The Band, “The Unfaithful Servant” from The Band (1969): Across the Great Divide

While “It’s Makes No Difference” is commonly understood to be Rick Danko’s career peak as a vocalist, “The Unfaithful Servant” is in many ways just as observant, and maybe more interesting.

Its complexity starts with an instrumentation that works in brilliant opposition: Richard Manuel’s piano (ruminative, perfectly in tandem with Levon Helm’s crying cadence) lures you ever closer from the left, while Robbie Robertson’s acoustic guitar (urgent, determinedly unsentimental) pulls to the other side. That essential entanglement of emotion is encircled by a series of mournful moans — like musty levee breezes — from Garth Hudson and The Band producer John Simon on soprano sax and tuba, respectively.

Allen Toussaint’s muscular charts for the Band’s 1971 Academy of Music performances, recently remastered and collected in a terrific box set, might be criticized for upsetting this delicate balance, but — more important to that update’s success — they also fill the song with new depths of sadness.

Standing in the middle of it all is the loping bass and trembling ardor of Danko’s utterly unforgettable voice. A studious, yet seemingly effortless singer, Danko said he nailed his take on the Robertson lyric in one try. He later admitted that he and Simon attempted a number of additional takes — maybe as a many as 40, Danko surmised — before returning to the initial version.

A wonder of heart-rending honesty, and a rare solo performance from an album so often featuring layered performances, Danko’s vocal gives billowing life to an enigmatic narrative — perhaps about a master bidding goodbye to his hand maiden after an embarrassing affair is revealed. It’s one that represents the other side, the gothic side, of a Southern tableau laid out with such resonance on the earlier “Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” — but with a nameless “Tears of Rage”-style guilt replacing the darkly romantic stoicism that surrounded “Dixie.”

Robertson, by switching to electric guitar for the Academy of Music version, even more completely inhabits the steely sense of duty that drives the narrator. Danko’s vocal, meanwhile, is softer but no less sepulchral — until the final climatic goodbye at the live track’s midpoint, when he seems to be coming apart at the seams at the very thought of the beloved servant’s departure. The sense of finality is thunderous.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
  • Laraine Adkin Fox

    Good writing. Can hear the song thru your words. Thanks.

  • Terry O’Neill

    Nick, I have been enjoying your posts on the Band’s albums, and have picked up some interesting facts in the process. My take on “Unfaithful Servant” is that the “narrator” is talking to himself, reflecting on a failed romance. The giveaway is the line “Oh lonesome servant, can’t you see, we’re one and the same, just you and me.”

  • Seashell

    The live Rock of Ages version is the quintessential one for my money. It’s simply flawless and Robbie’s guitar solo is one of the greatest of all time.