Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
How do you follow up two critically acclaimed (and commercially successful) albums, especially when they’re your first two releases? After Music From Big Pink and The Band, the five members of The Band must have felt a lot of pressure to deliver another instant masterpiece. I imagine Robbie Robertson especially feeling the most heat, as he was now their principle songwriter. For years I was led to believe that they didn’t release any more classic albums after those first two, but now I know that’s not the case. Their subsequent releases may not have scaled quite the same heights, but some of them came close, and would be considered high water marks for most other bands.
On the surface, Stage Fright (1970) continues in the tradition of The Band’s first two albums: timeless-sounding Americana, subtle instrumentation that highlights the songs rather than the performances, and three singers sharing lead & backing vocal duties. Robertson wrote or co-wrote all of the songs, and the lyrics tend to fixate on the rigors of traveling and being in the spotlight. This is probably the biggest change, as previously his songs were more fictional & historical and less autobiographical. Even if the lyrics don’t specifically refer to the life of a traveling musician, it seems obvious to me that songs like “Time To Kill,” “Just Another Whistle Stop,” “The Shape I’m In” and the title track point out Robertson’s desire for a little normalcy in what must have been a whirlwind of activity throughout the previous couple of years.
The album begins with the pulsating “Strawberry Wine,” featuring Garth Hudson’s infectious accordion and a vocal from Levon Helm that sounds more throaty and less raspy than we’ve heard from him. The music & vocal inflections owe a debt to mid- to late-60’s Bob Dylan (no surprise). A new favorite for me is “Sleeping.” This barroom blues showcases Richard Manuel’s strong yet tender voice and some cool angular guitar from Robbie Robertson. I can hear how Manuel’s vocals and piano playing must have been an influence on Tom Waits, Billy Joel and Elton John early in their careers. “Time To Kill” may be one of the happiest songs in their catalog, both musically (it’s been playing in my head for over a week) and lyrically (not having a care in the world, being on the road all summer with the one you love). The shuffling “Just Another Whistle Stop” is another catchy highlight with a fantastic Robertson guitar solo & outro. Helm delivers his most aching vocal performance on the country-tinged ballad “All La Glory,” and I absolutely love the way the organ and accordion intertwine in the middle section.
“The Shape I’m In” is a song I’ve always enjoyed, but for some reason I thought Helm sang it. Now I know it was my new vocal hero, Richard Manuel. It’s musically upbeat, and I enjoyed the Steely Dan-esque intro (which reappears before the organ solo). It’s quite different from the rest of the song, but it wouldn’t be the same without it. There’s a killer duel between the clavinet & organ at the end. The song that would’ve probably fit best on either of the first two albums, especially lyrically, is “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show.” It’s a cool, catchy story song with great sax work by Hudson and lead vocals shared by Helm & Danko. I don’t know if “Daniel And The Sacred Harp” is a bible-related song, but its story has a religious feel, with Helm & Manuel delivering some strong vocals. “Stage Fright” is another winner, with a driving rhythm and a memorable, catchy chorus. I believe Danko sings lead here. The album closes with a true “band” song, “The Rumor,” Danko, Helm and Manuel alternating vocals throughout, singing high & low, and great organ & guitar interplay.
Once again I’ve addressed every song on the album, which is not always my goal here. I usually just want to address key songs and other notable highlights, but there are no clunkers or album fillers here. It’s clear that this album is every bit as strong as its predecessors, and might be the biggest surprise since it doesn’t seem to have the same reputation among critics. I would highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t explored their catalog beyond the first two albums.
After listening to Cahoots (1971) a few times I began reading some reviews, and the consensus is that this was a major letdown. There was apparently some internal strife among the band members, and the songwriting wasn’t up to par (although the performances were consistently praised). There are a few unfocused songs here, but the highlights are so strong that I came to love this album almost as much as the previous three. The cool syncopated New Orleans groove of “Life Is A Carnival” is an incredible way to start the album. It’s clearly The Band, but we’ve never heard them like this. All three vocalists contribute, and Robertson’s guitar seems to be in a boxing match, ducking & jiving with the horn section. Any fan of the band Little Feat would love this track. It’s followed by the Bob Dylan song “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” Helm’s vocals are a perfect fit, and I enjoyed how the accordion shifts from droning to melodic. I was a little disappointed by “4% Pantomime,” a duet between Manuel and Van Morrison (who, as readers of this blog know, was the first artist I revisited here). The music & especially the vocals are very good, but the song itself is nothing special.
