CD Review of Endless Highway: The Music of the Band by Various Artists

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Endless Highway: The Music of the Band
starstarstarhalf starno star Label: 429 Records
Released: 2007
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There’s something like an unwritten law of music that says a tribute album’s artistic value exists in inverse proportion to the amount of commercial heat generated by its participants, which is why label-commissioned fêtes tend to run the gamut from uninspired to God-awful. The recipe is always the same: Recruit some big-name artists, draft a few in-house acts, and stir. That the results are almost always a watery aural goulash hardly matters; the label is virtually guaranteed a few curiosity buys from fans of everyone involved, regardless of word of mouth.

And that’s only part of why listeners can be forgiven for a healthy dose of skepticism going into Endless Highway: The Music of the Band. In addition – and perhaps more importantly – there’s the matter of the original recordings being covered here; to put it bluntly, when Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, and Garth Hudson came together, they created something much greater than the sum of its parts – and altered the course of rock & roll history in the process.

Though the Band can rightly be said to have helped lay the foundation for modern roots-fetish genres like Americana and, the group never really sounded like its peers. This was primarily because of the terrible beauty of Manuel, Danko, and Helm’s vocals, but the band’s albums also had a dark, woozy menace that helped set them apart. What this means, in a nutshell, is that the Band – though certainly influential – has never really spawned any true imitators, and that how you feel about Endless Highway will have just about everything to do with your fondness for the source material.

That being said, whoever was in charge of putting together this album’s lineup did a pretty stellar job. Longtime fans might scoff at the notion of Guster or Death Cab for Cutie – both of whom appear here, on “This Wheel’s on Fire” and “Rockin’ Chair,” respectively – getting anywhere near these songs, and honestly, neither band’s cover sounds like much when compared with the original version. But they aren’t insulting, either; if you can see your way clear of forgetting about the Band’s own recordings (and stifle a snicker when Ben Gibbard sings “Virginny”), they’re actually quite solid.

There are a number of high points, and though some are easy to spot – Bruce Hornsby’s “King Harvest” absorbs echoes of the original without being slavish, and Blues Traveler might as well have been formed to play “Rag Mama Rag” – there are surprises, too. Gomez, for instance, puts a terrific spin on “Up on Cripple Creek,” and the Roches do a beautiful “Acadian Driftwood,” and it’s these pleasant discoveries that make the album work. You know going in that the Allman Brothers are going to have no problem with “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and that Widespread Panic covering “Chest Fever” makes perfect sense. But Trevor Hall’s “Life is a Carnival” works too, and little gifts like that keep Endless Highway from falling into the usual tribute-album traps.

It isn’t perfect – Jack Johnson’s “I Shall Be Released” shouldn’t have been, and Lee Ann Womack’s “The Weight” is disappointingly slick – and it’s deeply inessential. But on the short list of artists deserving the tribute treatment, The Band has to rank somewhere near the top, and if this album provides a gateway into the original recordings for even a few listeners, it will have justified its existence.

~Jeff Giles