JANUARY 2000 | VOL. 4, NO. 1



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FEATURE
In Memorandum: Rick Danko

ALSO THIS MONTH
Jethro Tull starts anew

Mary Lou Lord: Live at the Tune-In

LAST MONTH
Rage Against the Machine returns amid controversy and great music

Rock's Girls and Boys Indulge Their "Deepest" Diary Doodlings

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DANKO'S DISCOGRAPHY

The Band

Band

Best Of Band

High On The Hog

Islands

Jericho

Jubilation

Last Waltz

Music From Big Pink

Night They Drove Old Dixie Down: Live In Concert

Rock Of Ages-In Concert

Stage Fright

Vol. 2-Best Of Band

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Rick Danko

Danko Fjeld & Andersen

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LAST THOUGHTS ON RICK DANKO
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Beneath it all, of course, is a voice. If Levon Helm was the guts of The Band and Richard Manuel its soul, Rick Danko filled in the flesh between. His was a vocal quality rare in mainstream music, one capable of a range that in today's world just isn't heard. From ballad to blues to head-on rock, Danko's singing combined a distinctly country influence with something a bit deeper and more dark. Perhaps it's because he and the members of The Band were first generation rock, teenaged contemporaries on the honky tonk circuit to Elvis, Carl Perkins, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry, those originators for whom there was no formula, no map. To that small pocket of musical time, it was more than obvious how well black and white could combine, intuitively, to speak a better whole.

Thus, later in his career, Danko would be seen easing beautifully from Robert Johnson's dirge-like blues to the Carter Family's galvanizing "Keep On the Sunny Side," his voice carrying him effortlessly across such disparate strains. Much earlier, at Woodstock, he would follow The Band's mostly folksy set by crooning the Four Tops' "Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever," a rather jarring and seemingly incongruous juxtaposition.

But Danko and The Band established their quiet greatness in exactly this way, suggesting artfully to the world at large what was most essential to them. Folk followed by the Four Tops; the complex, completely American message to Woodstock's soggy mob of half a million on that day was that even Motown contained more country than at first might meet the ear.

Yet still, in his own humble words, Danko and company were doing little more than just "making music."

 


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In "Mystery Train," his epochal 1975 study of American music, rock writer Greil Marcus would detail the concerts by Bob Dylan from 1965-66 in which The Band, playing behind him, would take his music to near-frenzied new volumes and heights. Marcus would cite Danko specifically as the man to whom eyes were drawn, the man who danced spastically through the clamor, rocking back and forth, lost in the moment. Marcus would write, quoting critic Ralph J. Gleason's original review of one such show, that Danko moved with equal parts abandon and poise, with force; "He looked," it was observed, "like he could swing Coit Tower."

Some 32 years later, a lifetime in terms of rock and roll mythos, I would see Danko on the tiny stage of a glorified pub, playing to a room of forty people on a Tuesday night, 7:00 p.m. His vigor would be unceasing, his emoting for real. During a verse of "It Makes No Difference," perhaps the most moving rock ballad ever written, Danko would close his eyes and let his voice jump an octave for an unrehearsed high note. By the end of the song, two women in the audience would have shed tears. Best of all, though, was the rousing blues song that would follow; Danko, now 55, weighing nearly three hundred pounds, gray hair and all, would kick up his heels and start dancing, simply to the sound of his own acoustic guitar.

This is a man, recall, who once traveled in limos and Leers, played Watkins Glen and the Isle of Wight, graced the pages of Time and Rolling Stone, and made millions off the entertaining game. Yet here, on a tiny pub stage, in what would be his last years, money and fame replaced in the equation by obscurity, he would be lost in the music once more, transported not back to his lofty prime some three decades earlier but ahead to the new terrains his playing would take him--those more modest, more compelling, more wise. Hungry again, he would sing, circling those forty fans closer to him than most performers could conceive.

Rock and roll is not wine, though; it does not age well. In recent years, some cited Danko's decline in health, the extra weight he carried, his run-in with the law on a drug charge, his occasional difficulty in hitting the hard upper-register notes that made him famous. Yet a certain rise and fall in a musical life--especially one based in part on the blues--seems fitting, if not compulsory. Rick Danko was, by his own prideful claim, just a country boy, in love with and respectful of his roots; if nothing else, his career resurgence in the 1990s was all about this, about tracing a long and indirect arc back to what was most vital to him. And if the country and folk tunes he was raised on sounded great coming from him as a young man--via the music of The Band, as he often steered it--imagine how he sung them at 56, after years of high and low living, after being treated by time to a healthy dose of balance and reflection. Danko's recent singing may not have been as technically remarkable as when he was 25, but it was far more affecting as a result--a voice seasoned and smoothed through by insight and wit. He re-arranged songs in this light, former radio anthems by The Band recast as lost Maybelle Carter riffs. The result? Stirring ... and freeing, too, without the odd confines and pretense of success. Here's a man playing the pubs again after forty plus years, as if singing for his dinner and this month's rent. There's a certain love in that, a certain reverence for his art, a grace.

[ CONTINUED: Humble Beginnings ]

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RICK CONNELLY is the staff television writer for Renaissance Online Magazine. He can be reached at rconnelly@renaissancemag.com

PICTURES copyright © Elliot Landy and The Band.



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