stagefrightArtist: The Band
Album: Stage Fright
Year: 1970
Label: Capitol Records
Engineer: Todd Rundgren
Tracklisting:

1. “Strawberry Wine” (Helm, Robertson) – 2:34
2. “Sleeping” (Manuel, Robertson) – 3:10
3. “Time To Kill” (Robertson) – 3:38
4. “Just Another Whistle Stop” (Manuel, Robertson) – 3:48
5. “All La Glory” (Robertson) – 3:31
6. “The Shape I’m In” (Robertson) – 3:58
7. “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show” (Robertson) – 2:58
8. “Daniel and the Sacred Harp” (Robertson) – 4:06
9. “Stage Fright” (Robertson) – 3:40
10. “The Rumor” – 4:13

It’s time for another record review, in which I gush about one of my favorite records. Stage Fright is the third album by The Band*, released in 1970. The past week or so, I haven’t been able to listen to anything else. I’ll think “This music sounds like a good idea, but I think I’ll just listen to Stage Fright one time first.” And then, I’ll think, “Maybe one more time.” Eventually, I’ll have listened to it a bunch and won’t want to listen to any music for a little while. In fact, Stage Fright is the main reason that I haven’t written a lot of lengthy posts up here lately. I just can’t tear myself away long enough to write about something. And when I stop listening, I keep thinking about it.

*It’s incredible to me how often I mention The Band and people don’t know who I’m talking about. Not until I mention Bob Dylan or some of the group’s bigger songs, like “The Weight” or “Cripple Creek” do they recognize. Then they usually question the choice of band name: “that kind of bold…” That’s the kind of experience that compels me to write posts like this one.

I have to credit Daddy Wrall for really introducing me to this particular album. Way back when, I had tried to get him excited about The Band, but as it turns out, The Band is the kind of a band that you have to get excited about for yourself. It took him seeing The Last Waltz a few times, but after that, he was sold.

Like Wrall, I didn’t have a huge amount of exposure to The Band’s music. I knew some of the songs, but not much about the players themselves. Watching The Last Waltz, I came to the conclusion that Rick Danko was my favorite singer*. When Miss Fairchild watched the film together, DW and I agreed that Rick’s performances were something special. He acted on this thought and picked up a few Band records, including Stage Fright.

*There are two reasons for this. One: Robbie Robertson edited out most of the songs that featured Richard Manuel’s vocals. He left in “The Shape I’m In” and “The Weight,” but on the latter he and Martin Scorcese didn’t even show Richard while he was singing. Instead, they showed Robertson lip-synching along. It’s quite a ridiculous sight once you know what’s happening. So, I didn’t know how good of a singer Richard was. On the other hand, we got to hear Rick singing “Stage Fright” and “It Makes No Difference”, both of which are very powerful. Two: when I heard the records, it took a while to distinguish Richard’s and Rick’s voices. Now, they are clearly different to me, but at first? Couldn’t tell. I had to look it up.

At one time, The Band, The Band’s second record (sometimes called the brown record), was my record of choice. I couldn’t see how it got any better than that. The Band was clearly crafted with so much care, the songs were so good, and the sense that it was all happening in that moment couldn’t be denied. Reading about the record, you can tell that people agree: it’s a masterpiece. It’s listenable, and memorable and examinable. It’s as close to perfect as anything I’ve heard.

But this series isn’t about records that everyone thinks are perfect. It’s about those masterpieces that have flaws. Those records that are loved in a personal way, and probably hated by a few people. Like Nilsson Schmilsson, which includes at least one song that it probably shouldn’t (“Let the Good Times Roll”), Stage Fright has “Daniel and the Sacred Harp”, which I just can’t cosign. I might soften on that someday, but for now, it’s that one questionable song that makes this a Great Album.*

*I had a piano teacher in high school that taught me a relevant American Indian tradition, though I forget which tribe specifically. She said that they intentionally weaved imperfections into their art, so as to not offend the gods, who are the only beings who are allowed perfection. Perhaps, these Great Albums employ this same methodology, whether intentionally or not.

Daddy Wrall hounded me for a while about how great Stage Fright is and finally, one day in Brooklyn, when Sammy Bananas was out taking over the world, we sat in his studio and listened. Wrall chose to play me “Sleeping”, “Just Another Whistle Stop” and, for some reason, “Daniel and the Sacred Harp”. Those first two remain among my favorites on the record and I have no idea what inspired him to play me “Daniel”. Maybe it was to get that out of the way. Maybe he likes that song. I don’t remember. He knew that I was familiar with a couple of the other songs, so that may have been his way of getting me a broad sampling of what I was in store for.

Unlike Nilsson Schmilsson, which I think of as a front-loaded record, Stage Fright hides many of its nuggets at the end. The amount of discussion each song requires will likely reflect that fact.

1. “I gave it all of my money, but it makes me feel fine.” These are some of the lyrics from “Strawberry Wine” and I’m sorry, but doesn’t that seem like he’s singing about heroin? I happen to know he was using at the time, because he said so in his autobiography. “Try to understand I just want to feel good all the time” is a line that follows shortly thereafter. I’m uncomfortable from the get go. We are supposedly in a rollicking happy-go-lucky rock song, complete with two guitars and, um… accordion?

