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The Band: Live at the Academy of Music 1971

Levon Helm: Ramble at the Ryman

The Band: Three of a Kind

Robbie Robertson: How to Become Clairvoyant

Garth Hudson Presents a Canadian Celebration of The Band

Levon Helm: Electric Dirt

Garth and Maud Hudson: Live at the Wolf

Pulse

Dirt Farmer

Elliot Landy's Woodstock Vision

The Band Remasters


by Dave Hopkins

Though I was not yet born at the time of the Last Waltz, I have come to love and appreciate the music of the Band. In no small way, my abiding affection for the group is due to this incomparable website. The continuing discussion, commentary, and often-lively debate in the site's Guestbook is an invaluable source of information and opinion; though I am a major fan by any usual standards, I can in no way compete with the expertise and insight of many Guestbook regulars. As the following piece should make obvious, I owe much of my own knowledge to their posts and submitted articles. Thanks to them, and thanks to Jan Høiberg for providing a forum and a resource for us all.
--Dave Hopkins, dhopkins@post.harvard.edu, September 5, 2000


Contents

[The Band Remasters, Volume II]

Introduction

I think we can all agree that Capitol Records has treated our dear Band rather shabbily over the years. The original ten-album deal [1] was somewhat less than completely fair, to hear Levon Helm tell it, making one wonder how history might have been different had Mo Ostin been in town that day Albert Grossman wanted to sign the Band to Warner Brothers, which had the reputation (in those days, anyway) as perhaps the most artist-friendly of the major labels. In recent years, we've been subjected to no fewer than two greatest-hits compilations (with a third on the way this fall, not counting the Pyramid Records Best of the Band, Vol. 2 of post-Robertson material) and two box sets from Capitol/EMI--a curious proliferation for a group which has never really been a major commercial success. In my view, this constant repackaging is particularly inappropriate for the Band, whose music is best understood in the form of the original albums. (Even the failed Cahoots has a unified theme and sound which is somewhat violated by Capitol's cherrypicking, and Across the Great Divide doesn't even provide its listeners the service of omitting "The Moon Struck One"!)

Meanwhile, the original albums have suffered from subpar sound and absolutely clueless packaging. My old CD version of Music From Big Pink omits the "Next of Kin" photo in favor of a page describing The Compact Disc Digital Audio System in three different languages. The fairly recent Japanese reissues restored much of the original LP cover layout, but also included a garbled, nonsensical series of words which were purportedly the lyrics to the songs. All in all, Capitol's track record regarding one of the most important groups ever to grace its catalog ranges from barely satisfactory to downright disgraceful.

Amid all the self-congratulatory press releases, then, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that these new rereleases of the first four albums (with the second four due next year) are partly if not primarily driven by good old-fashioned corporate greed. There's obviously a market out there for this constant stream of compilations and reissues--a market which must, incredibly enough, extend far beyond the usual subjects (myself included) who regularly read this website's Guestbook! In this context, Levon Helm's reaction to the release of the remastered albums--"I guess they figured out some way to re-box it up. I just hope [they] give me some royalities on it" [2] --is not only understandable, it's perfectly appropriate. Let's hope that Capitol shares the wealth with Mr. Helm, Mr. Hudson, and Mr. Robertson, as well as the estates and families of Mr. Danko and Mr. Manuel.

General Notes on the Reissues

The newly-released bonus tracks, some of which were not previously known to exist, are perhaps the most exciting aspect of the reissues, and will probably be the feature that inspires most fans to pick them up. But the reissued albums would have been failures, in my view, unless they had corrected the two egregious flaws in the previous versions: thin sound and even thinner packaging.

Fortunately (and finally!), Capitol has given these recordings the respect they deserve. I'll be the first to admit that I'm no expert, but I can easily hear the difference between the remastered albums and my own old copies. The most dramatic improvement is in the low end; Danko's bass and Helm's low toms and bass drum are much louder and more resonant. Some of the tracks still have noticeable tape hiss, but that may be an inevitability when dealing with thirty-year-old masters. All in all, the sonic quality of all four reissues is markedly superior to their predecessors.

