I know I’m not alone in claiming Rick Danko to be my favorite member of The Band. Elvis Costello once said in a magazine interview that Danko was his absolute hero.
Forever blessed to have seen The Band live several times in the Seventies, it was always Rick I loved to hear most. Without taking anything away from Levon Helm and Richard Manual who were technically better singers, Danko had that Gram Parsons-like frailty in his voice that always appealed to me. It sounded so honest, heartfelt and sincere. He was also fun to watch bop up and down while he played his bass.
After their Last Waltz as The Band, in 1977, Danko was the first member to issue a solo record, and I saw him perform twice in the New York City area in support. Then, after a very long drought, in 1995, I was stunned to see that he would be playing a solo acoustic show near my then home in San Antonio.
The Cibolo Creek Country Club was far from what its name suggests. It was an old rickety barn dating back to the late 1800’s tucked away in the woods on the outskirts of town. But what it lacked in style, it made up for in character. I loved this place and frequently saw the likes of Joe Ely rock the place into the early morning hours on a Saturday night. It was small room with a wooden dance floor in front of a stage flanked by long picnic tables set perpendicular—your classic Texas honky-tonk dance hall. (It’s still there, but presently closed.)
Just a year earlier, Danko and The Band had been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Now here he was travelling across America alone in a rent car toting an acoustic guitar in the trunk. But the true sad part was that only a dozen or so people showed up for what turned out to be a remarkably memorable show and one of my all-time favorites.
Regretfully, I didn’t keep a set list nor record the show and my memory fails me for what he specifically played. I know I wasn’t disappointed since I recall him playing and singing quite well.
There was no opening act, and Rick did two sets. In between he took a break to grab a smoke and a beer outside at a picnic table. Following him out to get my record signed (see below) the three guys from the local country-rock band Hell’s Cafe beat me to him. I wasn’t shy and joined them at the table where I visited with my hero. I requested he do my favorite Band song, “Acadian Driftwood,” a lengthy narrative from their last proper LP. It was a song in which he alternated the lead vocal parts with Levon and Richard. He rhetorically replied “Do you know all the words?”
A few songs into the second set, he honored my request, but stopped about halfway through, falling short on knowing all the lyrics, 2/3 of which he never sang in the first place. I was still stoked to hear what I did from just a few short feet away.
He ended the show by inviting the Hell’s Cafe guys to join him on Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” a song The Band had recorded with Richard singing. A nice touch to a couple of awestruck musicians he didn’t know from Adam.
Four years later, Rick would be the first of The Band’s three great voices to go quiet. I recall seeing the startling news of his death on Yahoo News on a late Friday afternoon at the office. It was a sad day for me and the music world. He was only 55.
When I think back about Rick Danko, I ponder whether the failure of The Band to continue may have led to the rather unhealthy lifestyle which contributed to his early death. While there were signs of melancholy on that pleasant March night in South Texas, there were also signs that singing in front of a small but devoted group of fans bringing him some well-deserved joy.