For Your Weekend Listening Pleasure: 25 Years Ago Tonight, The Band Played Fast and Cool

Earlier today I spent as much time as I could, which wasn't anywhere near close to enough, listening to a song Wilco posted to YouTube late yesterday: the band performing The Band's "The Weight" backstage at the Civic Opera House in Chicago, joined by show-opener Nick Lowe and Mavis Staples, who rather famously performed the song in The Last Waltz with her family and Bob Dylan's old back-ups. It's a soulful, joyful rendition of a song that has been covered countless times, by everyone from Aretha Franklin to Travis to Gillian Welch to Weezer to Elvis Costello and an all-star Spectacle -- and that's barely even the start of a starting point. "The Weight" is more than a standard; it's an immortal, one of the greatest songs of all time. Anything that can endure this much analysis, not to mention Panic! at the Disco, deserves at least that much respect.

But if you click this link, and you should, you will hear "The Weight" carried onto a small Dallas stage by three of the men who performed it originally: Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson, who, on January 6, 1987, played the old Fast and Cool Club on Greenville Avenue. They were all that remained of The Band by that point: Robbie Robertson was long gone and about to release his first solo record, which contained none of the joy and soul of the music he once made; and Richard Manuel had been dead almost a year, having killed himself in a motel room in Florida.

The three originals, joined by Jim Weider and Fred Carter, soldiered on. Such was their nature: Helm told me in 1999 that The Band existed at some point just to prove it couldn't be destroyed by anyone -- not Robertson, not Martin Scorsese, not the Grim Reaper. "We won't retire, and we won't die." But Danko did, 10 months after that story ran.

This KZEW-sponsored show and this setting is as far removed from Woodstock and the Winterland Ballroom as they could get -- a little joint on Greenville, not so different from when they were out on the road as The Hawks in the early 1960s. Except on this night, they came bearing classics, staples, standards -- not just "The Weight," but also "Up on Cripple Creek," "It Makes No Difference," " Chest Fever," "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)," "Stage Fright" and "W.S. Walcott Medicine Show," among others.

What's extraordinary about this recording, which I hadn't heard till today, isn't just how clear it sounds, but how into it the band sounds; like Helm said when we spoke years later, they were pros who knew better than to hit the road to collect a paycheck. "Let's all have a drink, whadya say?" shouts Levon to an adoring, boisterous crowd at 'round the 39-minute mark. "Here's wishin' ya the best new year's ya ever had."

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