The Band’s 1971 Royal Albert Hall Concert Highlights 50th Anniversary Box Set of ‘Stage Fright’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

As with the first two albums, Capitol/UMe is issuing the 50th anniversary of The Band’s classic third album, Stage Fright, with a suite of newly remixed, remastered, and expanded 50th Anniversary Edition packages, including a multi-format Super Deluxe Edition (2CD/Blu-ray/1LP/7-inch vinyl). All the Anniversary Edition releases were overseen by principal songwriter Robbie Robertson and boast a new stereo mix by Bob Clearmountain from the original multi-track masters. For the first time, the album is being presented in the originally planned song order (more on that later). 

As good and fresh as the remastered versions of the original studio songs are, the highlight and a true revelation is the inclusion of Live at the Royal Albert Hall, June 1971, a thrilling full concert captured during their European tour as the band was at the top of its game.  These tracks are as good as any we’ve heard from The Band on Rock of Ages and/or The Last Waltz.  Many are arguably better as they seem especially invigorated by the tremendously enthusiastic audience reception. It’s as if the listener can sense their smiling faces and sheer joy in making music unencumbered by some of the tensenesses that marked the former in that they were playing with a horn section for the first time or the latter when they were supporting the guest artists. Also, this is the first time (other than bootlegs perhaps) that we’ve heard live versions of “Time to Kill,” “Strawberry Wine,” “Rockin’ Chair,” “Look Out Cleveland,” “We Can Talk,” and the Stevie Wonder-penned, Four Tops hit, “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever.” Having seen The Band live at least three times, including the Rock of Ages show, they are at their highest performing level here. Check out Garth’s gutbucket tenor sax solo on “W.S. Walcott Medicine Show” or Levon’s over the top vocal on “Up on Cripple Creek” as just two examples. It’s no wonder that Robbie Robertson says this in the liners – “One of the greatest live concerts The Band ever played.”

Live At Royal Albert Hall, June 1971
(Previously Unreleased)

1. The Shape I’m In
2. Time To Kill
3. The Weight
4. King Harvest (Has Surely Come)
5. Strawberry Wine
6. Rockin’ Chair
7. Look Out Cleveland
8. I Shall Be Released
9. Stage Fright
10. Up On Cripple Creek
11. The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show
12. We Can Talk
13. Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever
14. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
15. Across the Great Divide
16. The Unfaithful Servant
17. Don’t Do It
18. The Genetic Method
19. Chest Fever
20. Rag Mama Rag

On the other end of the spectrum, there are field recordings, reminiscent a bit of some of the short clips we saw in The Last Waltz film of Robertson, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel loosely jamming on Stage Fright songs and blues riffs, called the Calgary Hotel Recordings, 1970. There are also alternate takes of “Strawberry Wine” and “Sleeping” from the studio sessions. Interesting as those two slightly stripped-down versions are, it’s fair to say the chosen takes are superior.

Calgary Hotel Room Recordings, 1970 *

 

Get Up Jake (#1) *

Get Up Jake (#2) *
The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show *
Rockin’ Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu *

Calgary Blues *
Before You Accuse Me *
Mojo Hannah *

Now to the new sequencing we alluded to in the opening paragraph. The sequence has been changed to present Stage Fright with the originally planned song order. “On the album, we used a different sequence to feature and encourage Richard and Levon’s songwriting participation,” Robertson reveals. “Over time, I pined for our first song order, because it pulls you right into the Stage Fright scenario.  That scenario proves to be a neat piece of history for followers of The Band and whether even this description is entirely accurate may be debatable as the famous house, Big Pink, is located in Saugerties, not Woodstock.  In any case, it goes like this, from the liners – “As a result of the Woodstock Music & Arts Festival, the small town of Woodstock where The Band – Garth Hudson (keyboards, piano, horn), Levon Helm (drums, vocals, mandolin), Richard Manuel (keyboards, vocals, drums), Rick Danko (bass, vocals, fiddle) and Robbie Robertson (guitar, piano, vocals) – lived became a Bohemian mecca of sorts and was overrun by the hordes of people it was now attracting. As a peace offering to their community, The Band rented out the Woodstock Playhouse to host a concert where they’d debut their new batch of songs they had been workshopping to their neighbors. Fearing that the show would only attract more outsiders and make matters worse it was turned down by the townsfolk. As a result, The Band ended up recording their next album on the playhouse stage, without an audience. Enter: Stage Fright.”

Stage Fright (50th Anniversary Edition) Track Listing

1. The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show
2. The Shape I’m In
3. Daniel And The Sacred Harp
4. Stage Fright
5. The Rumor
6. Time To Kill
7. Just Another Whistle Stop
8. All La Glory
9. Strawberry Wine
10. SleepingBonus Tracks
11. Strawberry Wine (Alternate Mix) *
12. Sleeping (Alternate Mix) *

The sound throughout, excepting the field recordings, is brilliantly clear with each instrument distinctively heard.  No matter how many times we listen to this iconic group it is remarkable how strong each of the three lead vocalists (Levon, Richard, and Rick) are as well as how well the voices blend when in harmony on so many tunes like “King Harvest,” “I Shall Be Released” and “The Weight” for example.  Credit for the great sound goes to two that have long been the very best in the business, Bob Clearmountain who did the mixing and Bob Ludwig who did the mastering. “Doing new mixes on these songs with Bob Clearmountain has been a gift and special opportunity,” Robertson writes in the new liner notes. “Glyn Johns and Todd [Rundgren] did a terrific job on the original mixes in England while The Band was on the Festival Express train tour across Canada with Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead. We had always been part of the mixing process before, which left something on this album feeling a little unfinished. Clearmountain has taken this music and given it the sonic lift it deserves. The album has become a whole new listening experience with the original song order and the depth of these mixes.” The result is a new mix that allows listeners to hear these timeless songs clearer than ever before. “There may be some purists that prefer ‘the way it was,’ and of course that’s always readily available,” adds Robertson. “I’m enjoying this new version, this story, this musical journey. It feels like a fulfillment and I know my brothers in The Band would definitely agree.”

Of course, in keeping with the box set format there are other special features such as the photo booklet with new notes by Robertson and touring photographer John Scheele, who recorded the Calgary Hotel Recordings; plus a reprinting of the original Los Angeles Times album review by famed critic Robert Hilburn; three classic photo lithographs; and a wealth of photographs from Scheele and several other photographers. Exclusively for the box set, Clearmountain has also created a new 5.1 surround mix and a hi-res stereo mix of the album, bonus tracks and the live show, presented on Blu-ray. The set also includes an exclusive reproduction of the Spanish pressing of The Band’s 1971 7-inch vinyl single for “Time To Kill” b/w “The Shape I’m In” in their new stereo mixes.

This only serves to remind us once again how talented The Band was. We have not heard any band who is comparable since, a true testament to their greatness. Who would guess that Stage Fright outsold both The Music From Big Pink and the self-titled album at the time?   And, how can we forget that infamous review at the time of the album release in Rolling Stone – “a brilliant failure.”  A neat juxtaposition of words, but hardly a ringing endorsement. One can only wonder how that writer would view his words in retrospect. 

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