How tribute albums are assembled is a mystery to me, or maybe I’m just baffled by the results. Is there a Tribute Album Phone Tree posted somewhere that labels turn to when it comes time to “honor” some deserving (or not) artist? Or maybe there’s some kind of lottery or bingo-type setup that bands can play or drop their name in a hat. Whatever the process is, even it’s just the producers calling up their favorite acts, it should seriously be reconsidered and probably withdrawn. There’s got to be a better, more interesting way to do this. The latest band to get the slipshod tribute treatment is the Band, and while the album certainly has highlights, and healthy representation from a wide variety of big- and medium-name artists, it inevitably demands a loud, from-the-mountaintops bellow: “Why?”
The short answer of course is that there’s something to celebrate, and rightfully so: the 30th anniversary of Martin Scorcese’s concert film, The Last Waltz, which chronicled the Band’s mighty and epic farewell performance at San Francisco’s Winterland. The long answer? Your guess is as good as mine. Why the cheesy washed-out O Brother artwork? Why not a tracklisting that somewhat emulates the concert setlist? Why Jack Johnson at all, never mind singing “I Shall Be Released”? Of course it goes without saying that the market for Endless Highway: The Music of the Band isn’t really fans of Robertson, Helm, Danko, et al, but superfans and completists of the interpreting artists, because if you’re a big fan of the Band, there’s a lot here you will not give a second listen to.
The album does mix it up nicely with expected contributors (The Allman Brothers Band, Widespread Panic, My Morning Jacket) and unexpected (Death Cab for Cutie, Gomez). You’ve also got adult alternative favorites (Roseanne Cash, Bruce Hornsby, Jakob Dylan) and glossy mainstream country acts (Josh Turner, Lee Ann Womack). But democracy doesn’t make the resulting tracks any good, necessarily. The considerable, nigh well undeniable strength of the songs themselves can only take them so far, especially when the aesthetic of some artists is to highlight the singer, not the song. Womack’s take on “The Weight”, one of the Band’s most commercially popular tunes, is unbearable from line after less than a minute, her voice wiggling and sassing it up like a superstar but never communicating any understanding of what she’s singing about. Womack might as well be singing about a new brand of breath-freshening gum. There’s no thought for the song’s meaning beyond a vehicle for her to show off her pretty voice. That’s sure to please anyone who just loves her pretty voice, but isn’t this supposed to be about the Band?
As far as Nashville goes, Josh Turner fares better with “When I Paint My Masterpiece” mostly because it’s easier to get behind the light-hearted nature of Dylan’s song, and because his band supports him with a goofy, groovy arrangement. But mostly, it’s the usual suspects that do the most justice to their assignments. Rosanne Cash inhabits “The Unfaithful Servant” with the reverence of a true believer. My Morning Jacket does exactly what you’d expect with “It Makes No Difference”, befitting a group whose original repertoire owes a lot to the Band’s blend of r&b, blues, country, and rock. And you just know that the Allman Brothers know every significance of Virgil Cain’s story in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”; their live version, while not a radical reinvention, demonstrates a love for and understanding of the music that transcends genre and commerciality. To that end, cuts from Bruce Hornsby (“King Harvest”), Blues Traveler (“Rag Mama Rag”), and Guster (“This Wheel’s On Fire”) are pleasant and genuine, just not terribly exciting. And some, like Jack Johnson’s “I Shall Be Released”, are unpleasant and genuine.
Artie Traum’s liner notes reveal that “the producers of this CD made many thoughtful A&R decisions”. Well good for them. It’s great for this project to show the Band’s legacy for inspiring a wide array of musicians who’ve used that inspiration for their own stylistic ends, but the overall mediocrity on display suggests the real motivation was to move the most units possible by appealing to as many target demographics as possible: the kids’ll buy it for Death Cab, and their parents will jones for Hornsby! I’ve got a better idea. What if, instead of soliciting contributions, imposing deadlines, stroking egos, etc., tribute album producers sought out the best cover versions already in existence, by artists and bands who initially played those songs because they really, really wanted to honor them. I’ll wager two things that would happen: if they tried this approach with the Band, some of the same performers as on Endless Highway would still qualify, and the resulting album would be a lot closer to being an actual tribute.