This current edition of the Band consists of three of its original five members — drummer-vocalist Levon Helm, bassist-vocalist Rick Danko and keyboardist Garth Hudson — rounded out by pianist Richard Bell, guitarist Jim Weider and drummer Randy Ciarlante. A portion of the group’s seminal sound remains intact — Helm’s gnarled, world-weary vocals and Danko’s more mellifluous, plaintive style are still a joy to hear, but Hudson has largely receded into the background to become a tasteful colorist, the abandoned space filled by Bell’s competent piano. Individual mastery has been subsumed by a carefully crafted production — what was once a singular quilt work of homey instruments is now a predictably plush carpet, very early ’90s in its seamless meshing.
With songwriter Robbie Robertson on the solo trail, the group relies a great deal on outside material, with varying degrees of success. It’s good to hear Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell” given its due, but Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” sounds a little sophomoric without that singer’s muscular conviction to put it across. Less problematic are some genre moves, which range from an uninspired bar-band rendition of Muddy Waters’ “Stuff You Gotta Watch” to an evil-sounding take on Willie Dixon’s “Same Thing.”
Of the few originals, “Remedy,” by Weider and Colin Linden, is catchy, a made-to-order Band song. Less pleasant is “The Caves of Jericho,” penned by Helm, Bell and co-producer John Simon. A song about a Kentucky mining disaster, it aims for poignancy and ends up merely maudlin; an almost-parodic sad melody doesn’t help. An effective sentimentality is achieved on the sole cut featuring the late Richard Manuel, “Country Boy”; his wry, whiskey-voice drawl gives the self-effacing lyrics an edge of good-natured melancholy.
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It’s understandable that the Band doesn’t want to peddle nostalgia and that it can’t be the group it once was. But Jericho too often consists of compelling voices singing indifferent material with a production ethic that discourages idiosyncrasy. It’s state of the art in the most damaging way.