On its surface, this appears to be another of the Band’s searcher tales and, taken as only that, it’s easy to see why some may have been disappointed. The setting of an old-fashioned medicine show feels, at first, a little too on the nose — like they were overreaching in an effort to recapture the heft and feel of earlier Levon Helm-voiced story-song triumphs.
And so we have Barney Hoskyns, in Across the Great Divide, arguing that the song is “almost too contrived as tin-type portraiture, and lacked the quirky freshness of (songwriter) Robbie (Robertson)’s earlier songs.” Jason Schneider agreed, in Whispering Pines, calling it “overwrought.” There’s something deeper running beneath the surface of this narrative, though — something allegorical, something that bolsters “W.S. Walcott Medicine Show” with a darker, more lasting message.
Robertson (again, I think, speaking to Richard Manuel) uses the various colorful disguises of this side-show escapade, the various sleight-of-hand ruses, as the framework for an allegory on the dangers of the lifestyle that had rapidly ensnared the Band after a two-album rocket ride to stardom at the end of the 1960s.
Unlike the previous “Shape I’m In,” however, Levon Helm is the principal vocalist — fitting in that his memory of a similar group of rogue musicians, vagabonds and tricksters traveling through rural Arkansas sparked this particular saga — along with several asides from Rick Danko. That gives the song a magical, out-of-time allure, something that amounts to a happy distraction.
In their voices, Helm with its age-old timbre and Danko with his down-home charm, the listener (if he’s so inclined) can be transported so fully back that you can almost smell the horse shit and sawdust wafting around the carny barker’s cry. Garth Hudson and producer John Simon only add to the atmospherics with their lascivious horn lines, offset by Richard Manuel’s whorehouse piano and Robertson flashes of card-sharp’s wit on the guitar.
And yet, away from its dazzling, if somehow instantly familiar circus-like chorus of characters, the faith healers and woman stealers, there’s something else going on with “W.S. Walcott Medicine Show” — another message, masked in mythical detail but just as resonant: The snake oil, the thing that we’re being warned about, wasn’t some antiquarian piffle like a strength-inbuing elixir or anti-aging potion. It was late-night escapades and mid-day binges — the mysterious, soul-deadening, very real temptations of the rock-star lifestyle: The very thing that seemed to be threatening the heart of the Band, as Manuel started slipping away.
Across the Great Divide is a weekly, song-by-song examination from Something Else! on the legacy of the Band, both together and as solo artists. The series runs on Thursdays.