Deckle edge

Rick Danko
by Chris Flisher © 1992 /
(first published September 1992 Minuteman Chronicle)

Rick Danko
It has been over 15 years since the Thanksgiving night when The Band bade farewell to the stage in a sweeping final farewell to their musical pilgrimage. The show, immortalized in Martin Scorcese's film, "The Last Waltz," takes place in San Francisco's Winter Palace and includes the combined talents of some of the greatest names in rock. Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Van Morrison and many others joined in song to celebrate the career of one of the world's most original and respected bands.

In particular, the movie successfully reveals the personalities, the creative spark, and the homespun spirit of the five musicians who made up The Band. Like equal parts whose sum extends beyond the individual elements, The Band brought a new meaning and definition to rock music. Funky bass lines and calliope organs, rubbed up against rough-hewn vocals, singing songs that dipped deep into Americana with hardly a blink of worry over commercial appeal.

Deep in the mix and high in the vocals of this historic band was Rick Danko. Singer, songwriter, bass player, mandolinist, and fiddler, Danko was one of elements that helped create the unique rock alloy that became The Band.

Speaking in a recent phone interview from his home in the Catskills, Danko recalls his role in The Band as that of an equal spark. "I was a catalyst, like everyone was in The Band. Everybody had a contribution and I really respect that. When the juices flowed and we were going full blast, it was just an unbeatable feeling." The years with The Band were some of the finest a musician could ask for and Danko is grateful, " I feel very fortunate to have been influenced by some of the best music ever and I also think that we (The Band) helped influence some of the best music."

Influenced and influential is perhaps the best way to summarize The Band. They toured for several years honing their sound and paying their inevitable dues before they came under the auspices of the poet laureate of a generation — Bob Dylan. It was a long road, Danko explains, "In 1965 we played some of our heaviest dues. That's a long time ago. We played night clubs for months at a time and then moved on. But after we met Bob we had time to make some decisions. That was really special."

But that was then and this is now. A lot has happened in the last 15 years and, although he never left, Rick Danko is back. Recently, he has been sharing the stage with Ringo (Starr) and his All-Starr Review and in the studio with Walter Becker and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan. He is also recording and touring with Garth Hudson (keyboards) and Levon Helm (drums) in an abbreviated version of The Band. Appearing at the Newport Folk Festival last summer and with many slated new shows to come, Danko's career is in full swing against the odds of an industry that seems to scratch its head at unlikely success as he explains, "The industry doesn't know what to do with old relics like us."

Aside from his re-unions with the past, the most rewarding and important work he has done recently is with folk-singer Eric Andersen and Norwegian singer-songwriter, Jonas Fjeld (pronounced Feld) in an album (Rick Danko•Jonas Fjeld•Eric Andersen) that won the coveted Spellman Pris award — Norway's equivalent to the Grammy. Available soon in this country, the disc is a collection of diverse styles reflecting the personalities of three distinct talents.

The album is a collaboration of three men who speak the same language — roots music. Roots music is from the heart. It draws on the simple pleasures in life as best realized in the folk lore of America. It is the same quality that separated The Band from so many others. But it has been a long time since Rick's stirring voice was found on anything but Band albums and his only solo effort released in 1978. Now, with the release of the "trio" album, his familiar tone comes wafting through the mix like a long-lost friend.

Blending with the custom-fit harmonies of Eric Andersen, Danko sounds older but sentimentally familiar. The timbre of his pitched delivery is true and deliberate. Covering "Blue River" written by Andersen, Danko's vocal has the rootsy feel that marked his best work with The Band. Backed by Garth Hudson on accordion and Eric Andersen on harmonies, the tune could easily have been an uncovered gem from an old Band session. His voice resounds with personality and is immediately recognized as the other songs of this disc weave through blues and a variety of country styles.

At first it may seem to be an unusual grouping of musicians, spanning three countries (Norway, Canada, United States) and singing songs that delve deep into heartland America. But Danko explains, "I've known Eric 20 years and we work well together. I met Jonas through Eric and we hit it off immediately. That's what is special about the band — economical harmonies and people really paying attention to each other. We toured Europe and sold out everywhere we went. We have a chemistry. It is a lot of homespun roots music."

The experience has brought Rick to realize that it is time to work on his career. "Now I feel confident about making another solo album. It has been a while and it is long overdue. I've cleaned up my act and I'm spiritually ready." Whether touring with The Band or working with Eric and Jonas, Danko realizes the power of music in his life. "I feel very fortunate. Music is the greatest therapy. It has a healing power. I'm just now beginning to realize that, now more than any other time in my life and it feels very good."

Bringing his experiences and new material to the stage, he is touring with long-time friend and musician, Sredni Vollmer accompanying him on harmonica and harmonies ("Sredni's harmonica is like a symphony. And we sing very well together."). His solo stage show is spiced with tidbits from his days with The Band and his solo career ("You should never say never to the past"), but more importantly it is a musical journey. Drawing from a rich historical repertoire filled with the varied influences of his past — Hank Williams, the Louvin Brothers, rockabilly and Motown, Rick's current act is a two-man travelling road show that pulls in audiences and leaves them singing. Anxious to please, he explains, "I involve people with the music. They like to sing the songs they are familiar with. I'll pull out an obscure Burl Ives song and everyone sings. We know we're not gonna change the world but we're there to help the neighborhood."

Aside from his acoustic show with Sredni, Danko is putting the finishing touches on an album of new material with The Band and he expects to have a solo album available in the spring. Until then he tours and reminds us of a time when music was born of frustration and change. His has been a journey of fame and fortune and he chuckles, "You kinda have to roll with it (fame). I put my pants on like everyone else—frontwards." But Rick is firmly in step with his life and he is optimistically philosophical about the future, "I'll soon be 50 and I'd like to get another 50 years or so. And I'll do it with health and tender, loving care."

Chris Flisher

Deckle edge