Endless Highway –The Music of The Band
“When you awake you will remember everything…”
From “When You Awake” by R.Manuel and J.R.Robertson
(c) 1970 Canaan Music, Inc.
When The Band arrived in 1968, they came in through the basement window, after years on the roads and in the roadhouses of North America and beyond, and they disrupted our psychedelic dream of a disconnected present with a deeper dream of revenant visits from long gone ancestors. They sang to us riddles and rhymes from the “old, weird America” as Greil Marcus has so famously described it.
You could say two events in 1969 signified the end of the Sixties: Hell’s Angels ascended to Altamont, and The Band released their self-titled second album. The first event slapped us awake; the second one led us away.
Consider this: nearly forty years after they were first recorded, web scholars happily discuss and debate the meaning of the lyrics, almost down to the commas, of The Band’s songs “The Weight”, “Rocking Chair”, and others. They ponder the nuances of inflection in the singers’ voices, and the possible autobiographical origins of the mysterious characters. One imagines a dwindling number of people devoting their lives to these cultish pursuits. But is anyone singing the songs?
The new tribute album “Endless Highway: The Music of The Band” poses a simple question: “Why should I listen to cover versions of these iconic tunes when I can listen to the originals?” One answer is because, if no one else ever performs these songs, they will be forgotten by most of us, sealed in the amber of that one long-ago performance, as we move on.
From a record company marketing perspective, tribute albums are a no-brainer. Imagine being able to market a cd that allows you to give top billing to a bona fide popular culture icon, and you don’t even have to convince (or pay) them to perform on it. Just bring together a chorus of lesser-knowns, each one eager to put their stamp on one of the chosen icon’s tunes. Plant the tributee’s name in bold letters front and center on the cover art.
It was with more than the usual mixture of curiosity and dread that this fan placed this new tribute CD in the player. Is it worthy? Do they do justice? Yes and no, of course.
Jakob Dylan pleases with his version of “Whispering Pines”. While it would perhaps be unfair to compare his vocal to the incomparable original, he does acquit himself quite well in conveying the yearning and regret this song calls for.
Lee Ann Womack’s version of “The Weight” also deserves praise. It takes a lot of nerve for anyone to record one of the most iconic Band songs, but Ms. Womack’s voice has just the right southern textures to give this elliptical, mysterious Southern myth a new lease on life. The great Buddy and Julie Miller lend their voices to the chorus.
Josh Turner also pleases with his likeable and completely original take on “When I Paint My Masterpiece”. Heck, he even whistles a little toward the end.
A group called My Morning Jacket’s fresh version of “It Makes No Difference” is noteworthy as well.
Tribute albums with various artists are almost by definition uneven, so it’s not surprising that “Endless Highway” has some performances that don’t measure up to the originals.
I didn’t make it all the way through Death Cab For Cutie’s version of “Rocking Chair”. I mean, you’ve got to be kidding. Bloodless and thoroughly unconvincing, it will send you running back to the original.
Bruce Hornsby’s version of King Harvest is completely forgettable.
The biggest disappointment is The Allman Brothers live version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” The idea certainly had possibilities. The Allman Brothers, classic rock contemporaries of The Band when both were in their heydays, are every bit as iconic in their own right. Gregg Allman’s is just about the only voice that could credibly be held up to Levon Helm’s as the True Voice of the Southern White Male. Unfortunately, his fine, world-weary vocal in this live performance is not supported by the plodding, bored sounding noodlings of his backing musicians. A true disappointment.
So, why should you listen to these cover versions when you can listen to the originals? Well, even with the misfires, over half of the 17 cuts on “Endless Highway” present worthy performances that will help carry these songs forward to new generations of listeners and allow those of us who revere the original performances to hear the songs with fresh ears.
Review by Richard HiggsExplore posts in the same categories: cd review, classic rock, endless highway, music, the band