The new versions also attempt to restore the original cover designs; specifically, the letters "THE BAND -- MUSIC FROM BIG PINK" printed over Bob Dylan's painting are gone, the photo on the front of the Brown Album more closely resembles the sepia-toned jacket of the original LP, and the track listing for Stage Fright is printed on the front as well as the back. In addition, material from liner notes or gatefold sleeves which was inexplicably omitted from the previous CD versions of these albums has thankfully returned, including the "Next of Kin" photo, the interior Stage Fright photo, and the lyrics to Cahoots. All reissues have transparent jewel case spines, revealing the words "THE BAND * REMASTERS" printed vertically to the left of the liner booklet. The CDs themselves are solid black, with "THE BAND" and the album title printed in white lettering. Removing the CD from the jewel case reveals the front covers of the eight Capitol albums, arranged clockwise in chronological order. The liner booklets for all four albums also include a number of additional photos, most of which appear courtesy of the great Elliott Landy, and several reproductions of engineer tracking sheets used during the studio sessions for various songs.

Satisfied that my two main objections to the existing Band catalog on CD had been virtually eliminated by the reissues, I turned my attention to their new features: those intriguing bonus tracks and each album's extensive liner notes. I'll describe the former in some detail below, after a word about the latter.

Rob Bowman wrote the notes for all four reissues. Aficionados of this website are undoubtedly familiar with his informative, multipart "History of the Band," published in Goldmine magazine several years ago and available here. Much of the material, including many quotations, from Bowman's previous work reappears in the liner notes in expanded form. Hardcore fans who have heard all the stories about Rick calling Levon down in Louisiana and asking him to rejoin, the group renting Sammy Davis Jr.'s place to rehearse and record The Band, Robbie writing "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" with significant guidance from Levon, Richard Manuel gradually drying up as a songwriter, etc. etc. will find most of the notes old news, but they probably serve as a good introduction to more casual listeners.

On the other hand, I hope I'm not seen as taking sides in the unfortunate phenomenon known as "the Feud" by observing that a fair reading of the liner notes, especially by a reader largely unfamiliar with the details of the disagreements between Mr. Robertson and Mr. Helm, tends to leave the impression that Mr. Robertson was the chief architect of the Band, its sound, and its image from the Dylan days onward. This is partially due to the fact that Bowman quotes Robbie extensively and the other members extremely briefly, if at all.

Please understand that I'm not ascribing sinister motives to anyone. Manuel and Danko, sadly, can no longer speak for themselves. Garth Hudson is famously reticent and rarely gives interviews, despite his undoubted knowledge and insight. Levon Helm may well have similarly declined to participate, given his expressed lack of interest in this project (as well as his longstanding antipathy toward Capitol). Robbie might have become chief spokesman by default, and he stresses the collaborative nature and multiple talents of the group on several occasions, but the notes will nevertheless strike some as overly Robertson-friendly.

Actually, I'm troubled most by Bowman's tendency to apply his own judgment to the quality of the music under discussion. Of course, Bowman is a fan, and he writes quite reverentially about the vast majority of the Band's work. But I find it somewhat odd, after purchasing an album, to read in the official, Capitol-commissioned liner notes that, for example, the bonus track "Key to the Highway" is "stilted" and "saddled" with an inappropriate arrangement. I largely agree (see below), but I feel qualified to form my own opinions on the subject, and it raises a question: then why is Capitol releasing it and charging money, especially when they could have easily stuck another song (such as an alternate take of "The Weight," for example) in its place? Likewise, Robbie's characterization of "Where Do We Go From Here?" from Cahoots as "shit-headed" wins points for forthrightness, but why are Bowman and Capitol telling me this? How am I supposed to feel if I happen to like that song? More importantly, how am I supposed to feel after Bowman then describes that unsalvageable slab of dreck known as "The Moon Struck One" as "touching" and "exquisite"? (By the way, Robertson claims in the Cahoots notes that "Moon" was inspired by the film Jules et Jim, no doubt attempting to deflect blame for the song's nausea-inducing qualities onto the great Truffaut. Nice try, but no dice.)

What I'm trying to say here is that I believe that liner notes should be a source of objective information, not an album review. Waxing effusive about the music doesn't come across as truly authentic, since you're being paid by the folks who want to move the merchandise. Being critical seems strange, for exactly the same reason. In my opinion, liner notes should stick to the facts and leave the judgments to the listener.

