Rick Danko "Live Anthology"
Over the past couple of years, Floating World Records have been engaged in a project to officially release a number of archival performances by the erstwhile Band bassist, which had circulated as bootlegs for many years previously. This collection is culled from four of those performances: one from 1985 with Richard Manuel, two solo from 1989 and one from 1999 with a small band of accompanists. It should be noted that the title "Live Anthology" is something of a misnomer, as the two discs draw solely on those recordings and do not include material from older releases such as 'Live On Breeze Hill' or 'In Concert'.
The demand for archival releases of Rick Danko live is hard to gauge. It's not as if they have the historical value of concert recordings from the likes of Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa or Neil Young, whose set-lists and arrangements could vary greatly, not only from tour to tour, but from night to night.
On the other hand, Danko possessed one of the most lonesome and soulful voices you're likely to hear; a voice that can inspire great affection and one on which it is easy to grow hooked. It's not hard to imagine aficionados craving more. Happily for such people, Rick is in excellent voice throughout these four concerts, even the example recorded in 1999, only months before his untimely death from the consequences of a lifetime's abuse of drugs and alcohol.
Whether intentional or not, that spirit of mortality hangs over all but one of these recordings. The 1985 concert took place shortly before Richard Manuel's suicide and the March 1989 show just weeks after the death of Danko's infant son. Whilst it would glib to suggest you can hear it in the performances—-Danko did not need personal tragedy to communicate heartache-—the knowledge lends extra poignancy to the listening experience. The tracklist comprises of a selection of Americana standards, songs from Danko’s neglected solo albums and, of course, Band classics. The standards often come across as rather perfunctory, with some notable exceptions such as the bluegrass spiritual, 'When I Get My Rewards', and the J.J. Cale's 'Crazy Mama', on which everybody is audibly enjoying themselves immensely.
Most refreshingly, a number of songs from the Band's '90s reunion, including 'Book Faded Brown' and 'High Cotton', also distinguish themselves. Unsurprisingly, however, the original Band songs represent the strongest stuff here. Yet oddly the tracks which fare best are those you would imagine it hardest to pull off without his former compatriots. The likes of 'Stage Fright', 'When You Awake' and 'Ophelia' shine, whilst 'It Makes No Difference' or 'Unfaithful Servant' (songs arguably much better suited to solo performance) feel unceremoniously rushed.
Danko's success with the former group is a happy reminder that he was as dexterous and inventive as a guitar picker as he was as a bassist. Ultimately, however, it's difficult to see who the anthology is aimed at. Hardcore fans are likely to want all four complete performances, whilst casual listeners are probably not going to be that interested in rough-and-ready live recordings never intended for wider consumption. Hopefully, the Danko estate will see some of the reputedly much-needed proceeds from this undertaking, as otherwise this anthology seems more like an attempt to cash-in than an essential artefact. Nonetheless, it’s difficult to find justification for this release when his solo studio début - a much underrated classic - remains out-of-print and commanding silly prices second-hand.