As Barney Hoskyns noted in his fine biography of the group, Across the Great Divide, the bulk of The Band’s recorded output after they got back together in the 1990s suggests that, without Robbie Robertson to spur them on, their ambitions went little further than playing good-time R&B and funky country gospel soul. They cut a slew of predictable covers (stuff like Back to Memphis and Forever Young, although I’ll take their version over either of Dylan’s) and some total head-scratchers (En Vogue’s Free Your Mind, from 1995’s High on the Hog; my life sure been made better by hearing Levon Helm declare, ‘I like rap music and hip-hop clothes’), but seldom did they record new self-written material of the first rank.
But a band of their calibre will always be worth hearing and there was certainly quality work on their first comeback album, Jericho, even if the following ones couldn’t match it for vibe or material. The highlights of the record included their worthy versions of Springsteen’s Atlantic City and Bob Dylan’s Blind Willie McTell, which if anything is slightly weighed down by the solemnity with which they approach it (whereas Dylan all but threw his version away, as if daunted by the idea of having to make a record worthy of the song). But best of all was Too Soon Gone, a tribute to Richard Manuel by Jules Shear and former Hawks pianist Stan Szelest, whom Manuel had replaced in the Hawks all the way back in 1961.
Szelest himself had played in the reformed Band, lending a little extra legitimacy to the enterprise, as did the groups retention of producer John Simon, who’d worked on Big Pink and The Band. But Szelest died in 1991, before Jericho came out, and so he didn’t play on his own song (though he is on a couple of the songs on the record that had been recorded while he was still alive). In a strange way, then, he wrote his own memorial; you have to imagine that Szelest was as much in the mind of Rick Danko when he laid down this vocals for Too Soon Gone as Richard Manuel was. While not quite in the league of The Band’s best work from first time around, it’s always nice to hear Levon drumming and it serves as a reminder of how affecting Danko’s tremulous voice could be. Garth Hudson walks (as he often did on ballads) very close to the line cheese-wise with his keyboards and saxophone without quite crossing it. The result is, to me, very moving.
If you’re one of those Band fans who has never heard their reunion records and wants to pretend that they bowed out with the Last Waltz and stayed out, I understand. But you’re missing out on a really lovely song, one that only sounds sadder now that Levon and Rick have joined Richard and Stan on the other side of that other great divide.
The Band, 1993 (© New York Times): Rick Danko, far left; Garth Hudson, with hat, Levon Helm, with beard, on the right