I can't leave this subject without mentioning a truly curious detail. Bowman implies, with no direct evidence, that our dear Mr. Helm was--how shall I put it delicately?--wacked out on yam-yam during the recording of "Strawberry Wine." Apparently, according to Mr. Bowman, it is possible to make such a diagnosis by comparison with the vocal styles of known heroin connoisseurs such as Ray Charles and Billie Holiday. [3] I must confess that I never expected to read that in the Stage Fright liner booklet, to say the least. Is there a gossip columnist for 1970s-era roots-rock quintets whom I can pass that juicy little item along to?

Well, we all know who should have written the liner notes to these reissues. But apparently Garth Hudson has other things on his mind these days.

With that, I proceed to a few personal impressions of the remastered albums, including brief descriptions of the brand-new bonus tracks.

Music From Big Pink

[cover art]
The events that occurred between the end of the 1966 tour with Bob Dylan and the release of Music From Big Pink are still somewhat shrouded in mystery and intrigue; even the time frame of the basement recordings is not known with any real certainty. Most of the demos with Dylan were definitely completed by the fall of 1967, however, when Levon Helm rejoined the group in time for it to sign a record deal with Capitol. Dylan soon split for Nashville to record John Wesley Harding, and the reunited Band set out on its own with a series of studio sessions, trying to find its own musical course.

A number of different tunes were cut during this time-some merely demos, some full studio versions recorded for possible inclusion on Music From Big Pink. It's fairly clear that more material exists in the vaults than has officially surfaced so far; even after the reissued, expanded Big Pink, the likes of "Beautiful Thing" and "You Say You Love Me," for example, remain unreleased. (See Peter Viney's excellent "Rarities" article on this site for a more detailed description of these and other recordings; some circulate among collectors, while others remain rumor or conjecture.) Still, the nine additional tracks appended to Big Pink, though they range in quality, are additional pieces of the puzzle from perhaps the most prolific time in the Band's history, and they also explode a few old myths-always a valuable service.

Music From Big Pink bonus tracks:

12) Yazoo Street Scandal (Outtake) (4:00)

This is a different take from that on The Basement Tapes, though it is very similar in style and arrangement and undoubtedly dates from the same session. According to the liner notes, Robertson remembers cutting the track during the Big Pink sessions, but both he and John Simon deny that it was ever seriously considered for inclusion on the album. This version is slower and in a slightly lower key than the Basement Tapes track (which may have been sped up); it is also of superior sonic quality and is in stereo (see my entry below for "Katie's Been Gone" for a likely explanation). Bowman mentions in his notes that yet another, earlier version exists-likely a demo, possibly from the basement itself-which, since it predates Helm's return to the fold, features Robertson on lead vocal.

13) Tears of Rage (Alternate Take) (5:32)

Obviously from the same session as the standard version, this performance of "Tears of Rage" is beautiful if not particularly revelatory. It lacks the overdubbed horns of the Big Pink opener, and Hudson never plays anything exactly the same way twice, but the Capitol compilers clearly saw fit to include this take among the bonus tracks for one simple purpose: Richard Manuel's vocal performance on the song's final verse manages to exceed even the original in passion and soulfulness. What a voice.

14) Katie's Been Gone (Outtake) (2:44)

We might as well settle this issue right here and now. Whatever you may think of the double album entitled The Basement Tapes released by Columbia Records in 1975, it's now quite apparent that the eight Band-only tracks from that set were certainly not recorded in the basement of Big Pink, and in at least some cases were not even "demos," but rather were full studio recordings considered for official release on Music From Big Pink or subsequent albums. Though these songs may well have been written and arranged in Woodstock in 1967, it's a bit dishonest to suggest (as the Basement Tapes album does) that the recordings are akin to those laid down by Dylan and the four remaining Hawks in the Big Pink basement. [4]

This is the same version of "Katie's Been Gone" that appears on The Basement Tapes, but in stereo and with improved sound quality beyond what the remastering process alone would provide. The cat's out of the bag: "Katie" and the other Band-only tracks on The Basement Tapes must have been intentionally muddied in the studio in 1975 so that they would fit better alongside the Dylan material recorded in the basement with a home reel-to-reel.

