Remembering Rick Danko

Originally posted December 10, 2009

Ten years ago this week, I was poking my way through the Minneapolis paper. I’d lost the habit of reading the obituaries – I wasn’t working in news anymore – but for some reason, my eyes settled on the section of the page that the Star-Tribune sets aside for newsworthy deaths.

And there I saw Rick Danko’s name. A member of The Band – he played bass, guitar and more and added his distinctive voice to the group’s vocal mix – his heart had given out and he’d died December 10, 1999, in his sleep at his home near Woodstock, New York. He was fifty-six.

It had been a long road for The Band. The group had played from the 1950s through The Last Waltz in 1976, when things were called to a halt by guitarist and composer Robbie Robertson. Along the way, the five musicians – Robertson, Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel – had first been the Hawks, backing Ronnie Hawkins. The group backed Bob Dylan on some crucial tours and acclaimed recordings in the 1960s and again during the 1970s. A few years after The Last Waltz, the group reconvened without Robertson and played gigs until Manuel’s suicide in 1986.

In the early 1990s, Danko, Helm and Hudson brought in three new players for a new version of The Band. That version released three CDs and toured frequently. Danko also played during the 1990s with Eric Andersen and Norwegian musician Jonas Fjeld, and that trio released three CDs.

I saw the 1990s version of The Band twice at the Cabooze, a bar not far from the West Bank Campus of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. For one of the shows, in 1994, I had a seat and stayed put. For the other show two years later, I wandered and found myself for a while in the front row of the crowd standing near the stage. As we in the crowd sang along with Danko on the chorus of “It Makes No Difference” – “And the sun don’t shine anymore; and the rains fall down on my door” – my gaze and Danko’s caught. He returned my smile and gave me a quick wink, a moment I treasure.

And ten years ago this week, with Danko gone, the story of The Band ended. Here are a few of the memories he and his friends left behind.

A Six-Pack of Rick Danko
“New Mexicoe” by Rick Danko from Rick Danko [1977]
“Raining In My Heart” by Rick Danko from Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band [1989]
“Blue River” by Danko/Fjeld/Andersen from Danko/Fjeld/Andersen [1991]
“It Makes No Difference” by The Band from Northern Lights/Southern Cross [1976]
“The Unfaithful Servant” by The Band from The Band [1969]
“Too Soon Gone” by The Band from Jericho [1993]

Note: One of the places that keep Rick Danko’s memory alive is a very good blog operated by his friend Carol Caffin at http://www.sipthewine.blogspot.com/. This week, she collected memories from an incredibly wide swath of folks who knew Danko. Check it out.

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