Rick Danko - The Next Waltz
by Chris JisiFrom Bass Player, Jan/ Feb 1994. The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.
When Rick Danko speaks, using long, loping phrases broken by occasional pauses to reflect on what he's said, the resemblance to his bass lines is immediately apparent. For over 25 years as a singing, composing, arranging and playing member of The Band, Danko has been lobbing in low notes like softballs deftly placed around the strike zone. "I feel about bass playing as I do about background singing," he explains. "It should be a hair behind. It's nice to leave the top of the beat for the vocal and spread the other parts around the beat. That gives the music a sort of Ferris-wheel effect and carries it along. I've always maintained I don't play bass - I fill space. What you leave out is just as important as what you put in. If everybody tries to fill all the spaces, it muddles up everything. Levon and I focus not only on complementing each other - whether we're together or on different parts of the beat - but also on leaving room for everyone else."
Two new releases, Rick Danko/Jonas Fjeld/Eric Andersen, a drummerless trio effort, and The Band's eagerly awaited Jericho, allow Danko to manipulate both rhythm and harmony in typical "less is more" fashion. On the trio's versions of 'Driftin' Away' and 'Blue River,' his frequent use of non-root tones creates countermelodies to his haunting lead vocals while also adding forward motion with each verse. Similarly, on Jericho, Danko gradually fills in the off-beats during 'Blind Willie McTell' and pushes the voodoo ostinato of 'Same Thing' into an implied double-time feel by track's end. Addressing the grass-roots construction of his parts, he explains: "We've always just gotten everybody together, learned the changes, listened to the emotion of the lyrics and melody, and started tossing around ideas."
Born in Simcoe, Ontario, a tobacco town 100 miles outside of Toronto, Danko was exposed first to country music. After attending a country & western fair with his uncle, he started listening to radio broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry, which featured artists like Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb. Beginning at age five he tried mandolin, tenor banjo, violin, and guitar, all taught to him by his dad. By the time Danko was 14 - having added blues, R&B, and rock influences to his guitar playing and vocals - he formed his own band and took to renting out halls to put on shows. In 1960 he opened for rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, whose group 'The Hawks' featured two future Band-mates - Helm and guitarist Robbie Robertson. "After the show, Ronnie hired me to play rhythm guitar," Rick recalls, "but his bass player left a short time later, so I moved to bass."
Just 17, Danko suddenly found himself behind a Precision, still grasping his guitar pick, which came in handy because of all the eighth-note tunes we did." He elaborates: "As far as influences go, I remember listening to Ray Charles's upright bassist, Edgar Willis, but I learned how to play basically by doubling [the Hawks' boogie-woogie pianist] Stan Szeleste's incredible left-hand parts. When Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson, who were formally trained, joined the Hawks, they turned us onto other styles, such as Jazz, and I started checking out people like Charles Mingus and Ron Carter." Hudson also suggested to Danko that he take some lessons. He said, 'You're playing your scales with one finger. Go and learn how to play a scale with all of your fingers.' Well, I did, and it was likely the greatest advice I'd ever been given. I explain all of this in detail on my instructional video."
In 1964, Danko, Robertson, Helm, Manuel, and Hudson left Hawkins and went out on their own as Levon & the Hawks. A year later Bob Dylan saw a performance and invited them to be his backup band on the historic world tour where the folk legend first went electric. Danko had to learn a new way to play if he wanted to stick with Dylan: Bob broke meter a lot, so I learned to watch his left hand to find out when and what chord he was changing to. Following the tour, Dylan and the Hawks did some informal recording, later issued as The Basement Tapes. Shortly after, in 1968, the group officially dubbed themselves 'The Band' and released their own album, Music from Big Pink, named after the house near Woodstock, New York, where they recorded. A decade of memorable tunes - including 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down', 'Up on Cripple Creek' and 'Life is a Carnival' - followed, culminating in their 1976 'farewell' show, documented in Martin Scorcese's classic concert film, The Last Waltz.
Though he still has the Gibson Ripper and the old Ampeg fretless visible in The Last Waltz - and present throughout Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band tour and disc in 1989 - Danko now relies on two new basses. One, built by New York guitar maker Mark Dann, features a custom semi-hollow Strat-sized body, an ebony fingerboard, and active Alembic JJ pickups. The other is a Norwegian-made Guitar Workshop bass with active Alembic PJ pickups and a rosewood board. Danko used both basses on Jericho - and the Guitar Workshop only for Danko/Fjeld/Andersen - recording direct for each disc. Though he occasionally plays with his fingers, he uses mostly a Fender heavy pick and often mutes with his right palm, for more punch. His strings are D'Addario XL160 nickel roundwounds (.050, .070, .085, .105). Long an Ampeg SVT user, he had his SVT 8x10 cabinet divided into two 4xl0s.
Currently, Danko is back on the Bandwagon, so to speak. In addition to the release of Jericho and subsequent tours, a four-CD compilation from Capitol and an authorized Band biography will precede the group's entrance into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in February. Rick is also working on a solo project, aided by guitarist Joe Walsh, and is doing live dates with Fjeld and Andersen. With a proud smile, he adds: "The trio recently closed the Malta Jazz Festival with a 2 AM show in front of 5,000 people, and the next day another 5,000 came to see us off at the airport. I remember feeling like one of my early heroes, Marcel Goerus, an accordionist who worked at all the different ethnic clubs in our area. We used to say he could play in any language."