I like all of the Band Basement Tapes songs, welcome the presence of five of them on this first round of reissues, and hope that the second round released next year includes improved versions of "Ruben Remus," "Ain't No More Cane" and "Don't Ya Tell Henry" in order to complete the set. But now it just seems silly for Columbia Records to continue selling a two-CD album called The Basement Tapes with intentionally sonically inferior versions of these songs (and, in some cases, these exact tracks!). Columbia should replace the current album with an expanded multidisc set including most if not all of the true basement tapes, which are currently available to bootleg collectors and feature some real gems. Since such a release would require Dylan's approval and cooperation, I'm not holding my breath, though it would be a perfect addition to the "Genuine Bootleg Series" which recently gave us the Dylan/Hawks "Royal Albert Hall" concert from 1966.

15) If I Lose (Outtake) (2:27)

This track has circulated among collectors for awhile. The liner notes fail to assign a session or date to this recording, and it remains unclear whether "If I Lose" was ever seriously considered for inclusion on Big Pink. (My guess is that it was simply a demo, perhaps used to test a studio or secure a record deal.) The song, a jaunty country music standard, features some nice mountain-style harmony from Helm and Danko. Helm plays mandolin, Hudson piano, and Manuel drums.

16) Long Distance Operator (Outtake) (3:56)

Obviously the same take that was included on The Basement Tapes (jokingly referred to as "Take 400" by the engineer before the count-in), this version of the Dylan-penned "Long Distance Operator" nonetheless differs from the one released by Columbia in 1975. This track features an extra verse which was cut out of the Basement Tapes version. However, there's an edit in the new version which instead cuts out the first line of the final verse ("Everybody wants to be my friend, but nobody wants to get higher"), so that the verse begins with the second line (same lyrics, but on the IV chord instead of the I chord, for all you musicians out there.) It's an unfortunate mistake; still, the track is terrific, and I've always loved Richard's multitalented performance on vocals and harmonica. (Garth's on organ, so I assume that's John Simon on piano? Or did Richard overdub the piano part too?) Either way, "Operator" aptly showcases the Band's intuitive feel for straightahead blues like few other tunes in their repertoire.

17) Lonesome Suzie (Alternate Take) (2:58)

Some of the most interesting--and fun--bonus tracks added to CD reissues are recordings obviously never meant for widespread release at the time of the original sessions. This jazzy, uptempo reading of Manuel's "Lonesome Suzie," with a horn arrangement courtesy of producer John Simon, is so at odds with the lyrics and sentiment of the song that it could not have been meant as a serious attempt at an album track. Instead, it's a fascinating relic of some lighthearted studio experimentation which at least partially refutes the Band's ultraserious public image. The lack of a guitar part indicates that Robertson was most likely absent during this escapade. I'm glad that they recorded "Suzie" the other way for release on Big Pink, but I'm also glad that this version saw the light of day on the reissue.

18) Orange Juice Blues (Blues for Breakfast) (Outtake-Demo) (3:36)

This stripped-down demo of "Orange Juice Blues," featuring Manuel on piano and vocal accompanied solely by Danko on bass, served as the basis for overdubs by the rest of the group which resulted in the version released on The Basement Tapes. I prefer the full band arrangement, but it's nice to hear Richard's piano up front in the recording; too often, his solid playing was buried on the Band's albums.

19) Key to the Highway (Outtake) (2:23)

The Band's version of Big Bill Broonzy's "Key to the Highway" is by no means terrible, but it's a crime compared to what the group could have done with the song, one of my favorite blues standards. Levon's vocal isn't half bad, but the tune's taken too fast, the beat's all wrong, and the patented Band harmonies that should have carried the performance from the beginning don't appear until the end (and are then nearly inaudible). As the only previously unreleased song on these first four reissues which was apparently not in underground circulation, "Highway" will attract some interest among serious fans, but unfortunately can't live up to its potential.

20) Ferdinand the Imposter [sic] (Outtake-Demo) (3:59)

This is the less-polished--but complete--version of the song, known to collectors for several years. (Another circulating recording sounds more like a studio take, but ends abruptly halfway through.) Bowman speculates that this "Ferdinand" dates from a two-song demo session, produced by Band manager Albert Grossman, which took place in New York in September 1967 and predated Levon Helm's return to the group from Louisiana. However, this arrangement features piano, organ, guitar, bass, and drums, suggesting either overdubbing (unlikely for a rough demo) or a post-reunion recording date.

