Have No Fear…The Band’s ‘Stage Fright’ Is Still Fearless

The Band | Stage Fright | (CAPITOL/UME)
Five Stars

Once a classic album, always a classic album. Granted Stage Fright had a high bar to live up to, given the groundbreaking ascent provided by The Band’s first two albums, Music from Big Pink and their eponymous sophomore set. Both albums helped establish an early Americana template—as well as a stash of great songs—that lingered long after and helped inspire thousands of artists that followed in the band’s wake.

If The Band felt intimidated or pressured in any way to live up to their legacy—and the adulation they received in the wake of Woodstock—it wasn’t immediately evident on Stage Fright, despite a title to the contrary. Consequently, the album remains indelibly entrenched within an essential trilogy that provided a natural link between the folk-infused tradition that American music was reared on and the continuing thread that brought rock into an era where populist precepts became revered and respected.

Following the revisit accorded the so-called “Brown Album” through its expanded version released two years ago—one that included their legendary Woodstock performance and a bevy of bonus tracks—it’s only natural that Stage Fright should get the same treatment, this time in the form of a box set with added music and memorabilia. Still, this new offering goes far beyond, thanks to a musical make-over that comes courtesy of Bob Clearmountain and Bob Ludwig. It not only enhances and improves the mix originally accorded it by Todd Rundgren and Glynn Johns, but also finds a resequenced set list that conforms to the order that Robbie Robertson initially intended. As a result, the songs pop with a sonic sheen that finds the instruments—Richard Manuel’s organ and Rick Danko’s bass in particular—taking on a new emphasis and expression that goes well beyond the textures and tones evident in the original release. The fact that the group self-produced the album on their own gains further credence as a result.

Still, the most obvious improvement here—the thing that renders 2000’s rerelease negligible going forward—is the fact that the album’s strongest songs kick off the proceedings and follow one another in succession, from the enthusiastic entreaty of “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show,” through the fearless funk of “The Shape I’m In,” the nuanced narrative of “Daniel and the Sacred Harp” and on to title track, a sympathetic nod to the tenuous notion of showmanship. Those who hold up the first two Band albums as the more emphatic examples of the group’s craft and capability now have more reason to consider Stage Fright a worthy occupant of that same hallowed higher plateau.

That only touches on the other treasures that this new version taps into. Alternate mixes of “Strawberry Wine” and “Sleeping” lead into a loose jam dubbed “The Calgary Hotel Recordings” as captured by photographer Hohn Scheele on his portable cassette recorder, during the final night of the group’s legendary Festival Express train tour taken in tandem with Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and the Flying Burrito Brothers. It features Robertson, Danko and Manuel playing through songs destined to make their bows on Stage Fright later that year. Both a spontaneous jam and an unintentional rehearsal, it finds the musicians eagerly embracing the new material and tossing in a couple of tunes for their own amusement, among them, the oldies standard “Rockin’ Pneumonia and The Boogie Boogie Flu” and the basic blues of “Before You Accuse Me.” Given the group’s reputation for polish and precision, these heretofore undiscovered field recordings are nothing less than a remarkable revelation.

Disc two provides another treasure trove of offerings, all taken from the band’s triumphant appearance at the Royal Albert Hall at the conclusion of their 1971 European tour. Their first trip to the continent in five years—following their tumultuous stretch as Bob Dylan’s backing band and his ill-begotten debut in an electric setting—it provides proof that the group had overcame their initial apprehension try giving one of the best performances of their collective career. The track list primarily consists of early staples from their first two albums, but spot-on performance of the new album’s “Stage Fright” and “The Shape I’m In” soar among the set’s stand-outs.

Essential before, but even more so now, Stage Fright still stands out as the best The Band had to offer.

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