Home Music The Band: Stage Fright (50th Anniversary Edition)

The Band: Stage Fright (50th Anniversary Edition)

When the Band recorded their third studio album, Stage Fright in the late spring of 1970, the rot was already starting to set in. Still an incredibly potent musical force, some of the bloom had come off the rose. The group intended to record the album live at the Woodstock Playhouse, yet after the fiasco at Yasgur’s farm, the city quickly put the kibosh on that idea. So over the course of 12 days, The Band used the playhouse stage as a makeshift recording studio, with Todd Rundgren engineering the proceedings. While The Band headed off on the Festival Express Trans-Canada train tour with Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead, Glynn Johns and Rundgren each did mixes of the album in England. The final product was a result of both mixes, and even today no one seems to be completely certain who was responsible for each particular track. For this new, expanded edition, Bob Clearmountain has provided a new mix, taking advantage of 50 years of technological advancement. While the album has never been listed among their greatest, this expanded revisit reveals that there’s still some magic left in this material.

Even more interesting for this version was Robbie Robertson’s decision to alter the running order to highlight the song writing of Levon Helm and Richard Manuel. Returning to the unreleased original running order goes a long way to changing one’s perceptions of the release. Opening with “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show,” Rick Danko’s bass churns while Robbie Robertson’s guitar burns. Garth Hudson, who often served as The Band’s music teacher, provides great fills on sax in addition to his typical keyboard runs as the southern tent revival is displayed in all its oily glory. Welcome to the world and wonder of The Band.

Still, capturing the magic of The Band was more difficult this time around. Experimenting with drugs was leaving the five a little rough around the edges. Helm admitted as much in his biography, This Wheel’s on Fire describing the “dark mood that settled upon us.” “The Shape I’m In” suggests as much; Hudson plays his organ like some sort of whirling dervish, while Helm sounds like a man who no longer knows what he is capable of doing, “Go out yonder/ Peace in the valley/ Come downtown/ Have a rumble in the alley/ Oh you don’t know the shape I’m in.” The sense of unease seems all too obvious.

The combination of Helm and Manuel singing lead on “Daniel and the Sacred Harp” is inspired. Helm recounts his part of the story, while Manuel sings as Daniel explaining how this relic came into his hands. Hudson and Robertson duet on the break before Hudson reprises his church organ in the song’s final notes. This also highlights one of the differences between Stage Fright and the albums that preceded it. Previously, solos seemed more spontaneous, coming out of thin air; here, things seemed much more written out.

The new edition of Stage Fight comes in a variety of formats with the deluxe version adding a live set from London’s Royal Albert Hall on June 3, 1971, as well as a late-night jam between Robertson, Manuel and Danko while the album was being mixed. It’s a fascinating glimpse at songs in a context one rarely gets to witness. Recorded in a Calgary hotel room on the last day of the Festival Express tour, these songs provide the sense of the three kicking back, relaxing and doing what musicians do.

While these recordings provide a sense of color, they pale in comparison to the Royal Albert Hall Show. Captured on a four-track that just happened to be lying around (while the rest of the world was already moving on to 16-track recording), The Band is lively and engaged, responding to an audience that was now ready to forgive them for their last tour with Dylan back in ’66, when the booing was the most noticeable aspect of the shows. Their passionate response to songs from Stage Fright and the interplay between Manuel on piano and Hudson on organ are something to behold.

Taken as a whole, the various recordings of Stage Fright and the Royal Albert Hall Show establish what should already be known: The Band were an aggregation that had learned from years on the road how to play, along with what to play. They didn’t specialize in being flashy, just in playing the right note at the right time. Despite rumors to the contrary, they were still at the height of their powers. Like a Shakespearean tragedy, their fall would come, but at this particular moment, they still had plenty to say.

Like a Shakespearean tragedy, their fall would come, but at this particular moment, they still had plenty to say.
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Reclaiming a classic

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