The song, sung by Danko, is a somewhat whimsical crazy-character study in the same mold as "Ruben Remus" or Dylan's "Tiny Montgomery." It was understandably out of place next to the more serious material which ultimately comprised the bulk of Music From Big Pink. One additional note: though Clinton Heylin claims in Bob Dylan: The Recording Sessions that "Ferdinand" was a Richard Manuel composition, the Big Pink reissue credits the song to Robbie Robertson.

The Band

[cover art]
After Big Pink, the Band would never again record substantially more material during an album session than was needed to fill out a standard LP. [5] The reissues from now on must therefore depend primarily on alternate takes or mixes, rather than additional songs, for their supply of bonus tracks. And the one song added to the remastered version of The Band is hardly surprising: "Get Up Jake," which was (mistakenly?) released as the B-side to "Ain't Got No Home" in 1973. (A live version also appears on Rock of Ages.)

The Band bonus tracks:

13) Get Up Jake [RealAudio] (Outtake-Stereo Mix) (2:16)

Anyone with a copy of Rock of Ages knows this song well, and the serious fans probably have their "Ain't Got No Home" 45 stashed away somewhere, so the presence of this semi-rarity on the reissued Brown Album is hardly a surprise. The B-side version was in mono, but we now have a remastered stereo mix which pans guitar and organ into the left channel, piano and drums to the right. It's a great song and a fine performance--Levon and Rick really put their hearts into the vocals--though I personally prefer the Rock of Ages version because it's longer (with fine solos from Robbie and Garth) and because Richard takes a verse too.

14) Rag Mama Rag [RealAudio] (Alternate Vocal Take-Rough Mix) (3:04)

Here's an interesting relic from the Capitol vaults. It's built on the same instrumental track as the version which wound up on the original Brown Album (the mix is slightly different--for example, Richard's harmonica can be heard prominently as early as the second verse), but features additional vocal parts left off the final track. Rick and Richard add rough harmonies to most of the song, giving it even more of a jug-band feel. Again, the group may well have made the correct decision in preferring the other arrangement, but I'm glad that this experiment has been unearthed and released; it's great fun to listen to.

15) The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down [RealAudio] (Alternate Mix) (4:14)

As with "Rag Mama Rag" above, this version of "Dixie" is based on the identical take of the song as the version released in 1969. The chief differences here, other than the count-in and false start left in by the reissue producers, are additional overdubs mixed out of the final album cut. Garth's "harmonica" effect (actually a melodica dubbed over an organ part, according to the liner notes) no longer waits until the second verse to enter, but is present throughout the song. In addition, there's some type of low buzzing sound panned to the right, likely yet another Hudson keyboard effect since it parallels the melodica part, which disappears on the album version. Garth's trumpet is also much more noticeable, and the track doesn't fade but continues to a "cold" ending.

This track isn't much different from its counterpart on the original album, making it hard to judge independently. Listening to both versions, however, certainly makes one realize how much the remastering process has improved the quality of the Brown Album. The sound is leaps and bounds better than the old CD, and no song demonstrates that happy fact more than the great "Dixie."

16) Up on Cripple Creek (Alternate Take) (4:51)

The Band's about 95% of the way there on this take of "Up on Cripple Creek," which apparently predates the recording of the Brown Album cut. The arrangement and feel are identical, but--surprisingly enough--Garth doesn't quite have the clavinet breaks down, and some of the transitions from clavinet to organ on the choruses are a bit sloppy. However, this mix allows us to hear a bit more of Richard Manuel's great boogie-woogie piano.

17) Whispering Pines (Alternate Take) (5:04)

A false start called off by John Simon due to someone "squeaking around" in the studio precedes a complete take as gorgeous and touching as that originally released. Capitol could put out a disc that was just ten different performances of this song and I'd buy it in a second.

