Coming as it did during a fallow creative period for the Band, the covers-focused Moondog Matinee could be fairly seen as a placekeeper album — an aperitif before the next statement of purpose. But it wasn’t without its moments of creative and emotional spark, in particular on a Levon Helm-sung take on “Mystery Train” that underwent a chin-wagging, chicken-fried remodel.
First, there’s Garth Hudson: Channelling his inner Billy Preston at the clavinet, he has never, ever been funkier. Helm, who sings with a gothic portent, switched to oaken stand-up bass — while Rick Danko played rhythm. Then, recording at Capitol Records’ studios in Hollywood, the Band brought in a second drummer (Billy Mundi, a late-1960s member of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention) to add to Richard Manuel’s enigmatic propulsion.
The song is completed instrumentally by Robertson’s clickety-clack, rockabilly asides on the guitar, something that might have seemed too on-the-nose in any other context, but within this R&B-soaked cadence strikes a note-perfect balance between ageless and as-yet-unheard.
Same with the lyric. Robertson, after getting permission from Sun Records impresario Sam Phillips, wrote two additional verses for the Junior Parker/Elvis Presley hit. (Parker hit with the song in 1953, with Presley’s song following in 1955 — both for Sun.) The results add dark new shadings to a song that always spoke so starkly to a cuckold’s terrifying loss, even as the Band take a series of gutsy musical chances.
Sadly, these R&B edges were eventually played out of the song. Paul Butterfield joined the Band on harp for “Mystery Train,” during the 1976 concert later released as The Last Waltz, and already it had largely reverted to its familiar Sun roots. The transformation continued as Butterfield sat in with Danko on a manic 1979 concert version, later posthumously released on 2005’s Cryin’ Heart Blues. By the time the Band reunited for its post-Robertson era, Danko had taken over lead for good, Helm had taken up his harmonica, and “Mystery Train” was just another cover song — well meaning, but probably not much more.
Stick with the Moondog Matinee edition — then, as now, a gut-punch groover. This “Mystery Train” is meant to be played loud, as if the tracks were running right behind your couch.
No, it wasn’t the original music so many had hoped for, some 30 long months after the uneven Cahoots had arrived. (In fact, we’d have to wait until 1975’s Northern Lights-Southern Cross before the Band would produce a worthy follow up to Stage Fright.) Still, something sparked here, something that spoke to more than nostalgia — something that spoke to the Band’s innate ability to reanimate old things and help us understand them in new ways, to honor tradition even while building upon it. And to funk it like their back ain’t got no bone.