Thursday, September 25, 2008

Music Review: Rick Danko Band - Live On Breeze Hill

Recorded live on May 23, 1998 and originally released just a couple months before Rick Danko’s death at the age of 56, the reissue of Live On Breeze Hill is a solid and occasionally surprising album that finds the Band bassist performing songs from his time with that fabled, er, band.

Supported by a backing group that includes fellow Bander Garth Hudson, Aaron “Louie” Hurwitz, Lenny Pickett, and Blues Brother alum Tom “Bones” Malone, Danko reinterprets Band standards, sometimes in a way that reveals striking differences from their better-known studio versions.

Though these live cuts don’t surpass those from Danko’s days with The Band, it’s certainly not a maudlin trip into pointless nostalgia or a case of a performer simply reliving his glory days at the audience’s expense. There’s much to like here.

After a studio version of “Sip The Wine,” which is inexplicably included as the first track on this live album and is inessential to anyone except the most ardent/obsessive Band or Danko fan, the concert opens with “Twilight,’ which sets the template for most of the songs that follow. With a nice instrumental intro, an accordion-driven melody, horns, and guitar flourishes that I’m told are required to be described as “liquidy,” it’s far more restrained than its studio counterpart. Though Danko’s vocals sometimes tend to get a little thin and strained, the song includes the trademark harmonies that are immediately reminiscent of his work with The Band. It’s an effective reworking of the song.

Similarly, “Ophelia” moves along with a pace and horn arrangement that differentiates it from its earlier incarnations. It’s far less frantic than the album version from Northern Lights-Southern Cross. “Caledonia Mission” is likewise reworked into a slow and almost mournful song of regret; with subtle horns and minimal piano, it’s far more stripped down than the cut included on Music From Big Pink.

Rarity and highlight “Blaze of Glory” (not the bombastic Jon Bon Jovi song from Young Guns II) successfully straddles the fence somewhere between country and bluegrass, and also contains some of the album’s best harmonies. Though some songs do not deviate much from those that The Band either put on record or performed live – “Crazy Mama” and “Shape I’m In” are essentially pulled straight from The Band playbook – the album is still a worthwhile listen. It’s not a retread of old Band standards.

For some listeners it might be tempting to find a certain foreboding in some of the songs in light of Danko’s death, which occurred less than a year after this show was recorded. Certainly “Shape I’m In” and especially closing track “It Makes No Difference” – with its drawn out harmonies and perfectly sad horns, it is performed almost like a dirge – are rife with potential veiled meanings.

Still other listeners might strongly feel that the songs performed on this album belong to a certain musical time and context, and especially to a specific group of musicians, and therefore shouldn’t be revisited. To some extent the album does sometimes inadvertently raise questions about the nature of a band’s legacy and the wistful nostalgia that inevitably follows, especially during the less engaging cuts included here.

Even though the live versions performed here don’t outshine either their studio or live counterparts from The Band – and to be honest, how could they? – it’s still essential listening for both fans of The Band or those interested in how classic songs are reworked decades after their original release. The overall impression created by this album is of an artist comfortable enough with his musical legacy to both pay homage to it without getting lost in its imposing shadow.

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