Endless Highway: The Music of The Band
2.5 stars (out of 5)
Covering The Band presents a different sort of challenge than covering another great band or artist, simply because Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson amounted to much more together than they ever could apart.
Which is saying something, because each of them is, or was, a distinctive genius on at least one instrument and three of them were (Danko and Manuel), or are (Helm), truly great singers.
Their eccentric arrangements, uncanny harmonies and ragged vocal interplay will simply never be approximated, even using their own compositions as a guide.
To even come close on a tribute album, you’d have to have plenty of artists as singularly brilliant. Some who appeared on The Last Waltz and had other important connections to The Band are still around: Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Eric Clapton and, heck, even Neil Diamond and Joni Mitchell.
Other nice choices that, alas, aren’t here: Bruce Springsteen, Lyle Lovett, Ray LaMontagne, Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams, Richard Thompson, and I could go on.
And what about a bluegrass or blues band, or a gospel quartet, who could retrofit a Band song to one of the styles that influenced them?
While I keep wishing along those lines, here’s a track-by-track of the disc we have:
“This Wheel’s on Fire” by Guster
Plunking banjo and tinkling piano and a weak-sounding organ (or synth, or whatever) ornament a straightforward, slightly more laid-back take than the original. Decent lead vocal, harmonies a little better, and a weird spoken outro.
“King Harvest” by Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers
Hornsby is one of the few musicians around today who I think could have really meshed with The Band. He’s a virtuoso, does everything on the piano (including bluegrass, which I thought was impossible) and is weirdly creative. This track has a swampy groove, nice organ playing and a jazzy vocal.
“It Makes No Difference” by My Morning Jacket
The Band’s two best-known versions of this song – from Northern Lights-Southern Cross and The Last Waltz – never fail to make me want to cry. Rick Danko’s lead vocal and Robbie Robertson’s guitar solo can only be described as poignant, in the truest, non-cliched sense of the word.
It’s a pleasant surprise that MMJ manages to do it justice, with Jim James’ tender, clear vocal ringing through the glorious, crunchy reverb as recorded in Levon Helm’s Woodstock studio/barn.
“I Shall Be Released” by Jack Johnson with the Animal Liberation Orchestra
Soft, plodding, quaint and not a trace of emotion. In other words, what you’d expect from Jack Johnson.
“The Weight” – Lee Ann Womack
Womack is a decent singer, especially when given some good material like on There’s More Where That Came From (2005). But there’s not a woman alive who can make this song sound like it should. The incomparable Buddy & Julie Miller on harmony can’t save this one.
“Chest Fever” by Widespread Panic
Widespread Panic wisely refrain from trying to match the subtlety and spookiness of Garth Hudson’s trademark tune. They decided to rock it hard instead, and it works. Nice full organ intro, four loud, thick drum cracks, then the guitars grab on, followed by big horns and the momentum plows through five more minutes of what is easily the best track on this project.
“Up on Cripple Creek” by Gomez
Like Guster’s “This Wheel’s on Fire,” a plain, straightforward copy of the original, with added slide guitar and a lead singer trying very hard to be gritty and soulful.
“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by The Allman Brothers Band
Hearing this track, all you can think is how perfect the classic Allman Brothers Band lineup would have been for this song, since they, unlike four-fifths of The Band, actually were from the South and did more than any other band to make it OK to be explicitly Southern (and biracial, by the way) in the rock world.
That, and Gregg Allman’s voice, one of the few wholly Southern and at least somewhat as expressive as Levon Helm’s. But this is an iffy mix of a recent live performance, with Allman’s weak , tired vocal pushed down in the mix, making it even more of a dispiriting moment.
“Stage Fright” by Steve Reynolds
This is my first time hearing Reynolds. He sounds like a cross between Ryan Adams and Norah Jones. That is not a compliment. He brings no emotional drama to a song that is about emotional drama.
“Rag Mama Rag” by Blues Traveler
The Band’s arrangement on the original version is one of my favorites, with fiddles, piano, mandolin, tuba and who knows what else. John Popper digs into he vocal and his mean harmonica takes the fiddle line on a wild extended ride, and Ben Wilson’s piano and Tad Kinchla’s bass aren’t too shabby either.
“Whispering Pines” by Jakob Dylan and Lizz Wright
On the original, the fragile arrangement sounds about to fall apart, but it all hangs on Richard Manuel’s signature vocal performance. Jakob Dylan does fine on this one, and lite R&B singer Lizz Wright adds some nice touches toward the end, but tackling something so good really demands a performance as good, or a new, satisfying arrangement.
“Acadian Driftwood” by The Roches
Robbie Robertson’s ballad of the Acadian people, who were driven out of Canada after the French and Indian war and ended up becoming Louisiana’s Cajuns. The Roche sisters nail it, with a simple arrangement and lead vocals backed by harmonies weird and beautiful enough to be worthy of The Band.
“The Unfaithful Servant” by Roseanne Cash
Her singing has always left me flat. Not bad, not good, just there. Same here.
“When I Paint My Masterpiece” by Josh Turner
I’ve never been able to listen to Turner’s voice without wondering if he is actually a robot-maker’s first attempt at a Randy Travis android. Really, why is he on this record?
“Life is a Carnival” by Trevor Hall
Jack Johnson should be one too many Dave Matthews wannabes for any compilation album. Adding this guy is just unpardonable.
“Lookout Cleveland” by Jackie Greene
One of the very best-sounding recordings The Band ever made, and an easy one to completely ruin. But Greene captures some of the original’s energy, if not the strong waves of pure sound, while doing the vocal just different enough to be interesting.
“Rockin’ Chair” by Death Cab For Cutie
An airy, languid arrangement with resonant piano, ghost-choir harmony and Ben Gibbard’s vocal, which would sound right at home fronting the Jayhawks circa Hollywood Town Hall.