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 Higgs

Explore posts in the same categories: cd review, classic rock, endless highway, music, the band

7 Comments on “Endless Highway –The Music of The Band”

  1. Jeremy Skinner Says:

    I think I’ll have to pick this up, it totally slipped under my radar. Nice review Rich!

  2. folksalad Says:

    Thanks, Jeremy! I hope you enjoy “Endless Highway” as much as I have. It actually has spurred me to order a copy of “The Basement Tapes”, and also to read Greil Marcus’s book about those recordings: “The Invisible Republic”. I think I will have to write and post about my response to “…Republic”. It’s quite a piece of work.

  3. Elaine Higgs Says:

    I have been a huge fan of “The Band” since I was a teen. I’m sure my brother Rich doesn’t realize this, but on week-ends, every time he left the house and I had the time, I would sneak into his room and listen to his collection of “The Band” albums over and over. Before he got home, I always made sure I put them all back in exactly the same position as he had left them and he was none the wiser. It was a way to understand him, a way to understand myself, and a way to be a part of the musical culture of the times. Other people doing their songs? Well, I did their songs: in the shower, on walks, driving alone, to my children as lullabies: kind of hard not to once you know the words, understand the words, understand the music, understand yourself, and understand your brother who probably did know I was listening and just let it be.

  4. folksalad Says:

    Hey, sis. I want my records back!

  5. elaine Says:

    I left ’em in the big pink.

  6. alby Says:

    I respectfully disagree about the Death Cab version of “Rocking Chair.” I heard it on commercial radio recently, and it sent me scurrying for this album (flew under my radar at the time, I admit). Despite coming at the regret and loss in the song from the opposite direction from the original, it still captures that sadness, and even adds in a Band-style ragged string-band horn section toward the end. Then again, I have a fondness for covers of all sorts; the Band’s take on Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” from the Jericho album, drew roars of outrage from Bruce fans I know, but I still like Levon’s anguished yowl as much as Bruce’s world-weary reading of the bleak lyrics. Add in Garth’s stunning accordion runs during the fade-out, and I’m pretty sure I like the Band’s version better than the original.

  7. folksalad Says:

    I love Levon’s “anguished yowl” on Atlantic City, too. What a great description! As for Death Cab’s version of “Rocking Chair”, my objection is to the vocal quality. Their voices are too young and pretty sounding for a song that calls for the voice of a sailor too old for the sea, resigned to a rocking chair and satisfying memories. It calls for an old-man gravitas that The Band delivers in spades. That’s what I meant by unconvincing.

    I admit, I tend to possibly be a bit more skeptical than you in my attitude to covers. While I do love a good cover, like The Band’s “Atlantic City”, I still usually find myself asking why I should listen to the cover when I can listen to the original. Sometimes, the answer is, because it’s better! Sometimes, the answer is, because the cover lets us hear the old song with new ears. And sometimes, the answer is, you shouldn’t bother.

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