On Thanksgiving Day, 1976, in a widely ballyhooed, Billy Graham-produced rock 'n' roll spectacle, the Band played its farewell performance at San Francisco's Winterland. Dubbed "The Last Waltz," the affair attracted such notables as Bob Dylan and Neil Young, and provided still-to-come saleables like a live album and a Martin Scorsese-directed film.
All this hoopla should not leave a taste of ostentation in the consumer's mouth. The Band was one of the most consistently professional groups rock has ever produced: enough of an influence to be given a full chapter in Greil Marcus's intelligent and literary study of rock music, "Mystery Train"; and the creators of such bona fide American classics as "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and "The Weight." In short, the Band was a fabulously talented - if not particularly flashy - assortment of individuals whose whole was perfectly in synch with the sum of its parts.
Two of those parts now have their own albums and, if anything, the works prove what a magnificient blend of musicians and composers the Band actually was.
Bassist Rick Danko's self-titled debut ("Rick Danko," Arista AB 4141) is a bit more Bandish than drummer Levon Helm's songs on "Levon Helm and the RCO All-Stars" (ABC Records, AA-1017) but both show that there was more to the Band than Robbie Robertson.
The last few Band albums, especially "Northern Ligh/Southern Cross" (Capitol ST-11440) and "Islands" (Capitol, SD-11662) were synonymous with Robertson, and though they offered some fine musicianship, the records seemed to lack the joy and spontaneity of earlier studio albums and the live "Rock of Ages" (Capitol SABB-11045). Now though, Danko - who will appear at the Cellar Door Sunday and Monday - and Helm bring back the lightheartedness, and both men demonstrate composing talents which were nearly forgotten in the Robertson-dominated days.
Danko's effort includes Robertson as well as Ronnie Wond. Eric Clapton, America's Gerry Beckley, Doug Sahm, former Beach Boy Blondie Chaplin, and Band members Garth Hudson (the only non-writer in the original quintet). Richard Manuel, and Helm. But this is definitely Danka's record.
He wrote or co-wrote all of the tracks and his unmistakable voice frolics through "What A Town," "New Mexico" (highlighted by a tasteful guitar solo by Clapton), and "Java Blues." "Once Upon A Time" and "Small Town Talk" (with Danko himself laying down a neat guitar riff) sound like the best of the Band while "Shake It" is the most reminiscent of Dylan's "Tonight I'll be Staying Here With You."
Helm's "All-Stars" also includes Robertson (albeit briefly) as well as Paul Butterfield, Brooker T. Jones, Donald "Duck" Dunn. Steve Cropper and Mac Rebennack (aka Dr. John, who always seems to wind up in "all-star" or supergroups - anyone remember Triumvirate, with Mike Bloomfield and John Paul Hammond?)
There is also a host of top-flight horn players on hand to round out the sound.
Helm's album is more Cajun-oriented (Dr. John's influence) and jazz-oriented (Booker T.'s influence) than Danko's, but the exuberance is contagious and the ensemble tight and punchy.
"Washer Woman" is stamped from the "Rag Mama Rag" mold. "The Tie That Binds" is a Dr. John tune but much less frantic than "Right Place, Wrong Time" or "Gotta Get Rich . . ." "You Got Me" reveals Jones' compositional abilities and Helm chips in with a surprisingly moving "Blues So Bad." The rollicking jazziness of "Havana Moon" balances an already pleasing album.
Neither Helm, who will be at the Warner Theater on Dec. 28, nor Danko seems to have suffered from the Band's retirement. It will be interesting to hear whether Robertson's solo album will match the brightness of his previously under-publicized partners.
Also, we shall see whether the Band keeps, its collective word and remains together as a recording unit. The results of that effort should be something to listen to now that some of the boys have gone out on their own.
Regardless of future projects, Rick Danko and Levon Helm have filed the Band's breach quite nicely all by themselves.