee. Manuel croons ‘Share Your Love’, getting the little girls to giggle and swoon. While focusing in and picking through the sonic debris of the tape I can hear Robertson picking watery filigrees and Helm’ shuffling the beat. This is priceless.
At the conclusion of ‘Share Your Love’, there is a bit of fantastic dialog between the ‘Hawk’ and the females in the crowd. Hawk asks the ladies yelling for Levon to ‘show him what you want’. Hawk tells the fans to ‘not be bashful now’ and tell Levon what they want him to sing. Hawk then mentions, ‘We got the horns here now so we’ll let ‘Beak’ sing one more then we’ll let Levon. There is a small cut in the recording and we hear the count off for ‘A Sweeter Girl Has Never Been Born’. This is where it’s at. While this may be a Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland song, Richard Manuel makes it his own.
This is swinging R and B at it’s finest and the ‘Hawks’ are as tight as a bank vault. After a double snare hit by Helm, the ‘Hawks’ jump into the pocket. There is some hi distortion on the tape but Manuel comes in loud and clear. Helm swings with his ride cymbal and the horns bleat out well placed punctuations. Manuel’s vocals rattle the light fixtures as he plainly illustrates why he was the lead vocalist for the ‘Hawks’. I’m pretty sure its Garth Hudson and Penfound on horns. Oooooooh, lord this is the stuff. Take note that right at first sax break Manuel lays down a beautiful descending line on the piano and then hits boogie-woogie just in time for the first sax solo. Chills.
It’s sounds to these ears that Garth takes the first solo spot but this a total guess on my part. Dig on the song’s conclusion when the ‘Band’ drops out and Richard really gets into it with Helm nailing the beat to the floor. Highlight reel stuff even with the questionable audio at points.
Hawkins mentioned that they group has time for two more songs and runs down a list of possibilities before remembering that Levon was supposed to sing one! There is some more audio verite’ rarities from the ‘Hawk’ to be mined here. Cutting in already in progress, Helm is singing the hell out of Howlin Wolf’s, ‘Howlin’ for My Baby’.
The sound here is very alright, Manuel parrots the verses with Helm on the upper register of the piano and Robertson strangles out responses. The Hawks are are hot to the touch as Robbie takes a serpentine first solo with his trademark sustained notes. Levon is Levon, which is to say en fuego. Robertson takes an additional solo with even Danko’s guttural thumping entering the sonic spread. The guys bring it down and you can hear a grin in Helm’s vocals as the girls squeal in delight. Mr. Hudson flies in for the outro with a series of technicolor washes. Damn, this is the ‘Band’ right here. The crowd knows it as they start to clap in time, Robertson riffs again and the song concludes magnificently.
The ‘Hawk’ replies, ‘It’s Levon Helm and the Helmettes’ at the song’s conclusion. There is a brief cut before we are placed into the Garth Hudson/Robbie Robertson composition ‘Bacon Fat’ a song that would continue to be played on stage by ‘Levon and the Hawks’ into 1965. There are no vocals on this version. ‘Bacon Fat’ is a syncopated piece that highlights Hudson’s substantial abilities and Robertson’s rapidly ascendant guitar stylings. The song displays all of the elements that made the ‘Hawks’ a musical powerhouse. A natural gestalt linkage between the players, an organic trading off of licks and a tight rhythm section that hits the mark through any and all changes. Hudson is especially frisky with heavy finger work. Toward the song’s conclusion Levon Helm announces, ‘I’d like to introduce the future leaders of Canada’ to a great response. You can tell things are getting crazy by this point in the evening. Penfound takes a sweet final sax solo, Levon says ‘goodnight’ and Hudson takes it home.
What an experience to be lucky enough to witness ‘Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks’ in a small Canadian club at their peak. The ‘rock room’ will never be able to make that happen but thankfully there are audio documents like this one to get us as close as possible. Until the long rumored ‘Hawks’ box From Bacon Fat to Judgement Day sees a release this will have to do. (I wont hold my breath). The talent and ability was obviously there from the formative days with Ronnie Hawkins and the future ‘Band’ as they all ended up with music careers that would place them in the pantheon of the very best at what they do. Here, we can check them out when they had the fire in their guts and stars in their eyes. They were the best r and b band in the land and tapes like this prove it every time.