There are a few other songs in the middle portion of the album that are solid but unspectacular, which initially had me believing the critics that the album peters out after a strong start. Then I heard the exquisitely beautiful “The Moon Struck One.” To be honest, I don’t really know what the song is about, but the woozy feel, infectious melody and Richard Manuel’s incredible vocals are enough to make this one of my favorite Band songs. The way he sings “noonday sun” in the first verse gives me chills every time I hear it. This is the song that convinced me of his greatness, and made me appreciate his performances on prior albums even more. Even the cheesy-sounding keyboard doesn’t detract from the song’s beauty. This is followed by four solid songs, most notably “Smoke Signal” (about the plight of Native Americans?) and album closer “The River Hymn” (with its gospel vibe), both featuring Levon Helm’s typically strong vocals. Cahoots may not be perfect, but it should not be overlooked.
[The Band – “The Moon Struck One”]
At the end of the subsequent tour, The Band performed four concerts at the Academy Of Music in New York, culminating in a New Year’s Eve show that was the basis for the concert album Rock Of Ages (1972). Instead of this being a representation of a typical show on that tour, they hired New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint to compose horn charts for a number of songs, making this more of a special event. I like the way the horn section fills out the sound, but it clearly changes the band dynamic. It’s still an excellent representation of The Band in concert at this stage of their career, but I would prefer to hear a concert recording with just the five band members. Another complaint I have is that the production is a little muddy. It lacks clarity, and the harmonies don’t sound as sharp as the studio recordings. I think this is a result of the recording and not the performance of the musicians & vocalists.
Don’t get me wrong, though. This is still an excellent document of The Band in concert at the end of 1971, and includes some noteworthy highlights. “Don’t Do It” starts things off. I previously knew this as “Baby Don’t Do It” by Marvin Gaye, later released in several versions by The Who. “Get Up Jake” is a solid track that didn’t show up on their studio albums, but was relegated to a single b-side. Danko’s vocals on “Stage Fright” are more intense than the studio version. I’m not sure if it’s Hudson or Manuel, but I enjoyed the offbeat piano solo on “Rag Mama Rag.” I was also impressed by the almost flamenco-style guitar solo on “Unfaithful Servant,” Robertson showing some serious chops here. “The Genetic Method” is Hudson’s extended 7-minute keyboard showcase (hints of prog rock?) that culminates in “Auld Lang Syne” at midnight on New Year’s Eve, I presume. This leads into a version of first album favorite “Chest Fever” that’s given a completely different feel with the inclusion of horns. The original album closes with “(I Don’t Want To Hang Up) My Rock And Roll Shoes,” clearly an old rock ‘n roll tune that I discovered was the b-side to a 1958 million-selling Chuck Willis single.
The expanded edition of Rock Of Ages, from 2001, makes this album even more enjoyable. The sound is a lot clearer than the main disc, and the absence of horns makes me think these were taken from a different concert. The exquisite harmonies on “I Shall Be Released” are crystal clear, and “The Rumor” is just as perfect. “Rockin’ Chair” retains the back-porch feel of its studio counterpart, and although it doesn’t close out the album, I wonder if they ended any of their concerts with this song. It feels like an excellent low-key way to bid farewell to an audience. There are also four performances with Bob Dylan on vocals that are worth hearing for fans of both artists.
I still occasionally have trouble distinguishing between Danko’s & Manuel’s vocals, so if I’ve incorrectly given credit to the wrong performer please let me know. The excellent fan-run website (http://theband.hiof.no/) has been very helpful in finding out who plays what on most recordings. Please check them out if you want to explore more. I’ll be back soon with my comments on the remaining studio albums in my collection.