The Band, “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever” from Live at the Academy of Music (2013): Across the Great Divide

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The Band’s version of this Four Tops gem, best heard as part of the expanded reissue of Live at the Academy of Music, illustrates this group’s canny ability to countrify soul music. Rick Danko assumes Levi Stubbs’ agelessly romantic vocal, but never tries to mimic him. Instead, he swings and sways with a down-home delight, even as Levon Helm offers a deliciously guttural counterpoint.

The Band, of course, had long played this Motown favorite, memorably performing “Loving You is Sweeter Than Ever” during their lost set at Woodstock in 1969, as part of the Festival Express tour in 1970 and at Royal Albert Hall in 1971. “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever” would show up in Danko’s solo sets, as well.

The clearest representation we have of the Band’s wholesale re-evaluation of “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever,” however, remains the Academy of Music show — previously released as Rock of Ages before the project was expanded into a five-disc set last year. From the pacing to its clarity of sound, these takes offer us a chance to examine the update in all of its back-woods glory. And it’s not just the plaintive authenticity that Danko, the tenor-singing son of a tobacco farmer, brings to the mic.

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There’s Garth Hudson’s deep orchestral musings on the organ, though offered at just a whisper, and this delightful saloon keeper’s piano interlude. Elsewhere, of course, the instrumental section belongs to Robbie Robertson, who offers a series of rustic eruptions across Danko’s limber bass lines. But then Danko returns to the lyric, and it’s with an unselfconsciousness that almost risks going out of control.

The only thing that saves him from some sort of orgasmic breakdown, it seems, is when Robertson pushes his guitar to the fore once again — sounding just as frenzied with passion. The song ends as if two lovers have collapsed in each others arms, an incredible testament to its lasting power.

In 1971, “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever” was already five years old, an eternity for a radio song. Moreover, it had never been much of a hit in the first place, reaching No. 12 on the R&B charts but just 45 on the pop lists. Yet there was something that hit home with the Band, beginning I’d guess with its coiled rhythm — courtesy of co-writer Stevie Wonder. Motown writing collaborator Ivy Jo Hunter recorded his own version too, adding a tinge of ’70s-style funk.

They might never have guessed how these sounds would be reshaped in the hands of Danko and Co. See, as much as Danko was clearly inspired by an R&B giant like Stubbs, he and his Band mates weren’t inclined to follow the Four Tops’ vocal template. Lacking the innate smoothness of backup singers Duke Fakir, Obie Benson and Lawrence Payton, Helm didn’t even try.

Instead, they rubbed some dirt on it, scuffed it up, kicked it around — ultimately imbuing this track with more emotion than perhaps even its initial voices could have imagined. Coupled with a rambling, hay-seed musical racket, they utterly transformed “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever.”

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.

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