18) Jemima Surrender (Alternate Take) (3:46)

I mean no disrespect to the bonus tracks included on these reissues by observing that they demonstrate, above all, that the Band generally got it right when deciding which songs and takes to include on their albums. It's wonderful to have this additional material--it's all great music made by great musicians--but in few cases is it superior to anything released officially at the time, at least before we get to Cahoots. "Jemima Surrender" is an excellent example. Apparently, as this take reveals, the group originally took a crack at the song using its standard instrumental lineup, and the results are acceptable but not inspiring. Moving Levon to rhythm guitar, Garth to piano and Richard to drums on the Brown Album version improved the arrangement significantly; the two guitars beef up the riff considerably (and allow Robbie to play those bluesy lead figures), Richard's sloppy drumming fits perfectly, and Garth's organ, which seems out of place somehow on this alternate take, is hardly missed. The alternate take also lacks the horn section of the original-another strike against it.

19) King Harvest (Has Surely Come) (Alternate Performance) (4:28)

According to the liner notes, this performance of "King Harvest" is from a promotional film shot in Woodstock by a friend of John Simon's after the completion of The Band. (This footage recently surfaced on the VH-1 "Classic Albums" documentary video.) The audio quality is not up to professional standards, but the group has the groove down and turns in a fine effort.

Stage Fright

[cover art]
The Band had the bright idea back in 1970 of having two different engineers prepare mixes for Stage Fright. Ever since then, there's been nothing but confusion.

I'm going to leave the complete sorting-out of the story to other, better-qualified authorities. But I know this much (I think), based on the Stage Fright liner notes and my own two ears:

Glyn Johns completed a mix of the album on June 13, 1970. This mix was apparently used for the 1990 Capitol CD and the 1994 DCC gold disc.

Johns completed a second mix shortly thereafter. The Band chose three songs from this master ("All La Glory," "The Shape I'm In," and "The Rumor") for the original 1970 Capitol LP; Capitol has used these same three mixes for the 2000 CD reissue, and has also included a fourth ("Time to Kill") as a bonus track.

Todd Rundgren then went to work mixing and remixing the album; the Band used Rundgren's mixes for the remaining seven songs on the original Capitol LP. The 2000 Capitol CD reissue features these mixes as well, and includes an alternate earlier Rundgren mix of "The W. S. Walcott Medicine Show" as a bonus track.

I know from Guestbook postings that the Japanese reissue of a few years back wasn't based on the same set of mixes as the 1990 CD. Perhaps someone who owns that version can figure out exactly which mixing job by which engineer provided the material for that disc as well.

The result of this thoroughly confusing situation is that the new, remastered Stage Fright features (according to Capitol) the mixes used on the original LP, not those included on the previous CD version. There isn't a huge distinction between the two, to my ears; voices and instruments are often panned to different channels, and the relative volume of various instruments is somewhat different from one version to the other. Most of the time, however, you have to be listening carefully to detect the variations; there aren't any major additions or subtractions on any tracks. (The Band recorded the album mostly live-to-tape at the Woodstock Playhouse after the town council scotched its plans to play a live show there; the group probably recorded few overdubs, other than the odd lead guitar or horn part, which engineers could leave in or out of their mixes.)

Stage Fright bonus tracks:

11) Daniel and the Sacred Harp [RealAudio] (Alternate Take) (5:01)

This spare version of "Daniel and the Sacred Harp" is a welcome addition to the reissued album. It begins with a false start, followed by a discussion between Helm and Manuel, who are both playing drums, about the beat of the song. ("Should I come in with that backbeat there or after?" asks Richard, to which Levon replies in a drawl, "After, I think, 'cause there ain't gonna be much happening"--and proceeds to demonstrate.) The familiar pump organ intro follows, and we get a version of "Daniel" featuring only organ, acoustic guitar, bass and drums (Levon hums during the sections which are to become Rick Danko's fiddle breaks on the album track). All in all, this take has a bit more energy than the more familiar version of the song, and the vocal interplay between Helm and Manuel is especially apparent.

12) Time To Kill [RealAudio] (Alternate Mix) (3:24)

This Glyn Johns mix of "Time To Kill" uses the same take as both previous versions of the album and emphasizes Garth Hudson's piano and Robbie Robertson's lead guitar to a greater extent, while separating Danko's and Manuel's vocals across the stereo soundscape.

13) The W. S. Walcott Medicine Show [RealAudio] (Alternate Mix) (3:04)

This early Todd Rundgren mix has a harsh, trebly sound to it compared to the album version (Robertson's guitar intro really crackles) and places Garth Hudson's horns farther upfront.

