Rick Danko, “What a Town” from Rick Danko (1977): Across the Great Divide

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It’s not the best Rick Danko song. Heck, it’s not even the best song on this album. But, in its own special way, “What a Town” is his quintessential moment.

Danko built a kind of community every time he took the stage, beginning with his self-titled debut — the first solo effort from any member of the Band. “What a Town,” as much as anything he ever recorded, celebrates these small, good moments. It’s the living embodiment, really, of something Danko tended to say at each stop: “My shows certainly won’t change the world, but they might help the neighborhood.”

He was the kind of performer who talked about looking up a real estate agent from every stage, because he’d become so smitten with his new environs. The kind who would let the patrons take turns on Band classics such as “The Weight” or “Up on Cripple Creek.”

“I sometimes give it up once or twice a night,” Danko told me years ago, before adding good naturedly: “Then, I have to take it back.” He paused for a moment, then added: “That’s good, see, because we all leave knowing each other a little better.”

On an appropriately collaborative date — every member of the Band appears on Rick Danko, though never all in the same place — Danko co-wrote “What a Town” with Louisiana-born swamp pop legend Bobby Charles. You certainly hear that in the studio version’s woozy, horn-driven finale. Charles, perhaps best known for composing the Fats Domino hit “Walking to New Orleans,” had then recently taken part in the Band’s Last Waltz concert. He also co-wrote “Small Town Talk,” found later in the Rick Danko song cycle. Ronnie Wood handled the original guitar solo.

Live versions, as with Danko’s February 1977 appearance on WXRT-FM’s Soundstage, were leaner — but at the same time, more light filled.

Danko sways like a pendulum bob on a grandfather clock, giving himself completely to the moment even as touring guitarist Michael DeTemple unfurls some knifing asides. This ace band is rounded out by former Wings drummer Denny Seiwell, pianist Marty Grebb (who would later work with the Band on 1998’s Jubilation, saxophonist Jerry Peterson and Rick’s brother Terry Danko.

Listen any closer, and the lyric’s essential cliche becomes ever more obvious. But the open-hearted Danko carries this song, as he could most any, by sheer force of exuberance. His buoyant kindness, his true love for this work, was endlessly contagious.

“So many places, and so many faces — all of those people, my friends,” Danko concludes on “What a Town.” And, if you ever saw one of his expansive smiles, ever saw the way Danko could embrace an entire room, you know just how true that line remains.

Across the Great Divide is a weekly, song-by-song examination from Something Else! on the legacy of the Band, both together and as solo artists. The series runs on Thursdays.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, 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 U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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