By the time “Endless Highway,” a never-before-released Robbie Robertson meditation on the awful rigors of touring, appeared as part of this raucous tour document with Bob Dylan, the Band had been batting it around for some time. Archival takes give us a rare glimpse into that process, and important clues as to why the track never made it onto an official release — despite the fact that it dovetailed so perfectly with the theme and tone of, say, Cahoots.
The Band took at least two studio passes at “Endless Highway,” including an initial try with Richard Manuel on lead vocals that actually dates from around the time of 1971’s Cahoots. A second version, with an arrangement and Rick Danko vocal similar to the one that appeared on Before the Flood would remain unreleased for years.
And when this subsequent rendition finally surfaced, as part of a curious mid-1990s live release, it was surrounded by much intrigue: Live at Watkins Glen was purported to have been recorded the year before the Band reunited with Dylan. Eventually, it would be revealed as nothing of the sort. The album was instead populated with outtakes from the 1971 Academy of Music shows and, far more troubling, included this second, previously unheard studio version of “Endless Highway” with applause dubbed in.
Later, the original Danko take — sans the patched-on audience — was included on an expanded reissue of Moondog Matinee, though that hardly made sense on a covers-focused album. It remains an orphan in their catalog, a rootless song that could have been many things, but ended up lost.
Maybe Robertson never found the right tone. Manuel’s seminal pass, for instance, is offhanded, lackadaisical, not so much engulfed in his patented sadness as simply worn down. His take is one of lived-in acceptance. A saloon-style piano accompaniment only adds to the sense that Manuel’s actually willing to endure these costs, however steep, for the chance to keep going.
Robertson passed “Endless Highway” to Danko next — a rare moment of indecision for a musical conductor who usually had an almost mystical ability to match singer and song in the Band.
Danko, on the other hand, would give “Endless Highway” a surprisingly upbeat feel. He’s singing a song of dread with this unshakeable faith in the good that might be just around the corner, even as Garth Hudson weaves a tapestry of intrigue above Robertson’s choogling riffs. This, clearly, is where the song stood when they took to the road with Dylan, as 1974’s Before the Flood version keeps most of this in tact, only turning it up (as they did everything on that overheated jaunt) to 11.
With that, however, the thread is lost. By the time the Band returned with their bounce-back studio effort Northern Lights-Southern Cross, “Endless Highway” had been discarded.
Through it all, there remains this profound sense of unfinished business — primarily because we know what’s to come, with The Last Waltz looming just over the next horizon. Even as early as 1971-72, Robertson could grasp just what that vagabond life was doing to the Band, to their families, to their friendship. With the perfectly named “Endless Highway,” he tried to convey some essential truth about his fears, it seems. For some reason, they never got there.
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