Rick Danko’s Self-Titled Album – An Unsung Gem
If you ever watched The Last Waltz — and since you are reading this blog post about Rick Danko, I suppose you had — you are familiar with the song Sip The Wine. In a segment of the movie, Rick plays this heartbreaking song for Martin Scorsese. This moment possesses a vulnerability. A vulnerability of which we have a glimpse through The Last Waltz, but not as much as that moment. Rick’s emotions are vivid when he said, “Just making music, you know, trying to stay busy.” What you might not know is that Sip The Wine is a track from Rick Danko’s eponymous album, released in 1977. Since then, it has sunk into oblivion and hasn’t been reissued by Arista.
Rick was the first member of The Band to sign a record deal, even though he didn’t intend to leave the group. In an interview for The Melody Maker in October 1976, he said, “We’ve been together for 15 or 16 years and I for one wouldn’t stop making albums with the Band. Just so long as the Band wants to continue making records, I’ll be there.” After the last concert of The Band at Thanksgiving of the same year, Rick, who had joined The Hawks — later called The Band — when he was sixteen years old, was now on his own. This time, he and his old bandmates, Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson, went their separate ways. It wasn’t the end of their friendship, but it was the end of The Band, for now at least. The group had known a few incarnations since the days with Ronnie Hawkins in another decade. In another life, even. The world wasn’t the same as when Rick joined The Hawks in 1960. And Rick wasn’t the same anymore. He had grown up and had his share of problems. For sixteen years, the members of The Band had lived together, played music together, and now it was gone. It’s not surprising that Rick surrounded himself with friends, and even family, with his younger brother Terry, for the recording sessions of his solo album at the Shangri-La studios in Malibu.
With The Band, Rick displayed a whole range of emotions in his singing. He always sounded authentic, whether he sang It Makes No Difference or Volcano, and it hasn’t changed here. Rick is especially heart-wrenching with Sweet Romance, one of my favorite songs. There must be a distant place/Far from every wrong face/Tears won’t fall by chance/On this sweet romance.
The entire album is a wise blend of upbeat songs like What A Town and Java Blues, and melancholic ones like Sip The Wine and Shake It. Others, like Tired Of Waiting and Brainwash, bear a worrisome atmosphere. The first lines of Brainwash set the mood: Crossed ideas and twisted fear/Chosen channels of a million tears/Strains the mind, night after night.
What A Town, the opener of the album, is a song that Rick co-wrote with Bobby Charles, for whom he had co-produced the eponymous album in 1972. The song’s spirit, reinforced by Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood on guitar, is cheerful. What A Town is a clever introduction to this album; it’s not the best song, but it conveys Rick’s buoyancy.
Talented musicians play on the beautiful New Mexicoe. (The e at the end of Mexico is an homage to Rick’s hometown, Simcoe.) Garth Hudson is on accordion, while Eric Clapton plays guitar in his recognizable style, although he is more subtle than usual. Besides Garth, the other members of The Band also appear on the album. Robbie is on guitar on the lighthearted Java Blues, Richard plays electric piano on Shake It, and Levon harmonizes with Rick on the last track Once Upon A Time. The magic is still there, but Rick’s personality is strong enough to remind us we are not listening to The Band anymore.
I am listening to Rick Danko now, on the second day of summer, while a breeze comes through the window. Every song sounds perfect for this season, and I know I will always associate it with the strong sun and the coconut scent of sunscreen. After all, the album was recorded in Los Angeles, where The Band moved along with Bob Dylan after several years of living in Woodstock. The beach had replaced the mountains, but the song Small Town Talk, first released on Bobby Charles’ eponymous album, is reminiscent of the Catskills and of The Band song The Rumor.
An ad for the record claimed, “Once you get a taste of Rick Danko, you’ll never get enough.” Unfortunately, the album didn’t have much commercial success. It could have been the beginning of a prolific solo career — Rick was talented, and he was honing his skills as a songwriter. Yet, it didn’t happen. Perhaps the audience didn’t get that taste of Rick Danko. Otherwise, they would have become addicted to him, to his catchy songs, and his outstanding ability as a musician and as a singer. Who else could sing Sip The Wine with so much intensity?
When the album was released in December 1977, disco and punk music were dominating the airwaves. Rick’s album combines multiple genres, but it is definitely not disco nor punk. It’s unique, and totally Rick Danko. Totally Rick Danko: no other words could define this record better. Poetic ones or embellishments of any sort couldn’t express more than this term the essence of this album.