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Various Artists: Endless Highway: The Music of The Band

John Kelman By

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At a time when Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and The Doors ruled, The Band was an anomaly. First emerging as the backing band for rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins before moving on to greater visibility behind Bob Dylan, The Band eschewed the hippy attire and attitude of the time, carrying the distinct look of an earlier time on the sepia-toned cover of its eponymous 1970 album. The group's music, largely written by guitarist Robbie Robertson, was a curious amalgam of roots styles that, despite feeling of a different era, has weathered the test of time better than most of its contemporaries.

Which makes Endless Highway: The Music of The Band both an inevitability and a risk. One of The Band's defining characteristics was clear musical accomplishment masked by a loose, almost sloppy approach that made every performance feel like the first time. The Band may have little connection to jazz (with the exception of keyboardist/saxophonist Garth Hudson, who often provided unexpected harmonic richness to the simplest of songs), but anyone who has heard more than a few of the group's live recordings knows that spontaneity was a key component of this music.

Endless Highway brings together seventeen artists who cross musical styles and generations. From the alt-rock-grass take on "This Wheel's On Fire by the young popsters Guster to a relatively literal reading of one of The Band's best latter-period songs, "Acadian Driftwood, by the decades-old The Roches, there's a beautiful mix of reverence and contemporary updating.

Bruce Hornsby and his road-tested group The Noise Makers turn "King Harvest into a more straightforward rocker. But Hornsby is no stranger to The Band, having incorporated the group's songs into his live sets for many years. His relaxed, behind-the-beat phrasing makes the song his own while respecting the very essence of Band's vocal approach.

Rocker Jack Johnson teams with Animal Liberation Orchestra for a beautiful "I Shall Be Released, which finally moves the song away from its status as de rigueur festival closing anthem, returning it to its poignant and understated roots. A jamband favorite, Widespread Panic, uses the horn-driven version of "Chest Fever, from The Band's live Rock of Ages (Capitol, 1972), as a starting point, but there's a harder edge to the guitars. The multigenerational Allman Brothers play it fairly straight with "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, but it's great to hear Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes subtly cop vocal phrases on slide guitar.

While not exactly missteps, country star Lee Ann Womack's version of "The Weight is, well, a little too contemporary country, and youngster Trevor Hall's vocal delivery on "Life is a Carnival is too fervent for its own good. Still, Steve Reynolds' folksy take on "Stage Fright is one of the discs's many highlights, and Endless Highway provides strong evidence that The Band's music remains relevant today. Like a comfortable pair of old shoes, Endless Highway may make you want to pull out those old discs and try them on again for size.

Track Listing: This Wheel's On Fire; King Harvest; It Makes No Difference; I Shall Be Released; The Weight; Chest Fever; Up on Cripple Creek; The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down; Stage Fright; Rag Mama Rag; Whispering Pines; Acadian Driftwood; Unfaithful Servant; When I Paint My Masterpiece; Life is a Carnival; Look Out Cleveland; Rockin' Chair.

Personnel: Guster (1): Ryan Miller: vocals, bass; Brian Rosenworcel: drums, percussion; Adam Gardner: guitar, vocals; Joe Pisapia: guitar, banjo, Lowry organ, vocals; Jason Lehning: piano; Dan Tyler: spoken word; The Fruitbats: background vocals; Ray Lamontagne: harmonica. Bruce Hornsby & The Noisemakers (2): Bruce Hornsby: piano, vocals; J.V. Collier: bass; Doug Derryberry: guitar; Sonny Emory: drums; Bobby Read: EWI, bass clarinet; John

Title: Endless Highway: The Music of The Band | Year Released: 2007 | Record Label: 429 Records


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