By following two of the greatest rock albums of the 1960s, the Band’s third album, “Stage Fright,” had the decks stacked against it from the jump. From the ethereally rootsy “Music From Big Pink” in 1968 to the more rock-oriented self-titled follow-up, the Band had not only influenced the entire direction of rock music, they had also become so popular that this intentionally low-profile group — they called themselves the Band, for heaven’s sake — ironically found themselves on the cover of Time magazine in January of 1970.
But high expectations, unexpected stardom and fortune weren’t the only things working against the quintet on “Stage Fright.” The group originally planned to record the album before a live audience at Woodstock’s Playhouse theater, but the town council, which had just endured an invasion from hippies who mistakenly thought the Woodstock festival had taken place in the town, understandably denied the permit. Added to that, the bandmembers weren’t getting along — a situation not improved by the heroin habits some of them had developed — and they clashed with 22-year-old engineer Todd Rundgren, who was just about to begin his run as a star artist and producer. Combined with the air of disillusionment in many of the songs’ lyrics, it’s not surprising that an album recorded in an empty theater by disgruntled musicians sounds a bit stilted compared with the organic, unified vibe of the first two albums — kind of like a photo where you can tell the subjects don’t really feel like smiling.
All of the above notwithstanding, “Stage Fright” is still a great album — after all, how bad could the third-best album by one of the greatest groups in rock history possibly be? — and includes some of the Band’s all-time classic songs, like “The Shape I’m In,” “Time to Kill” and the title track.
Of course, anyone who’s read this far already knows all that, and may be wondering whether this slightly belated 50th anniversary edition, which follows previous deluxe reissues and boxed sets, is worth splurging on. This beautifully rendered boxed set includes the requisite book with excellent liner notes and period photos, but also a remixed — and resequenced — version of the original album, as well as a previously unreleased 1970 acoustic jam session from a hotel room, and best of all, a stunning and previously unreleased 1971 concert that captures the group at the peak of its live powers.
From the top: The remix of the album is a little bit shiny for a group as deliberately ramshackle-sounding as the Band, but hearing those familiar voices and instruments in such stark relief is a revelation, from the soulful singing of Levon Helm, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko to Garth Hudson’s deranged calliope keyboard solos and Robbie Robertson’s beautifully understated guitar work. However, the album’s sequence has been changed drastically: in the liner notes, Robertson (who by this point was writing nearly all of the band’s material) explained that the album’s original sequence was altered in order to front-load the songwriting contributions of Manuel and Helm, and here he’s chosen to revert to it. The new-old tracklist will be disorienting for people who have lived with the original for decades — it almost feels like a different album — but in some ways it flows more naturally: The jaunty “W.S. Walcott’s Medicine Show” provides a “Sgt. Pepper”-like opener, the rollicking “Time to Kill” kicks off side two, and the gentle “Sleeping” is the closer.
The previously unreleased “Calgary Hotel Room Recordings” are fun and interesting, although not something that fans are likely to play often. With five rough songs recorded during the legendary Festival Express tour of Canada in the summer of 1970 — immortalized in a 2003 film, the tour found the Band, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and others traveling across the country together on a chartered train — these tracks have an earthy charm that’s rough-hewn even by Band standards. It’s mostly Robertson singing and playing acoustic guitar amid what sounds like a fun party, although Manuel and Helm join in often.
But the real prize here is a previously unreleased full — and stunning — June 1971 London concert that captures this formidable group of musicians in rare form. It includes stellar versions of virtually every song from the group’s first three albums that fans could want to hear (well, except “This Wheel’s on Fire,” which you can see in this awesome Dutch TV video from a 1970 concert). By this point, the songs had been thoroughly broken in, and the bandmembers allow themselves instrumental flourishes that aren’t present on the studio versions. Nobody shows off (it wouldn’t be the Band if they did), but Hudson in particular takes some soaring solos that are completely otherworldly but still retain a connection to the songs’ melodies; likewise, Robertson and Danko punctuate the songs with tasteful Telecaster mastery and bass fills. It’s a lasting monument to the group’s world-class musicianship.
But best of all, it fills a gap in the Band’s catalog that will seem odd for a group that’s already released four different live albums: Even though it was recorded at the stately Royal Albert Hall — the group’s first performance at the venue since they and Bob Dylan were booed mercilessly by folk purists in 1966 — it’s “just” a normal show. The other live albums from the Band’s original lineup capture events, from their performance at the Woodstock festival to the ambitiously arranged “Rock of Ages”; from the 1973 set at Watkins Glen (which drew more than half a million people to see the group with the Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead) to their star-studded 1976 farewell concert and film, “The Last Waltz.” On this night, there were no film crews, no guest musicians or horn sections — just one of the greatest groups in rock history, tour-tight and with a near-peerless catalog. It’s absolutely glorious, and, along with “Rock of Ages,” closes the book on the Band’s golden era.
The Band would release more albums and play more concerts before the classic lineup played itself off five years later, but none as powerful as the music captured here.