LIVE: John Simon: Working With The Band

November 4th, 2016, 9:30 am by Greg

By Don Wilcock

“A (record) producer is a psychologist,” explained John Simon at the Schenectady County Public Library Thursday night in the first of six scheduled talks throughout Greater Nippertown through Sunday (November 6). The talks are part of the NY Living Legacy Project: The Band, produced by The Egg.

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“I tried to put my ego aside and be in service of the record,” explained Simon in an hour-long question and answer session that also included piano-and-vocal renditions of some of his own songs.

Simon produced The Band’s first two albums, Music from Big Pink (1968) and The Band (1969). He also was music producer of the concert and album The Last Waltz. Talking candidly and with startlingly vivid recall, Simon describes himself as a filter to The Band. He offered his advice to a then fledgling group that Rolling Stone ranked as No. 50 on their list of the 100 greatest artists of all time. The Band presaged the onset of Americana music and provided Nobel Prize-winning singer-songwriter Bob Dylan with a plugged-in back-up group that forever fused folk and rock.

Simon is a veteran insider whose production credentials include Janis Joplin’s Cheap Thrills, Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends and Songs of Leonard Cohen. In his yet unpublished memoir, he breaks things down simply: “So making a record is a little like a board game. Start with the artist, go around the board, get to the record at the end. Game over.”

Titling his library appearances “We Can Talk About It Now: Working with The Band,” Simon began his Thursday night Q&A session by apologizing for being “a little rough.” To the contrary, for over an hour he answered insightful questions from an audience of obvious Band aficionados with unblinking first-hand reminiscences.

Asked about the triple-threat vocals of the group, he lauded Levon Helm for his authentic accent and an ability to sing above his natural range. Richard Manuel was “a rogue baritone with a crystal falsetto.” Rick Danko had “a pure voice with no vibrato.” Robbie Robertson didn’t sing on the records, but he wrote many of the songs and sang them to the group, who incorporated his inflections into the final versions.

Concerning the controversy between Robbie Roberston and Levon Helm over songwriting credits, Simon said, “I have to side with Robbie.” In explaining how The Band changed the paradigm of pop culture, Simon referred to Elton John, who changed from glitz and bling to wearing a beard and becoming more earthy in his music after hearing The Band.

The self-effacing Simon said that his technology knowledge was limited to recognizing a microphone, and he questioned the logic of hiring a local pharmacist as one of the group’s managers.

WHO: John Simon – the producer of Music From Big Pink, The Band and The Last Waltz.
WHAT: Simon discusses and demonstrates how the compositions, arrangements and instrumentation came together to create these monumental recordings that formed the foundation for what is known today as Americana music.
WHEN/WHERE: Today (Friday, November 4), 12noon: Albany Public Library, Albany
Saturday (November 5), 1pm: Bethlehem Public Library, Delmar
Saturday (November 5), 3:30pm: Guilderland Public Library, Guilderland
Sunday (November 6), 12:30pm: Saratoga Springs Public Library, Saratoga Springs
Sunday (November 6), 3pm: Clifton Park-Half Moon Public Library, Clifton Park