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Record Review

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The Band -- Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson -- were the sweetest anachronism in '60s pop music. Costumed in stark 19th Century garb while almost every rival musician sported psychedelic paisley, the Band were the first major rock group to advocate returning to roots, boldly singing about the hardships of the Civil War ("The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down") while others lollygagged over Strawberry Fields, incense and peppermints. The Band's songs became hits for performers as diverse as Joan Baez and the Staples Singers. They had the best tune on the Easy Rider soundtrack. They inspired artists from Elvis Costello to X to Martin Scorsese, who documented their farewell concert in his 1978 film The Last Waltz.

Recent years have been especially hard on the former Band-mates. Helm still performs, but a throat condition prevents him from vocalizing. Manuel committed suicide, and since neither Robertson nor Hudson sang much, Times Like These -- a posthumous release from bassist/vocalist Danko, who died in December 1999 -- may represent the last time we hear new material from any of their voices.

Completed with the assistance of Hudson (who adds keyboards, accordion and saxophone) and Helm (who contributes mandolin), Times' 10 songs are more subdued than Danko's signature Band-anthem "Stage Fright," ranging from the laid-back grace of the title track to a clever, mellow reworking of Sam Cooke's classic "Chain Gang." The CD's masterpiece, however, is a sparkling rendition of "This Wheel's on Fire," a song Danko co-wrote with Bob Dylan. Lovingly presented as an extended instrumental, with the late singer chiming in (literally from beyond the grave) for only a single verse and chorus, it serves as a bittersweet farewell to -- and from -- an underappreciated yet tremendously significant voice in the history of North American pop.

The Band's Levon Helm performs at the Planet Jam Cotton Club, Sun., Nov. 12.

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