You can hear that happen on a song that emerged on the Dylan-Hawks tour, “Tell Me, Momma,” as it was played in Manchester, England, on May 17th, 1966. By then the combo was using the tune as the kickoff for its shows; this performance cracks open Dylan’s Live 1966, finally released in 1998 after decades of bootlegging. Now, there was always a lot of gospel in Rick Danko’s bass, a lot of Motown, with Funk Brother James Jamerson’s fingers reaching the short distance from Detroit to Danko’s home ground in Ontario, just across the border. The muscular, syncopated thumps that open the Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek,” the stiffening attack in its unreleased demo cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Baby, Don’t You Do It” (included on the first-class Band bootleg Across the Great Divide), the pulse in “Chest Fever”—it’s all power, all control. But on “Tell Me, Momma,” you’re hearing a hipster, someone who can’t be surprised, who knows there’s a twist he can put in every story, someone who’ll be looking the other way when it hits you. With a heedlessness that would rarely be present when the Hawks turned into the Band, everybody on the Manchester stage is hurling himself into this performance: Dylan is soaring like an eagle diving in and out of a stampede just to egg the cattle on; but off to the side, a funny grin on his face, Danko is both keeping the charge going and waiting for the moment when he will ease right out of it, step back and seal it. It’s just a three-note pattern, coming up again and again when for a second the song needs to be suspended, when the boys have shot over a cliff, looked down, decided they don’t care and kept going. Rrrrum-bum-bum, Danko says with his bass, flipping the whole enormous piece of music to the drummer. The move is so casual, so striking, that there’s a split second before the drummer accepts the song, slashing down on his cymbal, kicking the music back to the group as a whole. It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever heard.
But what allowed the Band to redefine rock & roll in 1968 and 1969, with Music From Big Pink and The Band, was that it played and sang with such musical sympathy, it was meaningless to untangle one man’s contributions from another’s. Was that bass or guitar, drums or strings, Danko’s voice behind Levon Helm’s, Richard Manuel’s calling out to Danko? On the invaluable video documentary Classic Albums: The Band, Helm, Garth Hudson, Robertson, Danko and producer John Simon let you see and hear how the songs were built. They sit at a control board, separate the tracks, isolate the sounds. It’s a magical exercise, but even separated, you can, at this moment in the group’s career, hear that each sound was far more about connecting to another than about calling attention to itself. There, along with that of the rest, is Danko’s deepest legacy—in those brief years, in a few songs—“The Weight,” “King Harvest (Has Surely Come),” “To Kingdom Come,” “Chest Fever,” “Up on Cripple Creek”—when great artists could lose themselves in the anonymity of their art, in music that seemed to predate them and was sure to outlast them.
When, in the 1970s, the camaraderie went out of the Band’s music, Danko’s singing—with “Stage Fright,” or his version of the Four Tops’ “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever”—exchanged the style he had as part of something bigger than himself for the mannerisms of a singer who would not expose himself. The catch in his voice became a kind of trick; the abandonment of his fiddle playing in “Rag Mama Rag” collapsed into the stiffness of a singer imitating his own records. And yet, in what at the time seemed like anything but his last years, the soul singer that had been trapped inside Danko all his life finally made it out. On High on the Hog and Jubilation, little-noticed albums that Danko, Helm, and Hudson put out in the 1990s as the Band—with Robertson gone after 1976 and Manuel dead by his own hand in 1986—Danko spoke a new language. “Book Faded Brown” and the gorgeous, painful “Where I Should Always Be” were made of forgiveness and regret, of a self-knowledge one might rather not have, of loss and the kind of smile only a missed chance can bring. As it turned out, they were last chances, and not missed at all.
Rolling Stone, January 20, 2000