The Band and their first two albums were in exactly the right place at precisely the right time. The British Invasion was long over, pysychedelia was waning, the Haight was overcrowded, and there was a thirst for musical and cultural authenticity. Enter The Band, five young men who'd been holed up in a rustic enclave with a rustic name, bare-bones in every aspect, with careers, lives, and reputations riding on one thing and one thing only: the music. Music of rare beauty, stark yet complex, sublime in its utter simplicity. Add to that the shadowy charisma of the bearded minstrels with their accordions, mandolins, and fiddles, the brilliant and equally (and admirably) sparse production, and the years-in-the-making buzz, and you've got the makings of a legend.
Flash forward eight or nine years. The Band's legacy is firmly ensconced in the annals of rock and roll, though jaws drop as the group--by most accounts gifted, if less than prolific--announces its "retirement" in a star-studded extravaganza the likes of which had not been seen in the rock world.
Rick Danko, perhaps The Band's most industrious member, is not ready to quit and decides to shop a solo deal. He records some tracks, takes them to New York, and is offered a deal by Clive Davis, who'd recently been fired from CBS (Columbia) Records and started his own label, Arista. The album is recorded and released after the filming of The Last Waltz, but before its theatrical release. Though the record does not have the timeless quality of the best Band albums, most of the songs are good, and some--like "Sip the Wine" and "New Mexico"--are stellar. With guest appearances by Eric Clapton and Ronnie Wood, and a solid production by Rob Fraboni, the album is tight, and a tour is planned to promote it. The album tanks, stalling at an embarrassing #119 on the Billboard charts. The question is: why?
Rick had always said that it was probably too early to make a solo album, and he was right--partially. One of the major reasons for the album's commercial failure was bad timing. But the bad timing had nothing to do with when it was recorded. I think Rick had the adrenalin and enthusiasm he needed at that time to pull off a successful record. I think the bad timing had to do with the release--it was swallowed up by The Last Waltz.
But timing was not the only problem. Just as a perfect storm of talent and timing and a raft of intangible forces came together to help propel The Band in the beginning, an equally effusive tangle of negative forces--bad management, lack of direction, inflated egos, poor timing--merged to impede the success of later records and early solo projects.
Rick was ready and willing to tour. He put together a band and an entourage and rehearsed in Santa Monica. The only real common ground some of the musicians had was their desire to work with Rick; but that was okay. They got to know each other, were in sync musically, and the tour was successful in many ways. But the operation lacked cohesiveness and a firm direction, and morphed and morphed until it became something else.
Thankfully, time has a way of evening out the playing field. As with art, it is hard to tell which music will stand the test of time--until time has passed. More than three decades after it was recorded, Rick's debut continues to hold its own and garner accolades. Three decades later, "Sip the Wine" sounds as current--and as relevant--as ever.