Step right up ladies & gents! Don’t be shy, anybody can play this game. Want you to join me as we explore the appearance of another strange mystery in our midst. Thrills! Enigmas. Exquisite loveliness! Disappointments. Engaging sobriety! Murky slumbers. It’s all here, folks —all that, plus five lifetimes in our recent generation, crossing, merging, walking toward separate rainbows! Losing stride, marching gloriously on.
In this game —most of you already are hip to this, I know — nothing is ever quite what it seems. And that’s why, ladies & gentlemen — that’s why we’ve got to resist the temptation simply to assume it’s what it seems to be. If you can dig my far out meaning.
Glory is the operative word at this stage of the game. What this third Band record seems to lack is the glory of the first two.* Ah, but we’ve only begun to play; what seems to be at this stage, this early after the kickoff, may be only a fake handoff —a Statue of Liberty play, executed with great finesse by one of the most deceptive teams ever fielded, as seen by a killer linebacker who’s busted through the protective cup and is just about to squash the quarterback, himself arched and coiled, arm cocked as if he was still holding the ball, waiting to get hit with a secret smirk behind the knowledge that some kind of amazing shit is happening elsewhere on the field, he’s winning, you can’t even see it yet, oh brother the laugh is on you, but we’ll all laugh together when we all see it. That’s the way these cats play this here game, looking from over here in the linebacker’s spot. Stand someplace else and you might see it totally different, but, you know what they say: ’twas ever thus.
If you’ll allow me, momentarily, just for as long as this paragraph takes to read, I’ll change the frame of reference to one where sometimes you meet some people or maybe an individual person, let’s say a dame — in terms of a cat who’s meeting a lot of dames all the time and developing some meaningful exchanges out of these meetings sometimes, sometimes not, but anyway he’s got an eye out for lusciousness, the more the better —and this dame, this one particular dame (in the long-term encounter which I am just about to describe), when he meets her she’s nice and kind of groovy and they have a pleasant time and get to be pleasant friends, and they see each other now and then and it’s OK, they dig it, but no big thing, until, after some weeks of time, or months (or it could be two and a half years in some documented cases), finally they turn a corner one day and there’s this deep love relationship with flashing lights and throbbing hearts.
* Well, yessir, as a matter of fact there are at least two bootlegs on the under-the-counter market throughout the great underground, but let’s just say that the unofficial stuff is the same game, except a different stadium from this one here today, and, so the rap don’t get out of line, let’s not mix metaphors more than we’ve got to. These things happen, and often they get their start with a merely pleasant first encounter with somebody or something or whatever you got in whatever area of life you want to discuss.
Art’s like that, religion’s like that, heck, life’s like that, and so is a new Band record, for many people, be they linebackers or any walk of life.
Time for the play-by-play of the first half. Let me apprise you up front that it looks like the team hasn’t had much of a warm-up and (peeking ahead toward some of the later reels) I can tell that the second half, by contrast, is gonna have a lot more thrills and chills. The first half is marred by near fumbles and incomplete plays. Or is it? It seems to be …
How many times do we have to sit through this movie to see it? You’ll know when we get there.
As for the record itself, on a strictly minutes-and-seconds basis, it takes about an hour.
It seems to play right through in a blink, like a freight train with a lot of carloads full of all sorts of stuff, but it went so fast, man. Here it comes . . . zzzooooooppp!!!? … gone! Hey, what was that?(Let alone the cargo.)
“Strawberry Wine” comes first. Robbie Robertson wrote all the songs, or, in some cases, like this opener, co-wrote them. For those of you who don’t know the lineup, here it is: Robertson plays guitar, Levon Helm is the drummer, Rick Danko on bass, Richard Manuel at the piano and, importantly, Garth Hudson on the organ and a lot of horns and other stuff. (They all play a lot of different axes, as you’ll learn, if you ain’t learnt it already.)
Anyway, Robertson and Helm co-wrote the first one, “Strawberry Wine,” and it’s got a lot of goods —Hudson playing the accordion stop as a richly connected series of rippling, gurgling tremolos, hearty chunk-along bass, scrappy drumming with an especially liquid cymbal sound, all of them slapping and bumping and overlapping with that combination of everyman – for – himself / precision-teamwork that makes them a great rock and roll band.
What the song ain’t got is much in the way of melodic content, but what the hell, it’s just this-here rock and roll number, the kind Ronnie Hawkins really grabs onto (I got the record, but so far no album cover, so for all I know the song is dedicated to Hawkins; and if it isn’t, it ought). It’s all about blowing all mah moneh on this strawberry wine but it makes yuh feel fine. Is this the Band’s rock and roll album? is what the first track makes you wonder, and it’s over blink —quicker than a blink, snap.
The songs Robertson wrote on his own are better than the ones where the other guys helped out. Doesn’t seem right, does it?
