1) Strawberry Wine; 2) Sleeping; 3) Time To Kill; 4) Just Another Whistle Stop; 5) All La Glory; 6) The Shape I'm In; 7) The W. S. Walcott Medicine Show; 8) Daniel And The Sacred Harp; 9) Stage Fright; 10) The Rumor.
There is a lot of good songs on The Band's third album, and it is respectable that, even though everyone probably expected them to make a carbon copy of the self-titled LP, they went ahead and did something different. The bad news is, Stage Fright is no longer a record targeted at making you kowtow to it. It is a good album, but not a grand one. And when the ambitions of The Band no longer amount to «grandiosity», things may start getting plain dull. Who needs goddamn roots-rock if «it's only roots'n'roll», after all?
The usual judgement is that Stage Fright recedes from the mode of «Americana Bible» and delves into more personal matters — that most of these songs reflect Robertson's troubled state of mind in the wake of the band's critical and commercial success, and also in the wake of the Sixties-to-Seventies transition, what with the burnout of hippie idealism and all. Since one man's «sincerity / honesty» is another man's «egomania», Stage Fright splits listeners and critics, depending on how far they are willing to go in their feelings for Mr. Robertson.
The title track is a prime example of how this split can work even over one person. On one hand, it is undeniably catchy, energetic, well-arranged (major kudos, as always, go to Garth Hudson for providing that shrill, piercing, slightly paranoid organ backing), and — I guess — as sincere as they come. And with the right singing choice: Rick Danko, much better at delivering ecstatic, bleeding heart confessions over fast tempos than Manuel (who works more efficiently in slow, drawn-out situations) and Helm (whose Southern mannerisms would be out of place here).
But on the other hand, I can never get rid of the feeling that Rick and Robbie overdo it — the lyrics, the jerky tempo, the hysterical notes (especially those glottalized high pitch bombs on the third line of each verse — yes, Rick, we know the protagonist is supposed to feel bad), all of this is a little too much for a tune that, essentially, deals with just a common phobia. I mean, singing about fuckin' stage fright? Vietnam, Altamont, the Hendrix/Joplin deaths, and these guys are making a Shakesperian tragedy out of stage fright? Always seemed inadequate to me, even if we agree to take the whole thing as a metaphor for something bigger.
Similar feelings apply to the second classic off the album: ʽThe Shape I'm Inʼ, a song that is, curiously enough, also elevated to forget-me-not status through the inspiration and hard work of Hudson, huffing and puffing behind the organ, layering layers of impressively magical passages onto the song's somewhat dumb-sounding simplistic martial structure. This time, it is more about a general sense of dread and desperation ("Out of nine lives, I spent seven / How in the world do you get to Heaven?"), and Manuel gives it an earthier, more easily credible feel than Danko on the title track, but there is still something that doesn't feel quite right about it. Maybe if they'd invented another 19th century character to sing the song...
Basically, what I am trying to say is that I don't care all that much for Robertson's attempts to turn The Band into an outlet for venting his personal frustration: that's a much narrower vision than the one he displayed just a year earlier, and the clear-cut reason for Stage Fright as the beginning of The Band's slide into irrelevance and (relative) mediocrity. But this is only a problem if we look at the curve in its entirety: sitting there all by itself, Stage Fright is still essentially impeccable, especially because the other members of the crew are still enthusiastically backing Robbie and coming up with good creative support.
In fact, there probably isn't one single duffer in the basket. Even a generic country-blues opener like ʽStrawberry Wineʼ still stands out, courtesy of Levon Helm's ridiculously «nasal» delivery (was a clothespin involved or what?) and Hudson's cheery-drunken accordion part. A long-time favorite of mine is ʽThe W. S. Walcott Medicine Showʼ, one of the most sarcastic-sounding tunes on showbiz ever written and arguably The Band's most focused victory over the music hall genre (and "once you get it, you can't forget it" indeed — this is the album's most seductively hummable tune). ʽTime To Killʼ was released as an A-side, overshadowed by ʽThe Shape I'm Inʼ as its B-side, but is hardly inferior — it just doesn't hammer its hooks into your brain with the same muscular brutality as its lucky counterpart, but its «treated» guitar sound gives it a delicious, almost power-poppy resonance, one of those unique experimental tones of the early 1970s: if you ever felt that way about Big Star's ʽSeptember Gurlsʼ, this is kind of a close feeling here.
Parts of the album are notably more Dylanesque than anything on The Band: most notably ʽAll La Gloryʼ, where Levon's phrasing and modulation sound intentionally modeled after Bob — this song is best enjoyed on some lazy, hazy afternoon when your own dreams aren't enough and you are in the mood for some half-psychedelic, half-rootsy romanticism. Most of the verses of ʽThe Rumorʼ also sound like they could have been written directly in «The Basement». Not surprising, perhaps — now that they are out of their Civil War uniforms, it can't be helped if they keep subconsciously drifting back to the man who, want it or not, taught them their songwriting in the first place. In any case, these are all good, credible stylizations.
Overall, Stage Fright is not a textbook masterpiece, but it does work as an «alternative» greatest album for those too haughty, snobby, or fed up with the double crown of Big Pink and The Band, and whatever be, it sure ain't a lazy record — the concepts, feelings, general ideas may be less sweeping and impressive, but the craftsmanship level here remains at an authentic A+. The final thumbs up has a lot to do with Hudson, in particular — the one man out there to clearly show that the best «roots rock» still comes fully equipped with stems, leaves, and branches.
Check "Stage Fright" (MP3) on Amazon