14) Radio Commercial [RealAudio] (1:05)

I can't imagine it selling one copy of Stage Fright, but apparently Capitol's marketing department came up with this little gem to try to move LPs in 1970. The commercial's saving grace is its reliance on sound clips from the album. I'm not sure if it was a good idea to pull this thing out of the deep dark vaults and slap it on the reissued Stage Fright CD, but I do know that the spot for Cahoots makes this clip sound like a stroke of genius.

Cahoots

[cover art]
Capitol has to count the reissue project a success: it even got me to buy Cahoots again.

I know it's a more than a little unfair to compare Cahoots to Music From Big Pink and The Band-two masterpieces which most artists could never dream of, um, painting in their careers, and which the group could not be expected to match. Still, something's obviously wrong, and the accounts of inter-Band relations at the time of the album sessions, as described by Levon Helm in his autobiography and by Robbie Robertson in the reissue liner notes, point to tension and disinterest within the group as the chief culprit. Peter Viney has written an excellent analysis of the album for this site with which I agree almost entirely, and Greil Marcus identified the heart of its failure in Mystery Train: what was once implied had become literal, what was once irreducibly complex had become simplistic, what was once subtle had become melodramatic. The delicate-yet-powerful sense of history evoked by the best of the Band's previous work was replaced by shallow or clumsy nostalgia for the eagle, the train, the blacksmith, the Chinatown police force etc. etc. force-fed to us by the gallon.

"Shootout in Chinatown" and "The Moon Struck One" are almost certainly beyond all redemption, but the most disappointing moments for me are those songs which I sense could have been perfectly fine, if not great, in another time and place, but were forever marred by lyrical lapses, unmemorable melodies, or mistaken musical arrangements. (Or all three at once.) There's a germ of a good idea at the heart of "The River Hymn," "Smoke Signal," and "Where Do We Go From Here?"; I can occasionally close my eyes and glimpse it as I listen before my reverie is punctured by such cringe-inducing lines as "And I feel sad about the railroad, and it's no wonder" or "The ladies would put the baskets on the table...The children'd listen to a fable." Egad.

Shockingly, Capitol decided to keep the fifteen-verse version of "The Moon Struck One" safely in the ol' vaults, though I'm told by a reputable source that a surprising variety of human relationships are described in terms of geometric shapes, while a number of young people die in exceedingly maudlin if zoologically incorrect ways.[6] In fact, the reissue producers wisely conclude that even Band fans are not very interested in hearing alternate takes or mixes of any Cahoots album tracks, aside from "When I Paint My Masterpiece." Instead, we get studio recordings of two songs which were previously released only as live performances, plus a rather familiar but sonically-improved "Bessie Smith."

Still, the remastered album sounds terrific, especially the bass. Maybe it's not so bad after all.

Cahoots bonus tracks:

12) Endless Highway [RealAudio] (Early Studio Take) (3:43)

With a very different feel-and a different lead vocalist-from the live cuts included on Before the Flood and Watkins Glen, this heretofore unknown studio version of "Endless Highway" dates from the Cahoots sessions, but was rejected for the album (according to Robbie Robertson's comments in the liner notes) because it didn't fit thematically. Richard Manuel takes the vocal lead while Garth Hudson's piano dominates the instrumental track; unlike his fiery electric live performances on this number, Robbie simply strums along on acoustic guitar. It's a good track which should have replaced one of the inferior compositions on Cahoots.

13) When I Paint My Masterpiece [RealAudio] (Alternate Take) (3:57)

This alternate take of Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece" resembles the previously-released performance except for its lack of an extended fade-in; instead, the group simply kicks into the first verse. I may be the only Band fan who actually prefers Dylan's version of this song, but if you like the original Cahoots reading, you'll like this one too.

14) Bessie Smith (Outtake) [RealAudio] (4:17)

Yes, this is the same take of "Bessie Smith" as on The Basement Tapes. Robertson says in the liner notes that the group cut this song in between The Band and Stage Fright; despite the improved sound quality, though, it still sounds like a demo to me. Why didn't "Bessie Smith" appear on Stage Fright or Cahoots? Robbie says that the Band figured that they'd already used up the name "Bessie" on "Up on Cripple Creek"!

