The Band’s Robbie Robertson Reflects on the Joy of Retaking the Stage

If ever there was an artist who typified the meaning of the word “iconic,” it would have to be Robbie Robertson. As the chief songwriter, guitarist and flag bearer for The Band—that’s The Band—he helped define and identify the very idea of Americana music long before the term became a by-word in the modern musical lexicon. The group’s homespun sentiment, unflinching honesty and appreciation for pure folk tradition not only offered opportunity to reflect on the history of the music that was the source of their inspiration, but also revived a sense of simplicity and sentiment that had been all but swept away by the psychedelic sounds that dominated the late ‘60s.

It was, for the most part, the group’s first two albums, Music from Big Pink and the eponymous “brown album” that established The Band’s template. However, their successor, Stage Fright, carried the trajectory further. And while it scored the highest chart placement of any Band album to date, and boasted two of their most iconic songs—the title track and “The Shape I’m In”—it inevitably resided in the shadow of its predecessors.

Now, with its expanded re-release (read the review), it’s gaining the critical attention it may have lacked early on. Aside from a wealth of bonus tracks—including a historic concert at the Royal Albert Hall and a spontaneous jam/rehearsal that followed their participation in the Festival Express train trek across Canada with the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and Flying Burrito Brothers—it finds the album resequenced as Robbie Robertson originally intended.  It’s also newly remastered, making up for the fact that Robertson was unable to contribute to the original mix due to the fact that the group was on the aforementioned Festival Express excursion.

“That has always been a sticking point for me,” Robertson says in retrospect. “This was the first album that I didn’t mix because I simply wasn’t there.”

As a result, Robertson says he’s particularly pleased that the album has been reissued and that he’s been given the chance to realize the results as he had first hoped for. He describes it as a kind of redemption, however belated it may have come.

At the time, the songs were shuffled to give the other members of The Band an opportunity to step further to the fore as far as their songwriting was concerned. “I was so dedicated to wanting the other guys in the band to participate,” he recalls. “It was really a struggle. Some people feel comfortable writing, and some people don’t. I just thought they were being lazy, not working hard enough and not trying hard enough to do so, so I pushed Richard (Manuel) and Levon (Helm) to participate in this.  I pushed and pushed, and I finally got something out of them. Richard had written the songs before, but he was entering a phase of not believing in his writing abilities, so I was trying to pump that up. Levon never wrote, and so I was really bugging him. Finally, he went home to Arkansas, and when he came back, he brought ‘Strawberry Wine,’ a song that reflected a cool kind of rockabilly blues. I helped him finish it and he was excited about it. Anyway, the way this package is now has the original sequencing of the record that I always intended.”

With the new sequencing, the album flows like a narrative that reflects a more conceptual theme. “There was a story that I was trying to tell, but when I made that sequence, Richard and Levon requested that the songs they wrote or participated in lead off the album.,” Robertson reflects. “They didn’t want them buried at the end of the record. I was so sensitive about that issue that I changed the line-up and I put those songs at the beginning, and it changed the entire flow of the record, and, in my opinion, made it more confusing. Ultimately, all of the guys in the group all said, ‘You know, we should have stayed with that original sequence, because that was the real story of this record. It was a mistake, and now the idea that I can change that and put it in  the order and the way it was originally intended is very gratifying.”

Robertson says he’s also appreciative that he also had a chance to participate in the remix alongside veteran engineer Bob Clearmountain, whose engineering credits also include the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Jovi and hundreds of others. “Working with Bob, and being able to get the album the way that I really wanted it originally…it’s like a gift to me. I’m very appreciative of that, and I’m very, very fulfilled and satisfied that we were able to come all the way around. It took 50 years, but we got it done.”

The result also provides Robertson with a feeling of vindication as well. “That’s also true,” he agrees. “It didn’t feel right at first, and given all the circumstances, it made it feel like we weren’t involved in certain ways that we always had been before. There was a more of a distance in it, but now, in coming back to it and listening to it with these new mixes and with this new sequence, it’s it’s a whole other experience for me, and one that I can really acknowledge.”

Comparisons to The Band’s first two efforts were inevitable at the time, and indeed, in hindsight, Robertson acknowledges that Stage Fright did in fact mark a change in the trajectory from its two predecessors. Here again, his appreciation is apparent.
“It’s not Music From Big Pink and it’s not The Band album,” Robertson reflects. “It was very different. But I love that it’s very different and that we weren’t making the same record over and over again. So now, when I listen to this, I feel like this is an example of what these guys could do, of what this group was capable of.  At the end of the day, when these five guys sat down in that circle and played to one another, a magic happened. And when I listen to this record now, I hear that magic. I can see it in my head, and that’s why I’m so grateful.”

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