RICHARD MANUEL Whispering Pines (OPM)

This joyous CD finds The Band’s vocalist and pianist performing at a small Saugerties club in October 1985. The material seamlessly weaves together classics from The Band’s first three albums with contemporary covers and standards. Although the arrangements are often stripped back to just Manuel’s voice and electric piano, the larger ensemble is rarely missed. His voice might be frail at times – “I really don’t think I can hit that one. Hum it if I miss it”, he confesses, before responding elegantly to a fan’s call for the title song – but instrumentally his performance is ferocious: he can handle rhythm, he can handle melody, heck, he can do the whole darn bit on his own. Nevertheless former colleague Rick Danko sits in on vocals and guitar for five tunes, and with extra guitar and harmonica help the quartet burn through a ferocious, impassioned “Chest Fever”. “Tears Of Rage” almost collapses in a heap of misremembered lyrics, but ploughs stoically onwards to its conclusion.

Another audience request for Ray Charles’ “Hard Times” is answered instantly, and J J Cale’s “Crazy Mama” is dispatched in soulful, blueswailing style. Less likely, but handled with aplomb, are Bread’s “She Knows”, and Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets”.

Added to the previous issue of “Whispering Pines” – the only artefact to be released under the artist’s own name – are some short, sweet booklet notes from Eric Clapton and a clutch of affable but unnecessary studio instrumentals, one of which (“Mitzi’s Blues”) features the original line-up of The Band, with the exception of Robbie Robertson, who’s somewhat ignobly replaced by a baying dog.

Not six months after this recording, racked by addiction and frustrated by an endless, joyless tour schedule with the reconstituted four-piece lineup of The Band, Manuel committed suicide. The exuberant hour of happy music captured here renders subsequent events all the more shockingly, tragically wasteful.

The Band