“Sleeping.” A sleepy, drifting opening, with Manuel (co-writer) setting off some pretty, open chords from the piano spot. Manuel’s vocal —I guess it’s him, though I’ve never really known Manuel’s voice from Danko’s, they’re similar, unless it’s Manuel who does the high, lighter stuff —is earnest enough, but what about the words? “Sleeping” could be big political trouble (inside the heads of people who say they want a revolution, oh yeh-eh-eh, and think Ramparts has got the Right Answers) the same way “Revolution” was for the Beatles.
Because, after all, these guys are saying that the storm is past, there’s peace at last, they’ll spend their whole life sleeping, “now that there’s no sound, no one to be found —anywhere,” and “why would we want to come back at all?” Christ almighty, at least the Beatles wanted some kind of revolution, or so they claimed. The Band just wants to sleep, right? I don’t think that’s going to go over too hot on the People’s Marxometer.
Have you ever tried, incidentally, to nail a worm to the door with a nail the circumference of which exceeds the worm’s?
Not so much a melody as a motif, “Sleeping” strings a lot of long, luxurious quarter-notes right up to the triplets turnaround at the end of each chorus. Tricky but not meaty. Robbie’s solo follows the line of least resistance and it makes you wonder if his heart was in it. Maybe that’s what you’re supposed to wonder.
“Time to Kill.” Robbie lays down a great strutting unaccompanied 1956 rock and roll guitar opening, like tier of sound in motion. Sounds like a song a Kentucky moonshiner might be humming to himself at this very moment, or maybe 75 years ago. Cabin in the hills, shotgun in the corner. Just wanna sit down by the fire with his love. Keep goin’ ‘long the straight and narrow, and you don’t even have to hurry. We got all our love, buckets of the tears we cried. Got time to kill, Catskill, sweet by and by.(Or is it “cats kill”?) We found our rainbow. Certainly a complacent lyric, raising the question whether the boys have been snorting the latest sampling of Dylan dust. It’s a controlled performance, if, paradoxically, a bashing one.
Like any of Johnnie Wooden’s national championship UCLA basketball teams, these cats have got discipline. The concept of discipline is out of favor in a lot of circles. What it means in this case is that the Band takes an almost studied, almost deliberate approach to its fun, so that the backing (laced together by Manuel’s leaping piano accompaniment) throws a perfect focus on Robertson’s fine guitar solo.
On a real team, when everybody’s cooking together, all the brothers are hip to the strategy, even if the spectators don’t catch on until later.
The vocal here doesn’t seem to have much connection with the content of the lyric; the delivery has got a kind of urgency to it that I don’t hear in the words. Doubtless intentional. But it may explain why the track —despite all the good things that happen within it —bores me the same way the Modern Jazz Quartet bores me sometimes: the whole is less than the sum of its parts. For the moment.
“Just Another Whistle Stop.” So far this album is not so heavy on the spiritual, and neither is this song. Nor is it much else. When the trolley is clean outa reach, go the words to this Robertson-Manuel effort, a certain lesson it will teach. But what lesson? Odd man out — that’s the rule, ‘n there’s one way home that’s guaranteed … This song, too, depends on motif — a sturdy left-footed ascending three-note line, like something Thelonious Monk might construct, which, though apparently awkward, has plenty of impact. It’s a fine bit, and that’s about all there is to the “Whistle Stop” as a song.
It sounds like three or four good and not as tinct. As if there’s a lot Indis-song there than they had been able to work out by the time they recorded it.
“All La Glory.” Is this the Band’s June-moon song? Is this the Band’s life-death song? Is this the Band’s kids-outerspace song? Here’s Garth Hudson nudging it along with great hornpipe accordion, reminiscent of movies where pirates have commandeered a merchant ship and they’re all tuckered out laying around on the decks moaning some chanteys fucked up on grog. Whoever is singing —I’m told it’s Levon Helm —he sounds watery, as does Hudson’s accompaniment, and, indeed, the whole affair. Hudson is playing it proud, laying down long, trailing lines that shape the performance. He’s all over the album, doing that thing all the ways he knows how, and in this sense it’s his album.
Which may, in turn, explain why Stage Fright is so elusive. Is there a more elusive, indefinable sound in rock and roll than the one Garth Hudson brings to all the horns and keyboards he plays? Vocally. “All La Glory” (allegory) is wispy, even dreamy, the better to expose its amazing imagery.
All la glory, I’m second story … Feel so tall, like a prison wall …
Feel so tall like a prison wall. Imagine what that would be: standing like a prison wall, dividing the free from the trapped. Permanently in between. The lines seem random, and Hudson’s organ does, too: the impression is of cosmic noodling. A heavenly sound.
Considering the letdowns early in Stage Fright, it’s a relief that the first half ends with what is plainly the Band at its best. Before we move along to the second half, let us pray that the second half won’t all sound so much alike, so unrealized, so lacking in dynamics from song to song. Actually, you won’t need to pray. The second half is the “A” side, the one you’ll be listening to most. At first, anyway. These songs coming up are better worked out. Lot more variety. Lot more depth.