15) Don't Do It [RealAudio] (Outtake-Studio Version) (3:52)

The original tape has apparently been lost, since this track sounds like the okay-but-not-great-quality recording which has circulated unofficially. Nevertheless, though the horn-driven Rock of Ages version has a bit more punch, the inclusion of this song on Cahoots-Bowman says it was seriously considered-would have given the album some much-needed soul. The group supposedly decided that "Don't Do It" resembled "Life Is a Carnival" too much, and left it in the can. Of course, more tracks like "Life Is a Carnival" is exactly what would have made Cahoots a classic. But hindsight, as the saying goes, is always 20/20.

16) Radio Commercial [RealAudio] (1:04)

I hope that the inclusion of this 1971 radio ad on the remastered Cahoots is the reissue producers' idea of a joke, since the utter cluelessness of the production would be embarrassing if it weren't so funny. Capitol's marketing department manages to take the album's chief flaws--its occasional dullness and more-than-occasional pretensions--and distill them into a sixty-second spot that's supposed to convince you, the listener, to fork over the cash to buy the record! Leaving "Endless Highway," "Bessie Smith" and "Don't Do It" off Cahoots in 1971 was a tragedy. This ad is a farce.

Conclusion

I hope that those radio spots, plus the "Big Pink Think" contest advertised in a poster reproduced in the Big Pink liner notes, truly represent bygone days at Capitol Records, which for over thirty years has generally refused to treat the Band and its music with the respect that they deserve. The seriousness and professionalism with which these reissues were compiled, packaged, and released represents a welcome change from decades of neglect and misunderstanding. I trust that the scheduled rereleases of the later albums next year will be handled in a similar fashion.

The bonus tracks are enlightening and, for the most part, well-chosen. The liner notes, additional photos, and memorabilia are interesting and informative. Most importantly, however, we can finally hear these incomparable songs the way Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson, and Levon Helm meant them to sound all those years ago.

A lot has happened since those days, and much of it has been heartbreakingly tragic. Listen to these albums, though, and you can return to the time when those five men played and sang together in the same room, making some of the best music that's ever been made.

Enjoy.


Footnotes

  1. Because it was a two-disc set, Rock of Ages counted as two albums; the compilation The Best of the Band, released in 1976, counted as one. The Band therefore fulfilled its ten-album deal by delivering eight separate albums of material to Capitol. Work on Islands continued up to the very day of the Last Waltz show, allowing the three-record set documenting that concert to be released by Warner Brothers.

  2. Helm quoted in "Reissue of Band Catalog a Labor of Love," by Ray Waddell, The Boston Globe, June 6, 2000 (reprinted on this website)

  3. As Bowman himself points out, Helm has admitted in his autobiography This Wheel's on Fire that he had a heroin habit for several years in the 1970s but has long since been free of the drug. I'm not arguing that it's impossible or even unlikely that he performed under the influence of that or any other substance during the sessions for this or that song or album. I am however, questioning the ability of Bowman or anyone else to reach such a conclusion apparently on the basis of listening to the music and comparing it with other known drug users (does anyone else think that Levon sounds like Billie Holiday on "Strawberry Wine"?), and I'm not at all convinced of the appropriateness of making such an assertion in the official Stage Fright liner notes.

  4. Greil Marcus, in the liner notes to The Basement Tapes, Columbia Records, 1975: "Some facts, then. The twenty-four songs on these two discs are drawn from sessions that took place between June and October, 1967, in the basement of Big Pink..." Maybe Marcus is trying to split hairs by suggesting that the songs were written at Big Pink in 1967, though some of the performances came from other places at other dates; that may even be true. Still, such assertions are misleading at best, what with all the basement-magic mythos that surrounds the album to this day-mythos perpetuated to no small degree by Marcus himself.

  5. I mean the original Band. The reunited Band of the 1980s and 1990s recorded a number of tracks which have yet to surface officially; some circulate among collectors.

  6. Yes, this is a joke ("Little Jim was bitten by a bee, over by the sea..."). I don't mean to keep slagging "The Moon Struck One"; for me, actually, it demonstrates the considerable talent of Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson. They do the best they can with what they're given, and they turn it into a very listenable track--which is much more than the song deserves.


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