The Band – Stage Fright

Stage Fright (1970)


1. Strawberry Wine 2. Sleeping 3. Time To Kill 4. Just Another Whistle Stop 5. All La Glory 6. The Shape I’m In 7. The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show 8. Daniel And The Sacred Harp 9. Stage Fright 10. The Rumor


Three albums in and already in decline? Shit, even goddamn Kings Of Leon made three good albums before they shipped off to Shitsville. And that’s not just my opinion – even the biggest Band fans in the world seem to acknowledge that they never made a great album after the self-titled record. But you know what, for all its pleasant but largely unaffecting mediocrity, Stage Fright is, oddly, the most consistent album they’d made to this point. It’s certainly got less bad songs than either Big Pink or The Band do, if far fewer truly memorable ones. Honestly, I’d rather spend an eternity being smoothly lulled into comfort like Stage Fright does for me than ever have sit through “Rockin’ Chair” or “Lonesome Suzie.” And honestly, I see this album as a step forward for the Band in some ways. Some might argue that step is one into a bit too much slickness, but in my book, Rick Danko finally figuring out how to sing in the studio or Robbie Robertson realizing that adding just a bit of studio-processed sheen to his guitar work makes him sound less like a 12-year old ADD case are positive developments. If you ask me, the album is impeccably produced, and how could it not be, having been engineered by an up-and-coming Todd Rundgren and mixed by the incomparable Glyn Johns. Overall, speaking as hardly the world’s biggest fan of the Band, there are quite a few things to like about Stage Fright.

This might sound like cause for celebration, and yet strangely I’m not sitting bare-assed on a copy machine with a bottle of Patron. Robertson has shifted gears lyrically, from aspiring hillbillyism to a more personal mode. Namely, bitchy, jaded entertainment biz stuff like “Wah, the road is a grind” (“Just Another Whistle Stop”), “Wah, people say mean things about me” (“The Rumor”), “Wah, your favorite entertainers are out to con you” (“W.S. Walcott Medicine Show”), and “Wah, I’m so troubled, sometimes I get stage fright” (guess). Yeah, I know in-fighting and drugs were already taking their toll on the band (especially in the case of Richard Manuel, whose persistence in chasing the dragon caused him nab only a single co-write with Robertson on “Just Another Whistle Stop”). I’m just amazed at how quickly it all went wrong for these guys.

As a result, the spark of their best stuff from the first two albums has receded in favor of workmanlike professionalism. Songs that might have raised hell on The Band are allowed to drift into the middle of the road… “W.S. Walcott Medicine Show” has a decent riff and could have made a real impression had it been given a “Jemima Surrender”-style kick in the ass, but the band just doesn’t attack it with anywhere near the same vigor, and the song as a result feels timid and lazy. Likewise, “Daniel And The Sacred Harp” substitutes the pathos of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” or “Long Black Veil” for pedestrian acoustic strumming and languid summer afternoon slide guitar. They’re fine songs, but not really very memorable. (On the other hand, the less said about dreary soft-shoe dreck like “All La Glory,” the better). The weirdest part is that “Just Another Whistle Stop” and the hit “The Shape I’m In” sound like the entire basis of Steely Dan’s oeuvre. Even with that gross day-glo keyboard tone, “The Shape I’m In” is a fine little pounder (at least until Hudson starts jerking off all over his organ in embarrassingly dinky fashion for the entire last freaking minute and half of the song), but “Whistle Stop” is too close to “Reelin’ In The Years” for me to take it remotely seriously.

On the other hand, you may be surprised to discover that opener “Strawberry Wine” easily ranks among my favorite Band songs. It’s probably their only genuine goodtime shitkicker, at least, and with its raw, twangy guitars, woozy, drunken accordion, and goofy pinched Levon vocals, it’s a hell of a good time. You might call it a trifle, but when the Band gets really “serious,” it results in pretentious disasters like “I Shall Be Released” and “The Unfaithful Servant,” so I could be happier to hear them let their hair down for once. I also love the wobbly guitar sound and nonsensical yet catchy rhymes of “Time To Kill.” I also find myself drawn to the piano-based tunes “Sleeping” and “The Rumor,” which build some mild tension in that rounded-edged 70s Paul McCartney sort of way, and are inexplicably compelling in that same rounded-edged 70s Paul McCartney sort of way.

I guess those are the only songs here that really stick in my craw (in a good way) for more than ten minutes after I’ve finished listening. (The title track’s pretty alright too, I guess. Whatever.) But it could be a hell of a lot worse.

One Comment

  1. victoid wrote:

    The release of Stage Fright brought my interest in The Band to the level of a guy’s interest in his sexual partner after orgasm. To misquote Kevin Nealon from a SNL bit, “I’m interested, very interested, very very interested…I lost interest”. You are right Jerry-O, this is slick production, yet boring to old rockers like me.
    I listened and moved on. I don’t think I paid any further attention to the boys until The Last Waltz. Sorry boys.
    I do give props to Runt Rundgren, a fellow Filthadelphian whose band The Nazz played many of the same clubs as my band at the time. He was a superstar by Philly standards by ’68. I do remember him producing a band called The American Dream in ’67 or ’68 whose leader and guitar player, Nick Jameson was a high school classmate of mine, and who later became the bass player for Foghat. We used to jam a bit at each other’s rehearsal rooms. He was the best geetarist I knew. He and Todd both made the pilgrimage to Woodstock and Bearsville Studios where Rundgren became the producer du jour for a host of talented bands. This is my favorite anecdote from the Todd Rundgren Wikipedia page:

    “During the mid-to-late 1970s, Rundgren regularly played the eye-catching psychedelic Gibson SG (known variously as “Sunny” or “The Fool”), which Eric Clapton had played in Cream. After he had stopped using it ca. 1968, Clapton gave the guitar to George Harrison, who subsequently ‘loaned’ it to British singer Jackie Lomax. In 1972, after meeting at a recording session, Lomax sold the guitar to Rundgren for $500 with an option to buy it back, which he never took up. Rundgren played it extensively during the early years of Utopia before retiring the instrument for a short time in the mid to late 70’s, which in that time he had the guitar restored having a lacquer finish applied to protect the paint and replaced the talpiece and bridge to stabilize tuning, bringing the guitar back out on tour during the 1980 deface the music tour and using it on and off throughout the 80’s until 1993 when he permanently retired the guitar, eventually auctioning it off in 1999″

    I saw Jackie Lomax at a tiny club in Woodstock in “71 or so, one of the most captivating sets in my diminished memory. Lomax played bass and his guitar player played that very guitar, which is the same SG model as mine, with the same tuning problems due to the long super narrow neck. I recognized it instantly. See photo HERE.
    Ahh… the glory days of rock!

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