Roots

There’s an interesting moment about two-thirds of the way through Martin Scorsese’s seminal mid-’70s concert movie, The Last Waltz. The celebrated filmmaker, diminutive and full of big-city alacrity, and bass player Rick Danko — good-natured, with a country boy’s casual grace — retire to the studio’s back room, where The Band is recording. The Last Waltz, of course, was the celebrated group’s last gig — at least, it was meant to be (in fact, they reunited in the early ’80s) — and Scorsese asks Danko what he will do after The Band breaks up.

Danko, who clearly loves his band — and whose impulsive but fragile voice defined its sound as much as Levon Helm’s woodsier, bawdier one — says something like, “I’m sure I’ll stay busy.” Then, falling silent, he stares off at nothing and puts on his hat, like a child needing the momentary security of a favorite toy or piece of clothing. It’s a moment that spotlights an uneasy man-child who’s reluctant to quit playing, uncertain what awaits him once he leaves the electrified evening air and comes inside.

In retrospect, of course, it’s clear that Danko had nothing to worry about. His solo career, while never quite as high-profile as The Band’s (or fellow Band member Robbie Robertson’s), has never faltered. He has continued to make music that is startling in its uniqueness and inspiring in its conviction.

Though most folks remember him as the bassist for The Band, Danko is, in fact, a multi-instrumentalist who plays guitar, fiddle, banjo and other traditional instruments. His musical roots may be traced to his days of surfing the airwaves as a child “I grew up in small-town Ontario, listening to 10,000-watt, 50,000-watt radio stations,” he tells me in a telephone interview. “I listened to Wolfman Jack. I listened to WSM out of Nashville. I listened to stations out of Chicago.”

Thinking of the music he eventually went on to play, I ask Danko if there was any difference between the Canadian and the American music scenes, back then.

“No, not really,” he replies. “There’s not much difference between Canadian music and American music.”

Well, maybe not for him. But while the young Danko was surrounded by traditional Canadian front-porch music, his tastes also drifted to include Fats Domino, Hank Williams, Howlin’ Wolf and other giants of popular music. This affinity spawned an encyclopedic knowledge of various musical styles — rockabilly, Cajun, gospel, Acadian, country, blues, bluegrass, carnival and even lesser-known folk styles, such as gypsy waltzes, parlor songs and sea chanteys.

When Bob Dylan asked The Band to back him up for his (in)famous 1965-66 world tour, folk-rock history was made. And legend, too: The Basement Tapes, the song cycle recorded at Big Pink (a rental house in Woodstock, N.Y.), has since become a lens through which to view the past and future of American popular music. The release was the subject of a celebrated book (Greil Marcus’ Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes — Henry Holt, 1997) that looks back on the music of “old, weird America”; it marked the beginning of a different, more postmodern take on traditional American music (No Depression magazine called the music “the first alternative country”). It was a way of making popular music that was more than just an attempt to get on the radio. It remains one of the half-dozen most influential pieces of rock music ever recorded.

The Band, of course, went on to its own greatness. They split up and got back together. And, after a well-received debut solo album (Rick Danko — Arista, 1978), the bassist went on to record two early-’90s CDs with folk legend Eric Anderson and Norwegian singer/songwriter Jonas Fjeld, which explored Norway’s musical roots much as The Band had delved into America’s. Featuring both conventional and obscure traditional instruments — such as langeleiks, kanteles, selje flutes and hardanger fiddles, some of which are traceable as far back as ancient Phoenicia — the albums, Danko Fjeld Anderson and Ridin’ On the Blinds (both Rykodisc), document Danko’s progress in his search for the Common Chord. Talk about roots.

Now, though, we’ve come full circle, and while Danko still performs solo, he’s also excited about The Band’s new album, Jubilation (Platinum). “I did a lot of acoustic, standup-bass playing,” he explains in his raspy voice. “Our studio’s in Levon’s barn, and I would put the bass in little nooks and crannies where it sounded great, and we’d mike it right there.”

Danko’s also excited about the record label he’s launched, Woodstock Records. “Levon’s got a CD out,” he says happily; “I have acoustic CDs [of concerts recorded in] the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s coming out, playing with people like Richard Manuel, people like Paul Butterfield and Jorma Kaukonen. All this is going to be made available to fans, through the Internet and mail order. It’s one of my pet projects.”

Despite all the enthusiasm, though, I have to ask: Isn’t it just a little sobering to be a godfather to so many younger musicians out there? Danko, however, remains unimpressed.

“I feel good about it,” he allows. “I’ve been influenced by a lot of people, and I’ve influenced a lot of people. I’m very thankful; music has been kind to me. You take and you take, and then you have to give something back. So I’m playing a lot of benefits for child abuse, Down’s syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, that kind of thing.

“Right now,” he continues, “there’s a lot going on, and I don’t have time to sit around congratulating myself. I mean, I’m not gonna change the world, but maybe I can make the neighborhood a better place.”

New blood

Keb’ Mo’ hasn’t been around quite as long as Rick Danko, but he’s another musician who knows a thing or two about roots. While the blues has traditionally been a matter of heart and soul, Keb’ Mo’ brings a learned, almost academic flair to his music. To be sure, he has the requisite soul; but he also shows a strong desire to authentically represent a form and a catalog so vast that an artist can wander around in it for decades. And, though he’s a relative newcomer to the blues circuit, he was welcomed almost instantly as a master of his craft. Indeed, such established artists as Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal, Albert Collins and others have testified to both Mo’s potential and his purity.

Keb’ Mo’, though, has something most other bluesmen don’t — a melodic, contemporary sensibility that keeps his music from sounding like an antiseptic recreation of some museum piece. While he’ll probably never turn into Babyface, Mo’ injects into his music a little of the soulful R&B that has made everyone from Marvin Gaye to Teddy Pendergrass so popular. The combination is both startling and dead-on right.

Born Kevin Moore and raised in South Central L.A., Keb’ Mo’ grew up on everything from gospel and the blues to ’60’s British rock. In the early ’80s, after gigging with Jefferson Airplane violinist Papa John Creach, Moore landed a deal for a now-out-of-print solo album, titled Rainmaker (Chocolate City/Casablanca). That album didn’t exactly set the world on fire, but Moore was soon offered the role of a Delta bluesman in the Los Angeles Theatre Center’s production of Rabbit Foot. Sensing a kindred spirit, he began studying country-blues recordings and guitar techniques.

Of course, you don’t acquire a name like Keb’ Mo’ without there being a good story behind it. He says he was christened when he sat in with a friend’s band. “I’d go see Quentin’s jazz band on Monday nights, bring my guitar and sit in,” he explained in a recent interview, “and start playing the blues. Quentin would look over the drums and holler ‘KEB’ MO’!’ Like, if I was playing jazz, I could be Kevin Moore — but if I was gonna play the blues, I had to be Keb’ Mo’!”

An unusually dynamic slide guitarist, Keb’ Mo’ usually saves his best moments for his transcendent solo material — such as the traditional “Momma Where’s my Daddy?” and Robert Johnson’s legendary “Love in Vain,” the latter from Mo’s latest CD, Slow Down (OKeh/550 Music, 1998). And while it might seem like an act of incredible hubris to record a Robert Johnson song on every release, Keb’ Mo’ somehow makes it work: He remains true to what Johnson himself probably would have done, while forging ahead on his own clearly defined path. Signed to the venerable OKeh label, which released what is considered to be the world’s very first blues recording (Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues”), Keb’ Mo’ — like Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Muddy Waters and other legendary artists — doesn’t just recreate the blues; he makes the blues his own.

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