The Shape They’re In: Stage Fright at 50

The third album by The Band would prove to be one of most auspicious efforts of their career

The Band 1970 (Photo: Norman Seeff / Art: Ron Hart)

“See the man with stage fright… He got caught in the spotlight…” 

So goes the chorus to the title track from The Band’s third album. One of many highlights from the group’ s classic catalogue, the song reflected the group’s unsettled state at the time. Indeed, Stage Fright would prove to be one of most auspicious efforts of their career. Coming on the heels of their two seminal releases — home to such signature songs as “Tears of Rage,” “The Weight,” “Long Black Veil,” “This Wheel’s on Fire” and “I Shall Be Released” (from Music From Big Pink) and “Across the Great Divide,” “Rag Mama Rag,” and Up On Cripple Creek” (from their eponymous sophomore set) — Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko had a high bar of their own making. Added to that, the fact that they had long since made their break with their original taskmaster, Bob Dylan, made this, their third album, even more intimidating from the get-go.

Fortunately, they proved up to the challenge. Having been playing and performing together for the better part of a decade, they were a seasoned, tightly tuned combo while still the shadows of Dylan and their previous employer, Ronnie Hawkins. Still, with two clear classics under their belts, they had a lot to live up to. They had reached a point of due reckoning. The accolades from the press had them heralded as forebears of a rock revival Their’s was a homegrown brew with a down-home delivery, one that captured the imagination and enthusiasm of the public, the pundits and especially rock’s royalty. Even those at the very top of the musical pantheon — George Harrison and Eric Clapton in particular — publicly proclaimed the fact that they so admired The Band’s back to basics approach, that they hoped to emulate their efforts themselves. 

It was indeed quite a legacy to live up to…

The Band Stage Fright, Capitol 1970

In retrospect, Stage Fright may not have equalled those first two efforts, but it did come close. Certain songs — the title track, “The Shape I’m In,” “Time To Kill,” “Daniel and the Sacred Harp,” and “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show” rank among the most memorable songs in the group’s canon, and while other albums of merit would follow, Stage Fright could be considered their last real masterpiece, especially when it comes to its cohesiveness and clarity. It even managed to climb into the Top Five — a far better showing than either of its predecessors — and while the reviews were mixed at best, it did fare far better in retrospect, with some critics later heralding it one of The Band’s best.

Nevertheless, a change in tone was apparent. While there were some joyful moments to be sure — the minstrel romp which found the aforementioned “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show” another ideal example of their spunk, funk, spirit and savvy — it also bore a somewhat clouded perspective as well. There was a sense of anxiety and uncertainty that was borne out in the title track and songs such as “Daniel and the Sacred Harp,” “The Rumor,” “Sleeping,” “The Shape I’m In,” and “Time To Kill.” Each to a degree hinted at a sense of uncertainty, and a deliberate blend of merriment and melancholy. The group’s musical dexterity remained intact, with each member playing multiple instruments as they had done before, but the fact that this would be the last album to feature songwriting contributions from Richard Manuel (“Sleeping” and “Just Another Whistle Stop,” both cowritten with Robbie Robertson) now seems significant given the fact that a downward spiral due to drugs and depression would eventually result in his suicide some 16 years later. Other fine albums would follow, but taken in tandem, Stage Fright could be considered The Band’s final great hurrah.

Happily, they still had a way to go before disbanding and reforming years alter sans the services of Robbie Robertson . To paraphrase another lyric from that title song, “When they got to the end, they wanted to start all over again.” 

Sadly though, it would never be the same. 

 

 

 

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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