“The Shape I’m In.” Dig Helm’s drumming. This is why he’s the best drummer in rock and roll. He plays the shots that count, forgets the rest, slamming them along with a crazy funk long division behind the peace-in-the-valley / rumble-in-the-alley Danko (?) vocal. The whole band gets a nice push off the line “Who-o-oa —don’t you know the shape I’m in.” Hudson got a funky-diffident interlude, then more singing, “save your neck, save your brother … looks like it’s one or the other. ..”, then it’s Hudson again, pushing his organ again toward the cosmos over a march-like rhythm section.
A fine, determined performance. This is more like it. But
The Band Peter Simon Records what do they mean, save your neck, save your brother, looks like it’s one or the other? You call that a revolution?
“The W. S. Walcott Medicine Show.” Is this the Band’s religious album? Dig Levon, sing-ing —god, what a great singer, what down-home locution — “when your arms are empty, God know where to go…” What a great medicine show! Got faith healer woman stealer Klondike Ku Klux steamboat band, when the music’s hot you might have to stand, and you know any Ku Klux band gotta come out of some steamy place down somewhere. The band is stomping for all it’s worth, Levon is cooking — though he makes it sound as easy as shuffling a deck of cards — and Garth Hudson stands up from the keyboard to set loose a mystery tenor saxophone, enigma, enigma, which puts me in mind of the Emotions at its start, and then, at its end, where Hudson chomps into the reed and makes it gritty, there resides the spirit of Ben Webster, another great tenor player whose roots, like Hudson’s are from an earlier time. Hudson’s preaching here is the kind that’s done outside church, down where the steam comes from. And what lines, what lines! About Walcott:
Y’know he always holds it in a tent .. .’N if you’re lookin’ for the real thing, he can show you where it went…
About dying or not:
I’d rather die happy than not die at all… For a man is a fool who will not heed the call.
When you start dealing in those goods, it takes the game into a realm that transcends the games most people even spec-tate, let alone play. There’s only one thing wrong with this track: they shoulda let (or made) Hudson blow twice as much tenor, or even twice that much, or more. That boy is a saxophone player in the great American tradition. There’s another medicine show coming up presently where we’re going to get to hear Garth Hudson trading choruses with Lester Young and Sidney Bechet and John Coltrane and Johnny Hodges and Chu Berry, and I, for one, wouldn’t miss it for the world! A man is a fool who will not heed the call.
“Daniel and the Sacred Harp.” Garth Hudson starts the performance with his hymn-tone organ, full of peculiar off-hand fingerings, resonant and deep. And then Levon Helm —wow — does he lay Daniel’s story on us! It’s beyond Levon, in fact. This is the first track on the album that’s got the Band’s patented interplay of voices — at least the first one that’s up to earlier recordings and performances. Everybody sings it and everybody plays it and it all fits together in a perfect ball like a Chinese puzzle: the voices sweet and hard and earthern and mellow, Danko’s (evidently it’s him) honey-tone country gut fiddle, Hudson cutting through like a laser of joy, Robertson’s free/styled strumming …
And what a scene Daniel got his ass into! He saved his silver for three years, until this man came with the harp from the Sea of Galilee, and Daniel laid the bread on this cat and took the harp without stopping to hear what it meant. Off he went, wailing on this harp, up to a hilltop to play it there. But when he looked around, no shadow did he cast! Is this the Band’s religious album? Katherine Anne Porter!
“Stage Fright.” Boring melodically and seemingly stupid of lyric, this track is, for me, the disappointment of the album. It’s got to do with being a rock and roll star, and having stage fright, and there’s this doctor who tells the cat it’ll be as cool as long as he doesn’t show the fear that’s in his eyes. Ah, hah: so this is what it means to be a rock and roll star, is it? Jesus, the line:
See the man with the stage fright… sure does wear thin over and over and over again. I’ll take “Johnnie B. Goode.” Is this the Band’s rock and roll album?
“The Rumor” is about the Rumor, whatever the Rumor is. You be the judge. “The Rumor” tells us, in fact, how to be the best kind of judge and jury by ignoring false testimony and delivering no verdict. It starts ominously and stays that way. You know when the Band uses the bass as lead guitar that something dark is happening.
A strange thing transpires during the instrumental passage, where Robertson and Hudson are improvising together, and just at the end of their joint chorus it all but collapses. Intentionally, I think, and it fits the song so beautifully. Close your eyes, hang your head until the fog blows away … open up your arms and feel the good … it’s a’comin — a brand new day …
And then Danko sings, Now all you vigilantes wanna make a move — and is answered by Helm, Maybe they won’t, y’know I sure hope they don’t…
It sounds like it could be 17th century Salem. This song could have saved a few witches, by god. Cotton Mather and the rest of them might have dug the message. I can’t tell you specifically what the Rumor is, but I know that “The Rumor” is one of the Band’s greatest achievements. Is this the Band’s political album? Is this the Band’s religious album?
End of the second half. Not bad at all! Slow first half, sure, but it’s a recording, after all and a great second half is better than none. I am excited about Stage Fright, if not totally moved, at this stage of the game. It is an amazing acquaintance, pleasant to be with, even if so far it does not amount to an event on my karma calendar. Later on, it probably will.