The good things about this song are the interplay between Rick’s fretless bass and Levon’s detuned tom-toms. Also, the “No no no no” unisons between the accordion and Levon give me funk face.

It’s a blues, through and through, and there is definitely a case of “laughing on the outside, crying on the inside” going on here, as far as I can tell. These are not the things that you want to hear straight out the gates about this album, I know. Especially since I just got done raving about it. Don’t get me wrong, though. It’s a good song, and it’s pretty much the ideal first song. It’s supposedly one take, and it gets you warmed up.

One note: I don’t hear Richard Manuel’s piano. Perhaps he’s playing the Jew’s harp that you can’t really hear until the end.

2. “Sleeping” is a through and through masterpiece. Richard sets the tone with time signature changes and suspended chords that keep you “guessing.” And the lyrics

Just look:

“For the life we chose in the evening we rose,
just long enough to be lovers again.
And for nothing more, the world was too sore
To live in.

Sad old ships, 
A morning eclipse,
I spent my whole life guessing,
Then I turned from the sun
And saw everyone
Searching.”

The song is called “Sleeping”, but I think it’s really about waking up. A lot of the songs on this record are sung solo. Unlike the first two Band records, each singer gets a chance to tell his personal story, in the first person, instead of telling someone else’s. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t beautiful harmonized moments, though. Rick joins Richard for the next section when they sing “We can leave all this hate before it’s too late. Why would we wanna come back at all?” The music changes for this section, too, becoming more raucous and switching from 3/4 to 6/8. It’s quite cathartic. 

There is an entire ensemble during the verses, but it feels like Richard is performing all by himself. The Band joins him for the uplifting 6/8 sections and there is a distinctive sense of hope. A sense of waking up. Garth’s organ doesn’t come in until this section either, though it does reappear in a beautiful ethereal whisp during the second verse. I particular enjoy, as well, how much the style of Richard’s piano playing changes from section to section. It’s confident throughout, but has a particular left hand heaviness in the 6/8 section. His hammering at the root note in between the two vocal phrases strikes me as pure emoting.

No matter how you slice it, placing this song second on the album gives a clear sense of what’s going on here: personal feelings are being shared, true stories are being told. Early on The Band we heard “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” which, though sung in the first person, is very clearly about someone else. “Sleeping” is about Richard and Richard’s pain.

Phantom Tollbooth3. Not until Stage Fright‘s third song do we get a shared vocal. Richard and Rick sing this song together throughout, mostly in harmony, with a few moments of unison here and there. Norton Juster would be ashamed of this song. “Time to Kill”? It might be performed under the auspices of a fun romp, but I don’t take it that way. Knowing about the history of this time for The Band, and hearing Levon disparage aspects of that time in their career, I hear it as a little sad. Musically, it’s more or less in the same vein as “Shape I’m In” and “W.S. Walcott” because it is mid-tempo and guitar-driven.

Levon’s cowbell adds a nice layer. The guitar solo section is pretty special too. There is a little homage to the guitar part in “Walcott” and the honky tonk piano is quite evocative. Second instance of funk face so far.

This song is also really annoying to sing along to, because the lyrics in the hook change every time. But they’re fairly similar each time, so one gets confused easily. Was it “June and July” or “Sweet by and by?”. Or maybe “Give it a try”? 

“What a thrill,” “Catskill” or “Standin’ Still”?

Either way, I’m confused.

4. Track four is probably my favorite song on the record, and one of the most elusive, as far as meaning goes. Unfortunately, I’ve settled on a fairly unhappy version of the lyric today. Let’s take a look:

“To all concerned dead or alive
The locomotive will arrive
Bringin’ souls from all around,
They’ll be bound for higher ground.
Look out, stranger, it’s comin’ through
With plenty of room for me and you.
And it’s just another whistle stop
If you don’t quit till we reach the top
I’d be much obliged to you”

It’s about a train. And the train is climbing a hill, mountain, something. The last stop would appear to be the top of that mountain. He describes the people below in the next verse. They are all either welcome on the train, or fated to take that train or something. Either way, the singer wants to get to the top quickly. It’s just another whistle stop, so you can skip past it to the top. And at the top, what happens?

“And it’s odd man out,
You know that’s the rule.
You can scream and you can shout,
But they’ll only call you a crazy fool.
Pay no mind to what you read,
There’s one way home that’s guaranteed.”

It seems like Richard is fated to this journey. But he’s also resigned to it. He knows what it’s like to be called a crazy fool and he knows that his experience is the truth, no matter what you read. I fear a little for what that one way home is, though.

The music reflects the tone of these lyrics. It’s rollicking, to overuse a term, but there are so many time changes, key changes, and stuttering drum fills that we are kept completely on our toes. Rick’s bass playing mimics the climbing of the train, and the eventual fall, giving us a cyclical sense of the inevitable. The band is truly a train, and that train has starts and stops. It might even jump the tracks at some point. The drums, bass and piano provide the perfect train simulation. Garth provides the whistle from the title with his organ work. Garth’s work is so subtly mixed that you don’t even necessarily notice this literal interpretation of the lyrics unless you’re listening for it.

