With the release of a sprawling Stage Fright box set, the Canadian guitar icon relives The Band’s legacy
The term “Americana” has been tossed about and ballyhooed to great lengths in recent times, but those that have followed the evolution of roots rock music for the past 50 years know that this particular genre is really not new.
Theoretically, Americana’s origins can be traced back to the beginnings of rock and roll itself, thanks to such distinguished forebears as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and the Everly Brothers, all of them early artists who combined their country roots with a new singular sound that subsequently shaped the musical trajectory during the years and decades to follow.
That said, the group that really ought to be given credit for exploring the possibilities of a cultural crossover within the musical mainstream was one band in particular — that being The Band — which, somewhat ironically, was made up of four Canadians — Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Rick Danko —and a fellow traveler from Arkansas named Levon Helm.
Of course, their history has been well documented in terms of both lore and legacy, and their early impact on such disparate icons as George Harrison, Eric Clapton and those that emerged in their wake from Austin, Nashville and all places in-between continues to loom large.
Not surprisingly then, it was their first two albums, Music From Big Pink and their eponymous sophomore set (often referred to as “The Brown Album”), that laid the framework for all that was to follow. Their role as Bob Dylan’s backing band helped to provide further groundwork for their ongoing evolution, but once ensconced within their own work regimen and a shared house in Saugerties, New York, they were well on their way to making their name stick. Sadly, the group began unraveling after the original members offered their final hurrah with a performance captured for posterity and dubbed The Last Waltz, but their indelible impact on modern music and all its populist precepts, remains undiminished.
Today, only keyboardist Garth Hudson and guitarist and predominant songwriter Robbie Robertson remain, after Manuel, Helm and Danko shed their mortal coils. And while a later version of The Band attempted to carry on with mostly new members once Robertson moved on, it failed to live up to a legacy that was best represented by those early albums.
That said, The Band’s third album, Stage Fright, is due for renewed recognition. Indeed, while it boasted several of the group’s hallmark classics — the title track, “The Shape I’m In,” “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show,” and “Time To Kill, among them — its stature seemed to pale in comparison to its two predecessors. That’s despite the fact that it climbed higher on the charts than those earlier offerings.
Adding to that ignominy was the fact that the album never materialized the way Robertson had hoped. The songs were sequenced in a different order so as to nudge the others to offer themselves as co-writers and step more to the fore. By including their songs at the top of the track list, Robertson thought he could appeal to both their egos and acumen, even at the expense of not having the album conceptually flow the way he originally planned.
Likewise, after sitting behind the boards early on, he had to relinquish the engineering and mixing duties to Todd Rundgren, given that the band’s participation in the Festival Express tour — which found them rolling across Canada in the company of the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and the Flying Burrito Brothers — took him out of the loop, creating regret and remorse that never really dissipated or disappeared.
That is until now, courtesy of an extensive box set rerelease that boasts vinyl, a Blu-Ray, a 7 inch single, a beautiful booklet, memorabilia, and a pair of CDs. The latter feature the remastered album in its original running order, an informal jam/rehearsal session recorded in a Calgary hotel room at the conclusion of the Festival Express tour and an entire Roll Albert Hall performance captured at the end of a European tour that marked their first collective appearance on the Continent since backing Dylan on his tumultuous “electric tour” five years earlier.
For Robertson, it’s an ideal opportunity to recapture ownership of The Band’s legacy and to finally put things in order.
“Up to that point, we’d all been kind of living together,” Robertson reflects, offering a bit of the backstory and explanation as to why the group began to fracture. “People were getting married and having kids, and we weren’t all in the circle like we had been before. There was also a lot of experimenting with drugs going on, and some of that was getting in the way.”
Nevertheless, looking back on that fractious period has given Robertson opportunity to have a belated a second chance to reimagine Stage Fright the way he originally intended.
“I feel so fortunate to be able to realize this now,” he says. “I love the whole package. I love the recording of the band at Royal Albert Hall, and to be able to share the whole thing is like a complete fulfillment to me.”
Speaking of that concert in particular also finds him noting the anxiety the group felt at the time upon returning to a venue where they had been heckled so mercilessly for participating in Dylan’s highly criticized electric transition. That said, the experience also gave them impetus to do even better.
“When you go through something like that, you can’t help but be a little gunshy,” he admits. “We didn’t think it was going to be the same, but we had no idea what the reception was going to be like. However that whole tour — but especially the date at Royal Albert Hall — was overwhelming. That feeling lifted our plane, lifted our energy, increased our dedication to wanting to give back to that. That wonderful opening of arms and pulling us in like that was just an extraordinary feeling, and I can hear that in this performance of the band. I can hear that in in that experience of that Royal Albert Hall.”
In a way, that boost was needed. While the group was rightly heralded for taking rock back to its roots, he also notes that there wasn’t universal appreciation from some on day one.
“When we came out with Music From Big Pink, there was a portion of the audience that said ‘what the hell is this?’” Robertson recalls. “‘This isn’t what’s trendy, this isn’t what’s happening right now, this isn’t what people want.’ And so there were some people who said ‘whoa, wait a minute!’ But there were those others that said, ‘this changes everything, this is where we really get a feeling of something that is so timeless, and that is so musical. It’s so authentic.’ And so that’s what those guys like George and Eric were recognizing in this. Plus, you have to remember that when we made Music From Big Pink, we’d already been together like seven years. We had played with Ronnie Hawkins in Canada, and then we went out on our own as the Hawks. Then we played with Dylan. So sharing all of that, absorbing all that music, allowed us to really build a genuine identity, and that’s what that came out.”
In hindsight, Robertson recognizes the influence and the impact that The Band was able to bestow on their peers in the process. “It didn’t necessarily copy anything, but everybody else was copying everybody, and so when this came out they were wondering, ‘Where did this come from?’ It encompassed so much musicality of what was going on, and we thought at the time that it was so truthful, and so that’s what we had been doing. We were proud of the subtleties that we’re able to get out of it. We weren’t out to knock your head off. We didn’t need to do that stuff because we had been there and back. We already knew that stuff. But at some point, you get to a place that you really just appreciate taste and quality and depth and that’s what we hoped to be presenting. hat’s the experience we drew on with Music From Big Pink and then The Band album.
As Robertson explains, there was a clear trajectory that sprung from equal parts opportunity, ingenuity, intention, and invention. It ultimately provided the impetus for Stage Fright, although that may not have been readily apparent at the time. “It was like oh my God, this has got that love, all this stuff, the history, the Americana, everything,” he reflects. “And then we got to Stage Fright, and what I was really realizing was that this was a left turn. This wasn’t us trying to do what we already did. It was a different kind of songwriting that I was doing. It was a different kind of playing that we were doing, and so there’s a musicality in all that which makes it a progressive move. And now you can really see it feel it and taste it.”
Yet even in hindsight, Robertson insists that the group had no idea of the impact that their music was making.
“No, we weren’t we weren’t aware,” Robertson recalls. “There was no game involved, and there was no philosophy. There was no trickery. This was such an authentic soulful music that came out of this group and we didn’t know how to do anything other than that. None of us ever sat down and discussed these kind of things. It seems like we were trying to build something, and so it it wasn’t like “Oh, you know what? If we do this now, that may affect people like that. I had never heard the expression ‘Americana music.’ But that’s what they were calling us. So we’re like, ‘Somebody needs to tell them we’re from Canada.’”