Exploring Deep Cuts from the Band’s Underrated Stage Fright: Gimme Five

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The Band’s Stage Fright, released on August 17, 1970, doesn’t create the worlds unto themselves found on Music from Big Pink or The Band. Gone too are smaller gifts, like the Band’s tendency in the John Simon-produced era to sing with an overlapping intuition, replaced by a more straight-forward one-man, one-mic approach.

Instead, the Band’s third album — overseen by the group members themselves — seems to have been intended as a boisterous blowing session, like a record (in keeping with its title) made for the road, to be played before an audience. That they never quite get there, that these nagging feelings of guilt (or at least of a pervasive anxiety about the path ahead) keep seeping in bothered even friendly critics like Greil Marcus to no end. He’s described Stage Fright as something of an empty promise. But, to me, that tug of emotion is what gives the project its lasting intrigue.

Stage Fright is the story of a group that couldn’t be saved from expectation, even when it tried to keep things simple; couldn’t be saved from their own success, even when it threatened to swallow them whole; couldn’t be saved from themselves, even as the doomed Richard Manuel slipped inexorably away as a creative force.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Stage Fright began with an idea toward rebuilding community within the Band. The concept, it’s been said, was to record their third album live at the Woodstock Playhouse in front of a group of locals. But the town council, presumably still stunned over how a certain musical festival held over three days the previous summer had become a free-for-all, vetoed that idea. And so Stage Fright would be put to tape on that tiny stage, but without anyone in the crowd to act as a reflective counterpoint.

In the end, that’s an apt image. After all, the resulting songs, so unlike any that had come before, felt disconnected from one another — particular rather than collective. After everything that came before, it took some getting used to. Over time, however, these singular bursts of insight (like chapters in a short story, rather than a novel) have gathered their own gravitas. And the Band simply tears through them. A return to the road had chiseled their sound. They attacked Stage Fright with a muscularity unheard since their days backing Bob Dylan and Ronnie Hawkins, and the album would streak to No. 5 — becoming the Band’s highest-charting studio effort, if somehow one of its most underrated.

These are the most overlooked moments of this consistently overlooked album …

‘SLEEPING’: Richard Manuel’s greatest triumph on Stage Fright, and one of his last signature moments of creativity, arrives with “Sleeping” — as does the growing sense that this is a Band album like no other before it.

Emerging from a contemplative intro, so full of hopefulness and yet also defeat, this Robbie Robertson co-written track leaps from a waltz time into a thrilling jazz-inflected cadence — illustrating once again the remarkable musical symbiosis this group once had. Rick Danko, exploring his new Ampeg fretless bass, plays off a series of limber fills from Levon Helm as they push “Sleeping” into this furious sense of ambition. Garth Hudson’s ruminative keyboards then pull everything back into a quiet place again.

Along the way, this song boasts every bit of the controlled emotion of “Whispering Pines,” but filtered through the unabashed openness of “In a Station.”

And like this album’s opening cut, “Sleeping” — even as Robertson steps forward for a stunningly sympathetic solo, one that echoes and then amplifies the deep-space ruminations of Hudson at the Lowrey — ultimately unveils something far more dark and emotional roiling just beneath the surface. Having gone out, finally, into the world on a series of post-Big Pink concert dates, and having faced both the mythology they themselves had built up and the new problems fame had wrought, there was no getting away from what was happening — despite Robertson’s early idea that Stage Fright should serve as “a little bit of a goof.”

Instead, there’s this: “Sleeping” begins with a lament about “the life we chose,” and continues through a confusingly lonesome period of guessing and searching. The Band is turning definitively away from the enveloping narrative worlds that defined its first two albums to deal with the very real issues of their own lives, and not for the last time on Stage Fright. Is it any wonder that “Sleeping” pines for a world of escape?

‘TIME TO KILL’: This track found the Band — even as they emerged to face the mythos they had created in their initial sepia-toned absence — celebrating a bucolic world left behind.

