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The Band's Rick Danko Revs Up Legendary Career

by Matthew Lewis

From Variety, March 1997.

HARTFORD, Conn. (Reuter) - It's been nearly 30 years since the Band helped define American rock music, but singer and bassist Rick Danko feels he's just getting warmed up.

After a long layoff from making records in the 1980s and early '90s, Canadian Danko is brimming over with recording and concert projects.

"I love to play; a stage is a safe place for me to be," Danko told Reuters in an interview. "It's not that way for most folks, but I'd be lost without it."

Still one of rock's great voices at age 53, Danko is more visible these days than at any time since The Last Waltz, director Martin Scorsese's celebrated documentary of the Band's star-studded 1976 "farewell" concert.

One of Danko's side projects, the critically acclaimed trio Danko/Fjeld/Andersen, in February released its second album, Ridin' on the Blinds, on the Rykodisc label.

The project reunited Danko with his friends Jonas Fjeld, one of Norway's biggest stars, and Eric Andersen, the respected songwriter who sprang from the 1960s New York folk scene.

The new album is an intoxicating blend of American roots music seasoned with exotic, centuries-old Norwegian folk instruments. One highlight is Danko's poignant, acoustic rendition of "Twilight," an obscure 1975 Band song.

In addition, the Band will soon start work on its next album, targetted for release in early 1998. The legendary group, which reunited without Richard Manuel, who committed suicide in 1986, and key songwriter Robbie Robertson, has released two albums in the last three years.

The group plans a 35-concert U.S. tour this summer.

Then there is Danko's revved-up solo career. He will tour Japan in April and May, and is planning a live album that would serve as the long-awaited followup to his 1978 solo album, which featured Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones' Ron Wood.

Danko, who lives in Woodstock, N.Y., also says he'd like to make a "rock 'n' roll duo" album with Rolling Stones great Keith Richards, but no plans have been set yet.

Asked about the flurry of activity, Danko said, "I get bored pretty easy, but I'm lucky to have a lot of musical friends that help me take care of those moments."

A recent solo concert in tiny Foxboro, Mass., captured Danko in fine voice. Expertly backed by drummer Randy Ciarlante and pianist/accordionist Aaron Hurwitz, Danko romped through old classics like "Stage Fright" and "Mystery Train," and a funked-up "Chest Fever" from the Band's famous debut album.

Originally formed in 1960 as the backing group for Arkansas rockabilly wild man Ronnie Hawkins, the Band combined good-time rock 'n' roll with American folk traditions like no group before or since. The group's first two albums, Music From Big Pink (1968) and The Band (1969), still rate highly on many critics' all-time "best" lists.

At the heart of the Band's distinctive sound was the deeply soulful singing of Danko, drummer Levon Helm and Manuel.

"Rick's voice is incredibly unique," said Hurwitz, who is also the Band's co-producer. "It's a gutsy sound, it's haunting, and it really appeals to people."

Asked about his vocal influences, Danko lists Hank Williams, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Kitty Wells, Patsy Cline, and Muddy Waters, among many others.

Danko's heartfelt style was developed the hard way. He quit school in Simcoe, Ontario, at age 14 and went to work as an apprentice meatcutter. He was still a teenager when he ran away to join Hawkins's rockabilly roustabouts.

Never a prolific songwriter, Danko has co-written some gems over the years. "This Wheel's on Fire," which he wrote with Bob Dylan in 1967, has rolled in its share of royalties -- most recently as the theme music for the British TV series "Absolutely Fabulous."

Danko said there are many old Band songs on which he and the others should have been credited as co-writers, instead of being credited solely to Robbie Robertson.

Robertson wrote the group's best-known songs, including "The Weight," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and "Up on Cripple Creek."

"He'll say he did it all, if you give him the opportunity," Danko said of Robertson. Danko said he empathizes with Mike Love, the Beach Boy who sued bandmate Brian Wilson for withholding songwriting credits on many well-known songs. "Maybe I'll have to end up hiring his lawyer," he laughed.

The surviving original Band members have turned down offers in the millions of dollars to reunite, Danko said. "Money isn't the object anymore. We're not looking for a job."

He strongly disagrees with some critics who have carped that the Band without Robertson is like "Hamlet" without the prince. "Robbie chose to do what he chose to do, and more power to him. I think he's regretted some of those movements, but that's not my problem."

Robertson has released three solo albums as well as some movie soundtracks for Scorsese since leaving the Band.

Danko feels that the "new" Band -- with original members Danko, Helm and Garth Hudson augmented by Ciarlante, Jim Weider and Richard Bell -- is every bit as valid as the "old" Band. "I appreciate the chemistry of the Band over the years and everybody's contribution," he said. "I would like to see that continue for just as long as we can breathe good air."

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