The Band never sold as many records as its rock-and-roll peers, this elusive aggregation of four Canadians and one Arkansas good old boy certainly entered the pantheon before calling it quits in 1976. Who else could have marshaled such a mind-blowing parade of stars for its farewell gig, culminating with a rare appearance by former employer Bob Dylan?
Yet the group's catalog of songs has spawned relatively few memorable covers
. Sure, Joan Baez scored a hit with her clueless version of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" in 1971. And just about every performer on the planet has taken a crack at "The Weight," including Waylon Jennings, Cassandra Wilson, Joe Cocker, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, and even the Moog synthesizer posse on Switched-On Rock
. Often, though, the songs have been given a wide berth. With their funky vibe, rough-hewn harmonies, and tintype vision of the old, weird America, they probably scared off a good many candidates.
None of that seems to have discouraged the artists on the recent Endless Highway: The Music of The Band
(429 Records). The disc mingles traditionalists with Young Turks, the grizzled Allman Brothers with college-circuit favorites like Guster and Death Cab for Cutie. You won't find any hip-hop here--despite Gang Starr's notorious fondness for "Up On Cripple Creek
"--nor is there a speed metal version of "Ophelia." Yet the stylistic range is still impressively wide, and a testament to the power of Robbie Robertson's songcraft (which got an occasional, exquisite assist from pianist Richard Manuel).
So who delivers the goods? Generally, it's the performers who honor the spirit of The Band--that odd combo of precision, melancholy, and shambolic glee--instead of mimicking the original recordings. Take my favorite, Guster (below
) doing "This Wheel's On Fire." The arrangement, with banjo, piano, and electric guitar jostling in the mix, has that front-porch flavor down pat. There's an organ hovering in the background, and a rollicking take on the chorus (which splits the difference between The Band and early-period Wilco.) It's clear these guys love the song but are leery of excessive reverence: hence the corny, spoken-word coda at the end.
Similarly, Josh Turner puts his own stamp on "When I Paint My Masterpiece." He frames the tune with a crisp string-band setting, heavy on the fiddle and dobro. The Band seldom took such a straightforward approach to country music: when they played "Long Black Veil," they turned it into a dirge. But Turner's deep, playful baritone is anything but generic. And while he irons much of the absurdity out of the lyrics--suddenly they sound like the travails of one more Music Row contender--he whistles a final chorus during the fade-out, as if to remind us that it's all in good fun.
Not everybody fares quite so well. Bruce Hornsby transforms "King Harvest" into competent boogie material. Lee Ann Womack and Roseanne Cash hit all the right notes (on "The Weight" and "Unfaithful Servant") but fail to inject any new life into the tunes. That goes double, unfortunately, for the Allman Brothers. Despite their undoubted Southern cred, they hobble through "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" like Virgil Cane with a bad case of lumbago. The Roches? Don't even ask. My hopes were high for a skeletal spin on "Acadian Driftwood," but these demonically gifted harmony singers spent too much time copying the Cajun-inflected arrangement on Northern Lights, Southern Cross
. They should have gathered around some rickety upright piano and done it their own way.
You win some, you lose some. Part of the fascination of Endless Highway
is hearing how often the performers fall somewhere in the middle. Widespread Depression dives right into "Chest Fever," nailing the gurgling organ intro and Allen Toussaint's classic horn charts. Yet the vocals aren't quite up to par. Jakob Dylan takes on the dreamiest, saddest song in the entire catalog, "Whispering Pines," and while he coasts through some of the verses, he really pushes himself on the shimmering chorus. Was he ever going to match Richard Manuel's haunted wistfulness? Of course not. But Dylan, like all the other Band-worshippers on this welcome disc, gets extra points for trying.