Though his impressive solo debut might have indicated otherwise, Rick Danko never seemed all that intent on establishing his career away from a group dynamic like the Band. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he found renewed vigor within another collaborative experience on Danko/Fjeld/Andersen. And yet, on his signature moment from that 1991 debut, Danko brought along a key element of his past, too: Ace multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson.
To this point, the two had not worked together on a studio recording as members of the Band since 1977’s Islands, making “Blue River” cause for considerable celebration. Together, they imbue this Eric Andersen song — which, fittingly, he said was inspired by the Band’s appearance on the Festival Express tour in 1970 — with a deeper intimacy, and thus a deeper yearning. It certainly ranks as one of the best Band songs not released by the Band.
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Born out of an impromptu gig at Tinker Street Cafe around Danko’s Woodstock digs, Danko/Fjeld/Andersen first toured Norway (where both Fjeld and Andersen lived), and then decided to record what would eventually become a pair of well-received 1990s-era trio recordings. Each of them wrote songs for the self-titled debut (which actually kicks off with “Driftin’ Away,” co-written by Andersen, Rick and his wife Elizabeth), and all of them contributed instrumentally to the others’ showcase moments.
They expanded upon this close-knit, living room-concert feel for Danko’s supple reworking of “Blue River,” inviting Hudson along for a twirling moment of romanticism on the accordion. (After Danko’s 1999 death, Hudson did a series of shows with Andersen, Fjeld and Andersen’s daughter Sari.) Danko, meanwhile, offers the kind of perfectly attenuated, quietly confidential vocal that finds the deepest part of your heart, and simply stays there.
There are visits with a trusty pooch, family and friends as Andersen’s lyric trickles by, each of them — in Danko’s sure hands — helping to create this warm embrace of a song. You can almost sense the firewood’s crackle, the damp scratch of his dog’s tongue, the soft chuckle of recognition from those who’ve known you best by knowing you the longest. As such, the ending of “Blue River” is almost like coming awake from a particularly vivid dream, so powerful is Danko’s spell.
I can’t say if this moment led to the Band’s studio rejuvenation — Danko, Hudson and Helm would subsequently assemble for their first post-Robbie Robertson effort, Jericho, releasing two more 1990s-era Band albums before Danko died — but “Blue River” certainly thrums with a sense of homecoming. It’s not just that he could still reanimate a narrative with the delicate power of 1968’s “Long Black Veil,” 1969’s “When You Awake” and 1970’s “Time to Kill.” It was if Danko/Fjeld/Andersen actually opened the door for Danko’s long-hoped-for third act.
Perhaps fittingly, that knob-turning moment came when his voice intertwined with two others, and with Hudson spinning an tender-heartedly chimerical web nearby.