In a scene from “The Last Waltz” film, the Band’s bassist-vocalist Rick Danko sits at a studio mixing board with director Martin Scorsese and plays back a track he’s been working on for his upcoming solo album. These interviews were filmed in 1977, after the original group’s guest-star-studded farewell concert on Thanksgiving Day in 1976. In response to the filmmaker’s question as to what’s next for him, Danko’s chipper reply of “just trying to keep busy” is tempered when he lowers his head while listening to the playback. Re-watching the film recently for a piece I’m writing, it all just seems so sad.
While drummer-singer Levon Helm made no secret his vehement disapproval of the idea of ending the Band as a touring unit (they were ostensibly supposed to continue as a recording unit but this lasted for only one album) he and the others went ahead and did their thing until reforming in the early Eighties without guitarist-songwriter (and “Last Waltz” producer) Robbie Robertson—accused by Helm of splitting up the Band to make a grandiose film statement about the end of rock’s classic era. Danko’s self-titled solo album was released in later 1977 and was a greatly appealing rootsy rock offering, with heart-aching ballads, cheeky roadhouse rumbles and a little social commentary sprinkled in for good measure. Danko as a songwriter didn’t have Robertson’s uncanny ability to tap a rich vein mythic Americana but then again neither did Robbie after ’77 and at least Rick was still in there mixing it up. His famously tender voice was especially well used on the ballads like “Sweet Romance.”
The thing is, once the Band was gone you had five potential solo artists instead of one beloved group and in the crowded rock marketplace that can be a tough sell. It was much easier to see the Rick Danko album as Band-lite and it was lightly regarded by the press, didn’t sell well, eventually went out of print and has had a patchy history at best on CD. Luckily, all tracks are available on YouTube if you want a listen.
Speaking of “The Last Waltz”, you can have your “I Shall Be Released” all-star sing-a-long but for my money the film’s theme-defining moment comes half-way through. In a remarkable vocal performance that is both fierce and vulnerable (and pushed along by Garth Hudson’s mad-scientist organ), Danko delivers “Stage Fright” as an all-encompassing cri de Coeur for all those star-crossed performers who “got caught in the spotlight” only to want to “start all over again” at the perceived finish line. Danko, both in re-formed versions of the Band and as a solo artist, carried on until his death by heart attack in 1999.