A certain amount of distance for the material must be put between an artist and the music they are creating ... otherwise the music is very much “in the moment.” Being “in the moment” can often have a disconcerting feel, and a disjointedness, because the artist has not had the time to properly both separate and incorporate the material into their lives. Sometimes this works well, with the spontaneity seeming to add to and become part of the music [more pointedly, the lyrics], but for the most part, the art comes out raw and unprocessed ... this can feel uncomfortable, even if it’s exquisitely insightful for both the listener and the artist.
Such was the case for the album “Stage Fright,” exquisitely insightful and very raw with emotion. There are many reasons this can happen, and with The Band, it probably had to do with “Stage Fright” being their third album, the release that followed two major successful outings of material that had been communally addressed and understood ... but here, The Band was faced with the mirror, they were looking at themselves for the first time, they [though nearly all of the songs were penned by Robbie Robertson] were writing from the heart, and that can be both a very scary and satisfying thing at the same time.
Robbie Robertson’s intentions were to write a much lighter, more airy album then their release entitled “The Band,” but in doing so, he found that his music was taking a darker turn, a more introspective appearance. The Band had great album success, and for the most part, terrible live performances ... that left both the group and their fans wondering what was going on, especially when one considers the raving success they had on the road with Ronnie Hawkins for so many years. Robertson went on to say, “... this album ‘Stage Fright’ started to seep through the floor. I found myself writing songs that I couldn’t help but write. After the fact, I think we could sense what the album was saying, but by then we had already been blinded by the light. Favoring to stay away from the songs done by many artists, of the angst ridden singer / songwriter style, I surprised even myself by writing several songs which, in veiled ways, spoke of personal concerns and problems within the group.”
Though at first glance, or listen, several of the songs have a marvelous feel, a nice rock n’ roll beat and set your toes to tapping ... it was these songs that encouraged Patti Smith [yes, the singer, who would become famous for writing probably the most introspective album of all time "Horses"] who was writing for Circus Magazine to say, “The feel of ‘Stage Fright’ is pretty positive ... the album is designed to make you feel good, ... and was recorded in friendship.” It would have been easy to make this assumption based on the sound and a couple of the songs, but with lines like ...
I’ve seen a young boy on the run, And I’ve seen other children having fun. Police siren, flashing light, And I wonder who went down tonight. People, people, where do you go, Before you believe in what you know?
... there was ample evidence that The Band had been effected by the War in Vietnam, the protest movement, drugs, and the killings at Kent State.
Another aspect that didn’t sit well for this release was that they used two producers, Todd Rundgren [who also did the original engineering] and Glyn Johns, with whom The Band had worked with at the Isle of Wight Festival. These two entered into somewhat of a competition to see which one could best produce the songs, rather then collaborating, assisting each other, and The Band. The result was that after several listens, it is entirely possible to discern which person produced which songs, and this did not lead to a cohesive texture for “Stage Fright.”
Without measuring the context and relationship of the rest of the songs on the album, this release did not fare as well as the first two outings by The Band. That being said, when one looks back in time, with today's ears, aware of the history of not only The Band, but of the social events of the day ... this is a knock out album to say the least. The song “Stage Fright” has to be the all time best song regarding liver performing, “The Shape I’m In” is relentless in it’s style and grace, “The WS Walcott Medicine Show” is right out of some pulp novel left on a train station bench, and “Daniel and the Sacred Harp” will tear your soul apart.
As to the process of remastering, and adding outtakes ... this aspect of music leaves me a bit befuddled at times. While on the one hand I want to listen to the material as I remember it, and on the other, if things are done correctly, the enhanced sound quality and production can add a great deal. The addition of outtakes are fun to hear the first couple of times, but it usually becomes clear why these tracks never made it to the original album, and to that end the record is just too weighted with material ... but hay, I’ll take the outtakes and just skip over them when I’m listening. I guess what I’m trying to say in a polite manner is that I’d buy the remastered album because it sounds better, but I feel like I’m being sold a bill of goods with the extra material, material that I believe has or will, show up on future boxed sets. Never the less, this is a fine addition, and worth your while ... matter of fact, I picked up my copy at the grocery store for three dollars. I ask you, “does it get much better than that?”
All and all, for everything that was going on with and around The Band, this album not only stands the test of time, but must be considered an essential element of any serious record collector’s musical anthology.