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Wire from the Bunker: Meet Rick Danko

Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, and Rick Danko, the Band – originally known as the Hawks when they backed Bob on his electric blaspheme of ‘66 – are arguably the only combo in popular music to boast three undeniably great vocalists. John and Paul were absolute rock’n’roll G.O.A.T.s but the quiet one was average at best. One could make the case for CSN but they were always hampered by sub-par material – except for when Y joined, of course. The Dead? Jerry got by on pure emotion and Pig Pen was a bonafide blues belter. But crossing the Weir Line is never a good idea and Donna Godchaux and Brent Mydland were utter wimps when it came to singing. What about the new breeds? Well, I saw the Black Lips a couple of weeks ago at Underground Arts and a case could be made for Cole, Jared and Zumi but that’s based on enthusiasm versus talent. Once someone directed me to the Fleet Foxes but I refuse to listen to anyone named “Robin Pecknold.” Seriously?

Of the three Band giants, Danko was always my favorite. There was a vulnerability to his pinched tone that did me in when I first heard it and that still brings a lump to the throat. I only caught up with Rick once and that was at the Tin Angel (the last true folk club in Philly) sometime in the early 90s, I think. He was in real bad shape: bloated, sniffling, and, according to my friend George Pierson – who ran sound – made frequent trips to the club’s bathroom. Sidenote: the Tin Angel’s slow decline began when George was dismissed based on something that the loathsome Francis Dunnery said about him. In any event, despite appearances, Rick absolutely nailed it: he had a way of playing solo unlike anyone I’d ever seen before or since where he somehow translated the idiosyncratic but perfect bounce of his bass playing to an acoustic guitar with a suitably quirky vocal along for the ride. It didn’t hurt that he was pulling on Robbie Robertson’s repertoire either!

Speaking of Robbie – the seeming leader of what was supposed to be a leaderless group – it was he who pulled the Band off the road in 1976, capping things off with the Last Waltz concert, filmed by Martin Scorsese that very year, Thanksgiving Day at San Francisco’s Winterland. Many consider the Last Waltz to be the greatest concert film of all time but not everyone: Levon Helm hated it and famously responded to Robbie’s statement of why the Band was hanging up their rock’n’roll shoes – the danger of the road – by saying, “I ain’t in it for my health!” Indeed, Rick, Richard and Levon were absolute wild men who all made early exits. It’s actually surprising that they lived as long as they did considering their penchant for wrapping hotrods, which they bought when money started rolling in after Big Pink’s release in ’68, around Hudson Valley trees. Heroin probably didn’t help ‘em either!

This Saturday, November 26th at the Franklin Music Hall, a group of Philadelphia musicians – led by the wonderfully talented Andrew Lipke – will recreate the Last Waltz in its entirety in a benefit for the Make the World Better Foundation.

Mike “Slo-Mo” Brenner and I were involved in this show a few years back when they did it at the Troc and where, miraculously, Garth Hudson (the Band’s musical mastermind) showed up! I figure legendary Philly music booking agent, the late Brian Dilworth – who helped organize that show – was behind Garth’s appearance. Dilworth had a warmth and mysterious power which I’m sure will continue to be felt at Saturday’s show which is dedicated to Brian’s memory. I’m delighted to participate again as I get to play none other than Bob Dylan. Not sure who Slo-Mo is playing but I assure you it won’t be Joni Mitchell!

Here's a few selections from Danko that may have escaped your notice:

Twilight”: This is pretty much what Danko sounded like at the aforementioned Tin Angel gig. No one sounded or played like him. Rick had his own jurisdiction and here it encompasses one of Robertson’s finest compositions. “Twilight is the loneliest time of day,” indeed. Plus, you get a bonus of “Evangeline”, memorably sung by Emmylou Harris in the Last Waltz. Many in the Band camp cast serious shade on Robbie, mostly for allegedly cutting the other members of the group out of songwriting royalties. Considering his shiny veneers, tailored suits, and collaboration with Eric Clapton, it is easy to dislike JRR. But let’s face facts: after he dissolved the Band, not a single one of those other guys wrote anything approaching songs like “Twilight” or even the comparatively slight “Evangeline.”

When You Awake”: Rick and Richard actually did have a hand in writing this one. Among the dazzling compositions of the Band’s eponymous second album (“Cripple Creek”, “Rocking Chair”, “Rag Mama Rag”, “Look Out Cleveand”, etc. etc.), “When You Awake” was not a standout track but here Danko locates the song’s musical DNA and surpasses the original recording with just a guitar and that wobbly, heartbreaking voice of his. Astounding.

It Makes No Difference”: Rick’s signature song and, again, a masterful Robertson composition. The studio version on Northern Lights-Southern Cross is definitive but this live take from 1983 (when the Band reformed without Robbie) is pretty damn compelling and puts the Last Waltz one to shame. Check out the way Danko sings the always perplexing line: “Stampeding cattle // they rattle my walls” at 3:54. Richard Manuel surely was struggling with a stampede in his brain: three years later he would take his own life in a lonely motel room in Winter Park, Florida, following a gig with this reformed version of the Band. Maybe JRR was right about the perils of the road! Note: this video is from the late great Philadelphia songwriter Peter Stone Brown’s archive. Peter interviewed Rick in 1978 and smoked a joint with him in his tour bus. Rad!

One Too Many Mornings”: Ok, kids: this is what all the fuss is about. Bob Dylan and the Hawks in 1966 when their electric maelstrom elicited howls of derision from old-school folkies who thought Bob had somehow sold out. They were wrong! Dylan put together many great touring bands after this (Rolling Thunder in 1975 certainly comes to mind) but he never equaled the sheer power of the Hawks in ’66 (less Levon who couldn’t handle the boos). That’s Danko stepping up to the microphone and harmonizing on the word “behind” and that is undoubtedly where they left the competition. When Dylan regathered the old gang (now called “The Band”) in 1974, the shows sold out immediately and were met with thundering praise. But by then, the boys were playing too hard and the songs suffered. Don’t tell anyone but that’s sorta what happened with the Last Waltz. The subtleties which made the Band’s first two albums so beautiful were subsumed and battered by their arena rock approach.

Wild as the Wind”: Let’s finish up with Steve Forbert’s tribute to Danko. Little Stevie really captures something here though some thought he may have gone too far in the second first when describing Rick’s love of blow. I’m sure Danko woulda dug the honesty, tho, ‘cause he was definitely as wild as the wind and if even a fraction of his spirit blows through the Franklin Music Hall on Saturday night, you will be in for treat. Don’t you dare miss it!


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