Rick Danko’s Most Underappreciated Band Songs: Gimme Five

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Rick Danko’s tender humanity on standout Band songs like “It Makes No Difference,” “Stage Fright,” “This Wheel’s On Fire” and “Unfaithful Servant” embedded them in every fan’s heart. As emotionally direct as they are resonant in their agelessness, each is rightly called a classic.

But what of his lesser-known contributions to the Band? We’ve uncovered a few of these perhaps forgotten gems in honor of his December 29th birthday. Along the way, this list of Rick Danko’s Most Underappreciated Band Songs serves as a reminder of his greatness for some, and keys to unlock new doors for others …

“WHEN YOU AWAKE,” (THE BAND, 1969): A triumph of narrative balance, “When You Awake” features the voice of a small boy in the verse and his grandfather’s response in the chorus. It perhaps could only work within a performance by Rick Danko, whose unique singing style was forged in a time before rock ‘n’ roll had been codified — when black music and white music, when sounds old and new could be combined without genre questions.

These disparate threads intertwined to form not just the framework for Danko’s special gift with a lyric (part blues, part rock, with a twinge of Appalachia — like mountain-man soul) but of popular music itself. And it’s all there, inside his vocal. He finds more than simple emotion, as he climbs to impossible heights, then storms back down with the greatest of ease, but also real insight and no small amount of wit.

Danko, as this often overlooked song on an album filled with career-making moments so clearly shows, was always the most underrated of the Band’s three principal vocalists. Even as co-writer Robbie Robertson builds the song up from a Merle Travis riff, while fellow co-writer Richard Manuel (this time on drums) and Garth Hudson add a ragtime feel atop it, Danko directs us through the story of a young man who has been bedeviled by the often sharp words of Ollie, who is perhaps a family member, older sibling or friend. Ollie has given the young man the hard line on this world — the warts-and-all version, with difficult truths and dark portents.

That’s sent him to the comfort of his grandfather, who doesn’t so much untangle the child’s worries as provide the comfort of undying love. As with Manuel’s “We Can Talk,” the lyrics here are more about feel than literalism, more about emotion than interpretive detail. It seems to be a song, at least at first, about the joys of home. Midway through the track, however, Robertson and Manuel shift forward into time — and the boy appears to be all grown up, and reflecting back now. His grandfather, it seems, has passed on, leaving the adult descendent in a contemplative mood about the fates — right up to a fade-out quote from “I Bowed My Head and Cried Holy,” a traditional gospel number.

It’s hard to not find yourself lost in the same rumination as “When You Awake” departs, what with Rick Danko gone now for so long. It’s hard to believe how much more of life he still had ahead of him.

“CALEDONIA MISSION,” (MUSIC FROM BIG PINK, 1968): A showcase for Rick Danko, not just as a mournful and country-inflected singer but also as a rapturously melodic bass player, “Caledonia Mission” also remains one of Robbie Robertson’s more oblique narratives. It seems by turns to be about a romantic betrayal or, perhaps, a problem with the law. Whatever the trouble here, it sparks Danko (and Richard Manuel, with the second vocal) toward raw depths of emotion, even as Robertson stuffs in a quote from the I-Ching, a stray reference to Arkansas (later omitted in live performances), an endlessly mysterious love interest, no small amount of hocus pocus about old hound dogs, fortune tellers and ginned-up moonshine, and a hard-ass magistrate.

Ronnie Hawkins, the group’s early touring mentor, has posited that the song is about a drug bust that happened to Danko at the Toronto airport, just before they joined Bob Dylan. Levon Helm, who switches to guitar here while Manuel plays drums, later agreed in his autobiography. I’m not sure I hear that tucked away in this image-filled tapestry, but that’s not to say that it’s not there — somewhere. Meanwhile, Greil Marcus, in his heralded rock tome Mystery Train, used the song as a weigh station amidst a larger theme on finding community — since the narrator’s fate seems to be bound up with the woman’s behind the mission walls.

Certainly, songs like this one and their legendary fable “The Weight” back up the notion that the Band was searching for connective elements that bind people, families, generations and nations. Yet such is the magic of Robertson’s quickly evolving gift as a songwriter that he could fashion such a resonant tale, with so many memorably descriptive images, without ever completely settling on a narrative arc. It’s about all of those things, and I suppose none of them.

That said, this song — for all of its moving parts — will always belong to Rick Danko. The Rock of Ages version, released in 1972, illustrates how completely true that was — even within a much more boisterous setting. All of the original’s acoustic-focused angles have been replaced by Allen Toussaint’s brawny brass, but Danko’s quiveringly ardent vocal (so full of doubt, and yet so completely in love) remains the center point.

“THINKING OUT LOUD,” (CAHOOTS, 1971): As Rick Danko gives voice to the larger worries that dominated Cahoots — the heroes were, of course, actually all gone — it becomes utterly clear just what writer Robbie Robertson is lamenting. A surface reading of this flawed project would have you to believe that he’s talking about a disappearing America. Instead, listen as Robertson piles of these devastating images of decay, of finality and goodbyes.

