Masterpieces in the past, dogged press in the present, Band partied to stay sane

By Andrew Marchesseault

Some have called the Band’s third album a “party record.” Well, if these are party songs, they’re much more Prince than Pink, more “party over…out of time” than “get this party started.” Listeners to Stage Fright may not be dancing with one eye on the apocalypse-countdown clock à la “1999,” but there certainly is something on everyone’s mind at this fete. Rocking out to heed off the anxiety, the Band lets go while tensing up.

Stage Fright, released in the late summer of 1970, catches the Band in limbo, caught in a moment of self-consciousness that may have ultimately led to their artistic decline. Although there were some highlights in the remaining years before the group’s breakup in 1976, most music critics acknowledge Stage Fright as the Band’s last great album. Following two masterpiece LPs, the second of which improved on the first, Stage Fright finds the group reeling from its surprise success. Theirs was a sudden burst of nervous energy, a catharsis that never again reaped the same rewards. It is no surprise then that The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s documentary of the group’s final, star-filled concert, is heavy with songs from those first three records.

Like the previous two albums, Stage Fright derives its strength from five distinct personalities working in surprising, complex concert. Formed in 1960 as the backing band for southern rocker Ronnie Hawkins, the group that was once the Hawks was at first a grade-A backing band. Rotating vocal duties and sometimes instruments, Arkansan/drummer Levon Helm and the Canadian quartet of Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson seemed legendary before they were, their names and sound burning a hole in both the mind and the stage floor. They tightened their sound for years behind Hawkins and Bob Dylan, in that time incubating a distinctive sound that would finally be put to record in 1968.

Music from Big Pink broke with the psychedelia of its day, a sonic contradiction to late Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, the Zombies, and numerous others. Hewing country elements with rock, the Band practically stepped out of a sepia-toned photograph, with bushy beards and songs of a Civil War-era America. Cohering guitar, bass, and drums with haunting piano and organ and three distinct voices, Big Pink and 1969’s self-titled masterpiece birthed such classic-rock icons as “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and “Up on

Cripple Creek.” The music world had never seen anything quite like them.

However, Stage Fright is a different album. With more barn-stompers and fewer ballads, the record is a direct response to the critical praise heaped on the first two albums. After straddling two eras, the Band shifted its weight to the foot firmly placed in the present, as Robbie Robertson’s lyrics focused entirely on personal anxieties, with Confederate soldiers and rocking chairs lost to the dusts of time. This time, the Band faced their own demons, not to mention some rare joys.

The first half of the album looks inside the soul of the Band (that of lyricist Robbie Robertson), and finds a resigned man, content to hit the sauce all night, sleep all day, and cozy up to his lover in the interims. “Strawberry Wine” is one of the more rollicking Band songs, as it rides Helm’s affected drawl into drunken bliss. “Sleeping” is buoyed by Manuel’s sweet vocal, the serenity only broken by Robertson’s fierce guitar solo.

Picking up from the next morning, “Time to Kill’s” protagonist takes “to the nest” with his darling. The fourth song of the record—and my personal favorite—pardons all of this sin and sloth, as “Just Another Whistle Stop” assures us that we’re all going to heaven anyway. “Pay no mind to what you read,” croons Manuel over Helm’s galloping drums. “There’s one way home that’s guaranteed.”

But any roaring party has to have a letdown, and that’s the second half of Stage Fright. Although it’s just as satisfying musically as the first half, the remaining six songs turn away from personal indulgences and instead carefully consider the Band’s surroundings. Echoing “Whispering Pines” from The Band, “All La Glory” is Robertson’s ode to his young daughter. Manuel warbles out his most desperate lyrics in “The Shape I’m In,” which is essentially the fall back to earth from the jubilation of the first four songs.

Robertson takes a skeptical look at show business on “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show,” and then turns to rediscover its integrity on “Daniel and the Sacred Harp.” Although both of these songs are more reminiscent of the Band’s first two albums in terms of time and place, we can easily see Robertson critiquing the music industry and examining his own band through his metaphor.

The final two songs find the Band bracing itself for the worst, simultaneously riding out the storm and preparing for future scrutiny. The title track is, of course, Robertson’s main metaphor, as he places himself as “the man with the stage fright, just standin’ up there to give it all his might.” He is not only battling his own heightened expectations, but also those of the music press, who, as always, can’t help hounding the most important bands. “Could there be someone, someone here among this crowd/Who’s been accused, had his name so misused, and his privacy refused?” asks Rick Danko on “The Rumor.” It’s clear that Robertson knows at least one, and maybe as many as five.

Although beautifully expressed, Stage Fright ends on a note of suspicion and bitterness that the Band may have never resolved. The group, even with its proudly exposed roots to Americana and the modesty of rural music, eventually gave in to its vices; the suspicions of their third LP were cowed by the temptations of sex, drugs, and modern rock ‘n’ roll. In 1970, the Band was still partying with one eye on the clock, another looking over its collective shoulder, and a third eye into the soul of its music. But every party changes when the clock strikes midnight, and not always for the better.