Rick Danko takes the lead, with Richard Manuel tracing just behind, in a country-inflected hoot perfectly suited for Rick’s down-home sensibilities. Garth Hudson adds a red light-district piano to go with Manuel’s truck-driving rhythm. Composer Robbie Robertson’s guitar weaves in with a serrated economy, working in counterpoint to Levon Helm’s tough rhythm riffs — even as Danko plucks happily away on the bass.

The results are cheerily homebound, presented as if from a front porch where they’d just as soon have stayed — but for the siren call of fame. Stage Fright, released in the summer of 1970, would become the Band’s highest-charting album ever, and not by accident.

They’d appeared that year on the Festival Express Tour, as well as a series of dates along the West Coast. Performances would continue at that pace into the fall, with the Band — in a moment that certainly echoes the sentiments of “Time to Kill” perfectly — occasionally booking a private plane to bring them back to Woodstock if their concerts were near enough.

The days of hiding out in Big Pink, or even in the cocoon of Sammy Davis’s pool house, were long gone. The Band belonged to the world now.

‘JUST ANOTHER WHISTLE STOP’: A song of dimly lit, strange salvation, “Just Another Whistle Stop” is another gem worth digging up for those who rarely get past the Band’s first two albums. A carny pitchman, voiced with pained urgency by co-writer Richard Manuel, offers a trip away from danger aboard a glory-bound train — and, apparently, just in time, as the law’s red wail is right behind.

Unfolding amidst a series of thrilling time changes, “Just Another Whistle Stop” utterly gallops along, past each of those whistle stops, on stream provided by the locked-in rhythmic tandem of Rick Danko and Levon Helm. Robbie Robertson, who finished Manuel’s track, adds these angular guitar lines — they sound (because of this album’s noticeably cleaner, more separated approach to mixing) like licks from the flames of hell — even as Garth Hudson’s boiling Lowrey exhortations frame the narrative.

Placed in context with the preceding “Time to Kill” and “Sleeping,” both of which longed for a simpler life, “Just Another Whistle Stop” presents the dark worries of the Band’s current travels within a familiar, sweeping mythology that always made their best songs resonate. Stage Fright, as Levon Helm noted in his autobiography, was starting to emerge as an album “about loss, and about the sweetness of success gone slightly sour.”

More particularly, you can hear — for anyone who bothered to do so, amidst the continuing (though often justified) hagiography surrounding Music from Big Pink and The Band — an unfolding set of songs that’s every bit the equal of those that came before. The difference, of course, is measured in context. The themes on Stage Fright are often more direct, more personal. But they are already revealing themselves to be no less emotionally profound — and, to state the obvious, the album is just getting started.

‘ALL LA GLORY’: Too often, Levon Helm is framed by his country-fried howl, but there was always more to his art — more to his voice, to his persona, to his life. “All La Glory” is a great place to achieve a vista on what lays beyond the hootenanny joys of “Up on Cripple Creek,” “Rag Mama Rag” and “Strawberry Wine.”

Singing with a twilit reverie, Helm handles the Robbie Robertson lyric with a deeply touching grace — giving great insight into just where the Band was, away from the bright circle of fame that was so often trained on them in this period. Things seemed to be coming into a sharp, personal focus for these fanciful storytellers. Robertson, Richard Manuel and Helm would each find new daughters in their lives by December of 1970, just a few months after Stage Fright arrived. This lullaby, more than any other to this point, shows the human side of these often overly dissected, yet still endlessly complex figures in the Band.

Then, there’s Garth Hudson. If Helm showed himself to have new depths of enchanting fragility on “All La Glory,” Hudson found his own space to amaze — expanding upon Robertson’s delicate guitar lines with a pining Wurlitzer accompaniment that sounds at times like a sleepy serenade and at others like an impossibly sweet dreamscape.

In a perfect moment of inflection, Helm’s voice cracks ever so slightly as “All La Glory” swells to its emotional conclusion — and this song finds its place as perhaps the Band’s prettiest, most tender-hearted moment.

‘THE RUMOR’: 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 which emerged from the Band’s subsequent phases that would need to be forgiven, things to regret. But also, of course, some things also that we should never forget. Start with these songs.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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