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The Story of the Band’s Final Album, ‘Jubilation’

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Released on Sept. 15, 1998, Jubilation got underway, in the fashion of the Band’s debut, with a moment of complex melancholy. But Rick Danko’s vocal on :Book Faded Brown” heralded the end of things — not the beginning.

Thirty years after the Band kicked off its introductory Music From Big Pink with a dirge-like Richard Manuel-sung lament (rather than the expected raucous rocker), Jubilation would arrive in 1998 without either Manuel (who died in 1986) or the Band’s principal songwriter and guitarist, Robbie Robertson (who declined to participate in their post-’70s reunion).

By the end of the next year, Danko would pass as well. Levon Helm, the third of the Band’s remarkable vocalists, was already in the midst of a cancer battle that would eventually take his life in 2012. And yet Jubilation is, without question, the best of the post-Robertson efforts, beginning with the fact that it focuses on original material more than covers — as the Band had done throughout its ’90s-era recordings.

The effect (even if the Band had been expanded to six principal players by then, along with several other friends and family) was to reaffirm the group’s original stature as forefathers of the Americana movement. As Helm struck out for a distant horizon, unbowed, on tracks like “Don’t Wait,” it seemed (wrongly, of course) like everything was still in front of the Band.

Danko had, to this point, played lesser roles in the making the Band’s recent projects, perhaps owing in part to his concurrent role in the multi-national trio Danko/Fjeld/Andersen. Whatever had previously distracted him, and in spite of what would be a shockingly early death in December 1999, Danko is a dominant force throughout Jubilation. His bass — bolstered by a switch from electric to a thumping stand up — leaps to the fore, he shares named co-writing credits on three songs (“High Cotton,” “If I Should Fail” and “Spirit of the Dance”), and he made important contributions to a number of others.

Helm had lost much of the vocal power that once defined standout moments like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “The Weight,” owing to his on-going struggles with throat cancer. But he still sings with a remarkable amount of passion, he co-wrote six songs here, and his raucous take on Allen Toussaint’s “You See Me” hints at a Grammy-winning solo third-act still to come. Garth Hudson remains a multi-instrumental sorcerer, whether it be adding a carefree Cajun feel on the accordion for their Ronnie Hawkins tribute “White Cadillac” or closing out the set with a glorious instrumental “French Girls.”

Unfortunately, there isn’t nearly enough of the delicate intertwining of vocals that made the Band’s best early work so unique, and then subsequently carried the day on late-period efforts like the superlative “Atlantic City.” Meanwhile, Hudson is the only one of the remaining original members to find his way onto every song here. Helm sits out on one, as does Danko on another. Yet somehow — and this is despite out-of-place guest appearances by Eric Clapton (the R&B rocker “Last Train to Memphis”) and John Hiatt (on “Bound by Love,” with Danko again stealing the show) — Jubilation nevertheless ends up feeling like the truest group effort of their final period.

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