The Band had every right to this song, after what happened on that ill-fated night of April 17, 1969 at Bill Graham’s Winterland concert space in San Francisco.
Pressed into a long-awaited performance subsequent to the release of their debut, even while sessions were continuing for The Band, Robbie Robertson’s health began to falter. Even as rehearsals commenced, he was bed ridden with a fever — only to be roused after the doors to the Winterland had already opened through the efforts of a hypnotist.
The set started two hours late, and lasted all of seven songs and 35 unsteady minutes. Luckily, Graham had booked the Band for a multi-night stand. With the pressure off, they rebounded to critical applause. Still, the moment must have stung this road-tested group of musical pros, as “Stage Fright” — the title track from the Band’s typically underrated third album — makes clear.
What gives the track its lasting meaning, however, isn’t simply that it retells such a horrifying moment, amidst a whirling keyboard rumination from Garth Hudson. It’s the way vocalist Rick Danko, in one of his most ardent and delightful performances on record, combines these heartfelt admissions about the fear that tears at any performer with a girding sense of hopefulness in the face of adversity.
The singer in this narrative may stumble, he may tremble. But, as Danko so sweetly asserts, “when he gets to the end, he wants to start all over again.” Richard Manuel, for whom this song was purportedly written, couldn’t have imbued Robertson’s tale with that kind of buoyant optimism — not with its dark intimations about acquiring the ability to “sing like a bird” only by way of this spotlit pain, not as Manuel battled demons in such a public way.
In Richard’s hands, “Stage Fright” would have become something entirely different — like “Daniel and the Scared Harp” in redux, another pained parable. Instead, Danko is able to convey both the quarrelous emotions within, but also the kind of fragile, light-filled beauty that would have made this song’s character a star in the first place.
That was the sadly gone Danko’s lasting gift to the Band, and to music.
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.