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AUGUST 28, 2000: 

RICK DANKO BAND Live on Breeze Hill (Breeze Hill Records)

IN THE POST Robbie Robertson era, The Band carried on, stretching perhaps one and a quarter albums' worth of strong material into three. Give them credit for not folding up, and giving it that old college try. None of those earlier CDs come close, however, to being as rich and rewarding as this collection of jaunty blues, swing, vintage Band and juicy, full-on ballads.

Recorded live in May, 1998, at what sounds like a great party for a few dozen friends near Woodstock, NY, Rick Danko, The Band's venerable bass player and vocalist, leads a nine-piece group. It's thick with horns, including Tom "Bones" Malone (the Letterman show) on trombone and baritone sax, Lenny Picket (Saturday Night Live band) on tenor sax and clarinet, and Garth Hudson, who alternates among soprano and tenor saxes, accordion and keyboards. Without Robbie and Levon Helm, of course, it may not sound exactly like The Band, but it comes pretty damn close. More important, it feels like The Band.

Spiced with old chestnuts like "Stage Fright" and "The Shape I'm In," this album distinguishes itself more via the less familiar. The ballad "Twilight" has a hauntingly beautiful horn intro that is followed by some of Danko's most impassioned singing. And "Caldonia Mission" and "Crazy Mama" deliver with all of the punch and bounce one might expect from a bunch of old pros doing what they love at such a loose, relaxed and freewheeling gig. The addition of "Ophelia," originally recorded in the mid '70s on Southern Nights/Northern Cross, and "Blaze of Glory" (recorded in the early '90s in Norway as part of an obscure but wonderful collaboration between Danko, Eric Anderson and Jonas Fjeld) keeps the overall groove vital and inspired. "Chest Fever," hardly a Band hit, and a bonus studio version of "Sip the Wine," originally heard on The Last Waltz, stretch this outing in still more directions, all of them good.

Even with The Band on the decline, his health failing and body expanding (he was bigger than Jerry Garcia when he died), Rick Danko had always a song, always a smile. This album, released as a benefit for Greenpeace, captures both. -- Jim Lipson

A PERFECT CIRCLE Mer de Noms (Virgin)

ONE OF THE more high-profile debuts in recent memory--thanks in no small part to the fact that Maynard Keenan, also of heavy metal kings Tool, is the singer--this gloomy, thunderous set actually justifies the hype. Unlike either Keenan's main employer or songwriter-guitarist Billy Howerdel's erstwhile employer (Nine Inch Nails), A Perfect Circle applies a deftness of touch--call it the "smacked in the face with a velvet brick" approach--that speaks volumes for the band's ability to transcend the monochromatic demands of today's alt-rock marketplace. With everything from Pink Floydian psychedelic bombast ("Magdalena" is directly descended from hirsute prog-rockers of yore) to dreamy Hendrix blues ("Orestes" has a breathtakingly sensual vibe that's anything but nihilistic) to U2-styled anthemism ("3 Libras," likewise, is romantic and inspiring) going on here, it's a decidedly different-sounding record.

APC doesn't forget to rage against the machine, of course. When Keenan unleashes his trademark tortured bellow, mere mortals shrink from thoughts of what must pass through the dark caverns of the singer's soul. And the band's symphonic blare is as daunting as anything Metallica's attempted of late. Perhaps even more, and innovatively so. -- Fred Mills

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