Both Richard’s vocal and the lead guitar have a brilliant echo treatment. The guitar is attributed to a tape effect brought to the studio by Todd Rundgren, who had been recruited as an engineer, to mixed results. The delay does give a sense of this spirit singing the song, which lends some credence to my thinking that it’s a train of ghosts headed for the afterlife. Somehow, the song lives inside your bones and in the shroud outside your body. Listen to it. A hundred times if you have to.

5. For a time, apparently, Wrall wondered what was so strange about “All La Glory”. I thought it was pretty obvious: Levon, singing a ballad. But it’s so gorgeous. The guitar playing, the low singing. It’s sung to/about a small child and one of the few songs that has a real innocence to it. I’m still trying to figure out what Richard does on this song. Maybe he plays drums and Levon just sings. I always assumed it was Levon on kit, but I’m not positive. Richard has the ability to surprise on that instrument.

Levon’s singing is so pretty! Sometimes it’s just raw Rock and Roll!, but here it’s so sweet. On every hook, he goes higher and higher, but never too high. And it’s all rooted in that low “now” that he says at the beginning of every verse. Garth takes a nice solo, too.

6. Most of us know “The Shape I’m In”. It’s the biggest “hit” this record had. The title says it all: “you don’t know the shape I’m in.” I’m not too happy. I’ve had a hard time, and you know what? You don’t know me. You don’t know nothin’ about me. So back off, or I might have to start a fight just prove I’m tough. Heck, I spent 60 days in jail and I know that sometimes it’s me or my brother.

Despite all the fame these guys may not have been having the best time in life. But they can really dig in when they want to. They jam a little on this one, too. Garth plays some American Revolution era melodies and it’s all in fun. Sounds fun, anyhow. Except the lyrics.

7. The difference between “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show” and other music from earlier in the band’s career is that this song is about the Medicine show, but the first couple of records were that show. There is some nice harmonizing by Rick and Levon, and the horns are nice, but the real show-stopper is Garth’s schmaltzy saxophone solo. It has a really nice anticipation at the top, and lives comfortably behind the beat throughout. It’s a good foil to all of the energetic guitar-ing that Robbie provides. The other nice foil is the slide guitar which gives one the sense that we may have just taken some Medicine…

8. I don’t have anything to say about “Daniel and the Sacred Harp”, really. Richard plays the part of Daniel, and the drums sound good. The arrangement is fantastic, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this song grew on me eventually.

9. “Stage Fright” gives me goosebumps. The pocket is so sticky, to use a word that Wrall would use. The piano intro is anthemic, and as with all of the songs that Rick sings, Garth saves his best playing for this one. His organ is very catchy in the solos and the perfect background when Rick is singing. I’m listening right now, and have goosebumps. Brilliant. 

The vocal also has a really cool and subtle effect on it. We’re not sure if it’s a live mic that picks up the room sound when he backs off, or an added reverb, but whenever Rick sings loud, you can distinctly hear the reverberations of the room. There’s something haunting about it, and it adds a lot of depth to a very personal vocal. This is absolutely one of my favorite Danko experiences, listening to him sing on this tune. His voice wavers in just the right way.

The song opens up superbly in the hook, giving a true sense of naked space: the plough boy caught in the spotlight. The heavy tom playing that Levon does on the verses is replaced by a simple quarter note rock beat. Only on the bridge does Levon go to the ride cymbal. And when Garth takes the solo? Oh-oh. Levon either plays a thuddy snare, or the low tom on the 2 and the 4, accentuating the low frequencies just right, so Garth can live on the top singing “just like a bird” on his organ.*

*I’m singing along with the solo right now. Bear with me.

Like “Whistle Stop,” the singer sings about people drifting by. There is this sense that the band is in this glass room looking down on all the activity and wondering what the heck is going on down there. There is so much to say about this song that there’s almost nothing to say about it. Sticky-icky.

10. “The Rumor” is the song that inspired me to write this post in the first place. The other day, we were driving and listening to a couple of Band albums on shuffle. “The Rumor” came on and we realized that it might as well be about Nantucket. Small town. People know each other’s business. People make stuff up about other people. It’s a fog. They sing about fog. How Nantucket can you get?

The vocal is shared among all three singers. Rick and Levon split the verses and Richard takes the hooks. He expertly uses the three choruses, starting low on the first choruses and ending up singing high in his chest voice and falsetto in the third. Each time, there is a sense that this “brand new day” is a more distinct possibility than before. When we heard the song in the midst of that drive I just mentioned, and Richard hit the high note on “feel” I lost it. It’s just too beautiful. Rick and Levon are singing to the vigilantes, asking them to hold back, and talking about forgiveness. Richard emerges from the fog. His voice soars. He’s reached the top of the mountain and just about floating away. You really believe that this brand new day is coming. You just do.

Whew.

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