Blue Monday (Rick Danko edition)

In the three-part vocal mix that was The Band’s signature, Rick Danko was the quavering, charmingly uncertain voice between Richard Manuel’s soulful, more technically accomplished singing and Levon Helm’s robust backwoods bellow. Though he was well known as a party animal, Danko’s style made him perfect for the lead spot on the title song to Stage Fright. The clip up top shows a much older Danko singing “When You Awake,” one of The Band’s early classics, and that sense of uncertainty is still there.

For me, Danko was literally the voice of The Band: the first actual Band track I heard was “Katie’s Been Gone,” on the original vinyl release of The Basement Tapes. Though I later learned the track had no business being on the album, it sent me running to get Music From Big Pink and The Band during that Dylan-drenched year of 1975, which opened with Blood on the Tracks and closed (give or take a week or two) with Desire.

Though Michael Gray’s encyclopedia item on Danko certifies that he was almost as eager as Robbie Robertson to break up The Band, Danko seems downright wounded during the interviews in The Last Waltz, which is one of the reasons I’ve always pulled back from admiring that film.

Judging from this tribute site and remarks accumulated over the years, Rick Danko made a huge impact on others, fans and fellow musicians alike. Last week I made a brief mention of the 10th anniversary of his passing, but over the weekend I realized that Danko was part of many of the things I liked most about The Band. Fans who think of The Band as Robbie Robertson’s backup group forget that one of the greatest songs in its catalogue, “This Wheel’s On Fire,” was co-written by Danko, and that something crucial went out of the group’s sound when the one-for-all-all-for-one spirit went away after those first two albums.

Whether it was his distinctive, percussive bass style or the sense of humor that came through in his manner and his singing, Danko was a large part of the group’s collective soul, and he deserved a lot more than what he got after The Last Waltz sounded its final notes.

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9 thoughts on “Blue Monday (Rick Danko edition)

  1. Geoff Webb says:

    That’s Richard singing Katie’s Been Gone. Sure do miss them both.

  2. KCramsey says:

    I see it has already been corrected by Mr. Webb, but it really irritates me when people who supposedly love an artist so much, as this writer claims with Rick Danko’s ‘quavering voice,’ but then can’t even recognize the singer’s vocals and mistakes it for someone else’s singing. For Goodness sake, don’t write this stuff on the internet (or anywhere else) if you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.

  3. Jack says:

    Hey, KCramsey, he never said Danko sang on Katie, but that it was the first Band track he ever heard that lead to his exploration of the group. How about reading accurately before you rip the guy?

  4. paul says:

    I read it as he thought it was Danko singing “Katie’s Been Gone” also. He should change the whole paragraph to fully clear up this implication, but he could start by simply removing the colon after the first sentence. And Jack, I agree that people shouldn’t be so hostile in their critiques. Btw, I think you meant “led” instead of “lead.”

  5. Paul Metsa says:

    Rick’s solo version of “When You Awake” is beautiful and touching, and I loved the Band’s version as well. Like so many songs, and this one brings to mind “Daniel and the Sacred Harp” it mines territory that most bands ever touch. The chord changes, and modulations are Band-centric as well. Wonderful stuff. I saw a later version of the Band (post Richard Manuel) and I will never forget the woman standing next to, a media maven in Minneapolis, who had tears streaming down her cheeks while Rick sang “It Makes No Difference.” He was that kind of singer, they were that kind of band. May he RIP.

  6. Carol Caffin says:

    I have mixed feelings about this post. I appreciate the fact that you set out to write a nice article about Rick, but I think that you need to do a little (read: a lot) more research and, instead of patching together pieces of descriptions that other people have written (“quavering,” “wounded,” etc.), listen to the music with your own ears, and secure your information from reputable sources.

    My site, (or (the tribute site you mention above) is a reputable source. I knew Rick and worked with him for many years, and I can tell you that some of the things you write are not entirely accurate.

    Also, you may want to distinguish between opinion and fact by attributing your comments. For instance, to say that Richard’s singing is more “technically accomplished” is an opinion.

    It sounds very poignant and almost tragic to say that he “deserved a lot more than he got” after The Last Waltz, but that, too, is erroneous.

    After The Last Waltz, Rick went on to make several acclaimed albums, developed musical collaborations with other artists, embarked on a variety of musical projects (including a critically lauded and multiple award-winning collaboration with Jonas Fjeld and Eric Andersen), built a very large and loyal fan base as a solo artist apart from the band, toured and performed extensively, and was extremely productive, creative, and successful.

    Finally, the “party animal” comment is kind of old. I can name scores of very well-known contemporaries of Rick’s for whom that label is much more applicable.


  7. Steven Hart says:

    The post was written in haste and some things could have been phrased more clearly. But my god, these are some of the pissiest comments I’ve ever seen. Feel free to take your clicks someplace else.

  8. John D says:

    First time I saw the band was at the Frost ampitheater at Stanford. 110 degrees and flying burritos opening up. They came through the crowd on an old fire engine and doused us all down. Ricks plaintive voice was surely a strong part of the blend that made them so great. One of the main reasons I loved them was the ensemble playing. Was at the last waltz. Saw them when they reformed. the first time being a opening gig for the Grateful Dead at SF Civic auditorium New Years eve..can’t remember the year (if i could I wasn’t there) but it sure was great to see them back. Miss Rick and Richard. Two of the most distinctive voices in rock…
    on with the music and cut the nitpicking eh? that’s not what it’s about….

  9. scott acton says:

    First saw the Band in 1973 at Roosevelt Stadium opening for the good ole Grateful Dead. This was the year of
    Watkins Glen. The Band swung like a Swiss timepiece. Their vocal blend was stunning. Two drum kits. Garth, Levon, and Richard playing different instruments. Ricks vocal on ‘It Makes No Difference’ moves me to this day. If you have not seen the dvd ‘Festival Express’ get it! The Band will live forever. Their chemistry on stage had to be seen to be believed.

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