Robbie Robertson + Rick Danko, “Hold Back the Dawn” (1991): Across the Great Divide

As Robbie Robertson followed his restless muse into film scores and then into a belated solo career, intersections with his former Band mates were few and far between — but almost always high points. The late Rick Danko’s lonesome wail, in particular, seemed to couch Robertson’s rough-hewn vocals, to give them an added weight that directly recalled their earlier triumphs together.

“Hold Back the Dawn,” a darkly intriguing song from 1991’s Storyville, makes great use of Bill Dillon’s spacious asides, and an intriguing percussion from Alex Acuna. But, up until Danko arrives, it’s mostly atmospherics — damp and mysterious, to be sure, but really just twilit shadows without a complete form.

Rick Danko gives shape to the yearning at this song’s center. When he trails in behind Robbie Robertson, echoing the title, it’s with a trembling sense of expectation. You sense, finally, the fear (of loss, of leaving, of abandonment) that girds every passion. Robertson offers the chorus with a rangy whisper, but Danko gives it every part of his heart.

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He completes the picture, and something magical happens. Robertson’s next thoughts, on a river theme, gain new power. “Hold Back the Dawn” has become something else, a tucked-away gem that speaks — in the shared vocal, and the shared experiences, of these two former collaborators — directly to that larger sense of suspended animation that surrounds a lover’s longing. Everything stops, except for the tangle of emotion.

It also speaks to that feeling when old friends meet again. There’s a tangle there, too. Joy, in having them together once more. But also, something sadder. As Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson improvise through the ending of “Hold Back the Dawn,” their vocals pushing and pulling one another, they give us a glimpse both of what once was and also what might have been if the fates hadn’t sent the Band scattering in different directions.

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.

Jimmy Nelson

Jimmy Nelson

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Jimmy Nelson