An album that underscored their growing individualization ends with one last blazing reminder of the way the Band’s voices once intertwined, the way their music provided a transportive solace, the way they once were — and sadly, of course, rarely were again.
Everything that had happened, all of the ways that these men had been irretrievably changed, seemed to have leaked into these songs, one by one. Stage Fright may not be as well regarded as the Band’s initial two studio efforts, but it’s certainly the bravest of them all. This album didn’t fetishize the past, didn’t so often seek to cloak things in the parables of age-old wisdom, so much as explore a present that maybe still seems unbelievable today.
And yet, things end in the way that they began, and a circle is closed. With its dark and strange intimations, with vocals by Rick Danko (in what may be his most tender turn) and then Levon Helm and then, finally, Richard Manuel, with its loose structure and dangerous old-testament feel, “The Rumor” could have fit in seamlessly on either 1968’s Music from Big Pink or 1969’s The Band.
It wasn’t something that Stage Fright had previously offered, and neither was it something the Band would often offer again. But, in these closing moments of their most underrated early album, the Band roused themselves once more, Robbie Robertson found that magical place, and they inhabited their own very large myth once more.
Still, an album as confessional as any Robertson would dare attempt, as real and as gutty and as utterly terrifying as Stage Fright, could have only ended in one of two ways: Damnation or salvation. “The Rumor,” with its restless and paranoid theme, actually seems to represent the latter — if only because it finds the Band locked in song, again. But unfortunately, their brotherhood wouldn’t last. In fact, it’s clear now that it was already long gone.
Not unlike their subsequent career, “The Rumor” appears headed to an anthem’s end, with Manuel’s wrenching cry for a brand new day, before everything comes crashing down with a thunk from Levon’s stick. That seems oddly appropriate now. Moving forward, nothing would be the same.
As this track intimates, over a funky little Danko bassline and Garth Hudson’s churchy asides, there would be things that emerged from the Band’s subsequent phases that would need to be forgiven, things to regret. But, even so, some things also that we should never forget. This series will continue through their catalog, both together as the Band and apart as solo artists, in much the same manner — picking and choosing the best moments, accepting the idea that (with one exception) they never made another album again that had to be experienced from start to finish.
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