Another tribute album, this time honouring one of the most important bands in the history of music. For the most part it’s an intelligently compiled array of artists turning in good if not always great versions of songs made famous by the Band. But it was never going to be an easy task covering these songs. Let’s face it, even the songs written by other artists which the Band covered were, once given the Robertson/Helm/Hudson/Danko and Manuel treatment, transformed into Band songs. The definitive versions were those produced by the Band.

With excellent liner notes by Artie Traum and artists ranging from Lee Ann Womack through Jakob Dylan to Death Cab For Cutie there is certainly scope for some new life to be injected into these songs some of which were written 40 years ago. And therein lies the problem especially for those whose who have lived with those definitive Band versions for decades now.

To take ‘It Makes No Difference’ from ‘Northern Lights-Southern Cross’ which was first released over 30 years ago and covered on this album by My Morning Jacket. If it’s the first hearing of this song the chances are you would be blown away by the soulful rendition vocalist Jim James turns in, be overwhelmed by the harmonies and amazed by just how tight this group sound but if you’ve been used to the original since 1975 then, good as this version is, and it is one of the highlights on the collection, it still pales; albeit ever so slightly with the original.

Lee Ann Womack covering ‘The Weight’, one of the Band's most loved songs, didn’t sound like a great idea. But it does actually sound great. While Lee Ann’s vocals don’t match the soulfulness of the original (but then who could?) it’s an inspired version with Jay Joyce almost stealing the show with scorching lead guitar and nice mandolin. That’s almost stealing as husband and wife Buddy and Julie Miller provide background vocals and anyone familiar with their work will know what to expect, simply some of the best soul-tinged country vocals we will hear all year.

But with any collection there will be disappointments. ‘I Shall Be Released’ a Dylan song which appeared like ‘The Weight’ on ‘Music From Big Pink’ has been covered many, many times over the last 40 odd years. Seems everyone from sixties pop groups like The Tremeloes to Paul Weller has had an attempt to add their own identity to it. But, as good as many of the versions are, it’s a pointless exercise. The Band cut the definitive version of the song. It wasn’t just the vocals on that song, not just the production, it was the sound. If the Band had cut that song and that song only they still would have been worthy of all the praise they get today. For many it defined all that was special about the Band. The sparseness of that track, that haunting sound that many have tried to recapture but failed, that was the Band. So Jack Johnson who along with the Animal Liberation Orchestra tackles the song here, doesn’t exactly make a bad version of the song (I’d take it over Bette Midler’s version any day), the fact that it is one of the disappointments here, is more to do with the simple fact that the version by the Band can never be bettered, by now with everyone having a stab at the song that should be obvious. Hands off!

Much the same could be said of Gusters version of ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’ which opens the album. Again taken from ‘Music From Big Pink’ it’s not a bad version it just doesn’t add or do anything special and as for the spoken words at the end of the song provided by Dan Tyler just one question; “Why?”

But on the plus side there is a surprisingly good version of ‘King Harvest’ by Bruce Hornsby and The Noisemakers from the second album originally released in 1970 and which actually stands up well against the Band’s version. Other surprises are a live version of ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ by The Allman Brothers Band from 2005. Gregg Allman’s vocals are world-weary and affecting and it’s an excellent version of the song.

Not so much a surprise is version of ‘Acadian Driftwood’ by the Roches; a song which could have been written for them. As expected the vocals are superb and it’s one of those are occasions where a cover version almost matches the beauty of the original from ‘Northern Lights-Southern Cross’. While little need be said of ‘The Unfaithful Servant’ covered here by Rosanne Cash, produced and featuring John Leventhal, it’s the undoubted highlight of this collection. With the banjo playing a major part and those clear emotional vocals shining through as usual it’s simply beautiful.

This is a great introduction to the work of the Band for those who have yet to hear their work and it does include at least a handful of good, solid versions but for those who the originals have always been a part of their musical education; well nothing can ever really come that close could it?







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