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.