The Fiery Ecstasy of Being in The Band
A Rick Danko Memorial
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Americana -- that's an ironic twist considering that all involved in The Band (save for Levon Helm who hailed from Arkansas) were Canadian. But like their compatriot, Neil Young, at their best (which was more often that not) The Band were the evocation of a 'mythical' America, a place where the frontier never disappeared. In 1968 when The Band released Music From Big Pink, America was splashed with the blood of its slain, both its political leaders and its poor, coming home toe-tagged from Vietnam. While the country's mood was undoubtedly comprised of some uncertainty, it also, paradoxically, seemed equal parts limitless possibility. For the most part, the music reflected this split -- Jimi Hendrix and Electric Ladyland, The Beatles and their White Album, the Rolling Stones and Beggars Banquet. So The Band's 'out of time' quality seemingly appeared from nowhere -- no references to getting high, no distorted vocal effects, no squalling feedback -- just pure, anachronistic musicianship. And while part of the hippie ethos was a more symbiotic relationship with nature, ironically it was The Band's earthiness that initially distinguished them from their contemporaries.
The Band had risen out of Dylan's shadow to cast their own, and the sound they created was unlike anything else, save for the Byrds' Sweetheart Of The Rodeo (whose own foray into country was predicated by Gram Parson's arrival). The Band was cut from the same rural cloth that also informed Parsons' body of work -- a place where Hank Williams commanded the room, while the shadowy specters of Jimmie Rodgers, Robert Johnson and Dock Boggs watched and nodded with approval. The Band and the late '60s incarnation Byrds were all members of the same posse -- musicians who made it acceptable to put some country back into the rock, thereby creating a musical plane that existed outside of the confines of the psychedelic hurricane swirling all around them.
It's hard to distinguish the singular accomplishments of each member of The Band. While Robbie Robertson gets the lion's share of critical adulation for his timeless compositions, they were truly a definitive 'group.' While each member was an accomplished musician, one of The Band's unique qualities was its lead singing trio of Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Levon Helm, all equally capable of going at it solo or draping themselves in masterful harmonies. In addition, Rick Danko cemented the rhythmic foundation from which The Band and Dylan (on several albums and tours) built their masterpieces.
And what masterpieces they were. Over the course of The Band's first run (1967-1976) they seemed to have their hands in everything that was alive in rock and roll. They served as Dylan's backing band for his 'electric' mutation (documented on the broiling second disk of last year's Bob Dylan Live 1966) and as his collaborators on the mythical Basement Tapes. The Band's own legendary appearances at Woodstock and Watkins Glen (which up until the US Festival was the highest attended show in U.S. history -- 600,000 people to see The Band, The Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers), in addition to a piece of celluloid immortality -- their farewell concert at San Francisco's Winterland ballroom on Thanksgiving Day in 1976. Otherwise known as The Last Waltz, and helmed by Robbie Roberston buddy Martin Scorsese. Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan don't show up to say goodbye to just anyone, as they (among others) did. Then there was The Band's excellent body of work that contained three indisputable masterpieces -- Music From The Big Pink and its 1969 follow-up, the eponymously-titled The Band, and last, but not least, the ferocious document of their 1971 New Year Eve's show at NYC's Academy of Music Rock Of Ages (released in 1972 and featuring an Allen Toussaint arranged horn section).
Rick Danko's contributions to The Band's canon were dazzling -- among the highlights are the Old West, hanged man tragedy of "Long Black Veil," the jittery pre-stage nerves and post-show euphoria of "Stagefright" (as good a song as there is about the paradox of performing) and the triumphant, horn punched version of "Chest Fever" (from Rock Of Ages). After The Band's initial demise, Danko released a very good solo debut, Rick Danko (1977), which was overlooked in the late '70s haze of disco and hard rock. The high lonesome whine of Danko's voice, along with bandmate Richard Manuel's, was the articulation of vulnerability, but not as a sign of weakness, but as brave acknowledgement -- precursors to the Kurt Cobains and Trent Reznors of the last decade. The Band's body of work has shaped every bit of rock that's put a little rural in it -- from The Eagles to the No Depression scene of the '90s.
While some might point disparagingly at The Band's decision to reform in 1983 sans Robertson, the yearning to mount the biggest stage on which you can to share your music is the quintessential rock and roll spirit. Unlike Richard Manuel's tragic death (he committed suicide while touring with the reformed Band in 1987), Danko's death does not bring that sense of regret and its subsequent sadness. Rick Danko lived the rock lifestyle -- he worked hard and played just as hard. And if you are fortunate enough to get to dance in those fires until your late '50s without suffering too much tragedy along the way, then you've won. And Rick Danko won big.