They are, in particular within Danko’s trembling emotionality, as striking and as specific on “Thinking Out Loud” as anywhere on 1971’s Cahoots: The monkey on his back, the knowing that it would not last, the crashing sky, the coming fully awake only after a sudden fall to the ground — all of it puts every bad vibe associated with this period into perspective. By the early-1970s, post-Brown Album era, Robertson was losing (maybe had already lost) the Band.

And there’s nothing musically that the attendant musicians here can do, despite game turns of barrelhouse gumption by both Garth Hudson and Robertson himself, to lift the Robertson lyric’s heavy feeling of absence. That missing thing, it’s always seemed to me, was the Band itself — or, at the very least, our idea of it as a musicmaking brotherhood, as a communal voice. They’d become impossibly famous on the power of that imagery. But by the time they set about trying to make Cahoots, it seemed to be irretrieveably gone.

“I think we shipped a million copies of that second album,” Rick Danko once told me, “and that changed a lot of people’s lives — in particular, the Band’s. After that, we were only getting together once a year, for a couple of months, to record. It was like we were too decadent to play.” Cahoots is so reflective of those sentiments that it feels, it’s always felt, like a breakup album. The Band is suddenly reaching backward, suddenly reaching for everything, and nostalgia — as their frequent collaborator Bob Dylan once said — is death.

Where the blame lies for these widening fissures remains the topic of spirited, often emotional debate. What the music tells us, however, is something deeper than culpability, something sadder. The Band sounded like they were finished. The more Danko thought about this period, in our long-ago talk, the more ruminative he became. “The drugs, the decadence, the alcohol,” he said, trailing off. Still, he wasn’t one to focus on the sometimes withering criticism that surrounded the Band in this period. “I remember when people started comparing Johnny Cash to Johnny Cash,” Danko said. “You just kind of do what you do. It’s as desperate as that, or not as desperate.” He stopped short then, chuckling. “Like Janis Joplin used to tell me: It’s hard to sing the blues when you’re a millionaire.”

We now know that the Band would eventually issue another album of original material — but that it would take more than four years, an eternity back then. In retrospect, the idea of them ever getting to 1975’s Northern Lights-Southern Cross, after the unfocused disappointments of Cahoots, is its own kind of miracle. Somehow, however, they did. And the results there would amount to one of the Band’s often-forgotten treasures, a final flourish before everything actually blew apart for the five-man edition.

“BOOK FADED BROWN,” (JUBILATION, 1998): If the Band’s Northern Lights-Southern Cross was a showcase for Garth Hudson — and Moondog Matinee one for Richard Manuel — then Jubilation can be thought of as Rick Danko’s album. Peter Viney noted that when this 1998 project was new, and it still holds true.

Danko’s woody asides on a standup bass created a backbone for the album’s acoustic aspirations, and its very best vocal moments belonged to him, as well. That starts with “Booked Faded Brown,” the opening track on Jubilation, and a song so achingly beautiful in Danko’s hands that it survives even a cloying moment when author Paul Yost takes a rainbow metaphor too far.

Danko’s voice, poignant now with aged wisdom, finds previously unknown depths in the song’s straight-forward reminiscence. Meanwhile, his bass, oaken and resonant, interwines with Hudson’s antediluvian wheeze on the accordion while Randy Ciarlante — rather than a missing Levon Helm — provides the slapping rhythm counterpoint.

In retrospect, it’s difficult to believe Rick Danko would be gone in just over a year, so dominant a force is he on this track and the bulk of Jubilation. But listen more closely, and there’s a precipitative sadness to this project. “Book Faded Brown,” with its heartfelt, old-fashioned sentiments about family and tradition, had found its true voice — and the Band, a kind of wistful sense of finality.

“THE RUMOR,” (STAGE FRIGHT, 1970): An album that underscored their growing individualization ends with one last blazing reminder of the way the Band’s voices once intertwined, the way their music provided a transportive solace, the way they once were — and sadly, of course, rarely were again.

Everything that had happened, all of the ways that these men had been irretrievably changed, seemed to have leaked into these songs, one by one. Stage Fright may not be as well regarded as the Band’s initial two studio efforts, but it’s certainly the bravest of them all. This album didn’t fetishize the past, didn’t so often seek to cloak things in the parables of age-old wisdom, so much as explore a present that maybe still seems unbelievable today.

And yet, things end in the way that they began, and a circle is closed. With its dark and strange intimations, with vocals first by Rick Danko (in what may be his most tender turn) and then Levon Helm and then, finally, Richard Manuel, with its loose structure and dangerous old-testament feel, “The Rumor” could have fit in seamlessly on either 1968’s Music from Big Pink or 1969’s The Band.

It wasn’t something that Stage Fright had previously offered, and neither was it something the Band would often offer again. But in these closing moments of their most underrated early album, the Band roused themselves again, inhabiting their own very large myth once more.

Want more Band coverage? Click here to check out Across the Great Divide, a song-by-song examination from Something Else! on the legacy of the Band, both together and as solo artists.

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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