Stage Fright / How To Become Clairvoyant
by "Adam2"Posted in The Band guestbook, 04.03.2011.
I felt the urge to hear the Stage Fright album today. It caused me to go over my thoughts on the album again.
It really is brilliant. Strawberry Wine generated some varied opinions lately, and I genuinely think the song is one of the Band's best. I think it really starts off the album for a reason. The first track is the one that is the most basic, a semi-standard blues form. By using a basic blues as the first track, the Band's evolving sound is more clearly heard than it otherwise would be. Right from the start, you hear the changes that have taken place since the 2nd album. The production is more clearly defined and polished, giving the album a more rock sound than either of the two previous albums. Levon's drums have more detail and clarity, and his cymbal work shines through more (though Richard plays drums on SW). Rick's bass is now an Ampeg fretless, anchoring the songs with a deep rubbery throb. Garth's accordion, a very natural instrument, is treated with effects. And Robbie's guitar is leaner and more polished. Strawberry Wine as the first track shows right away how the Band were moving forward with their sound, playing a basic blues with a sonic twist. And all of that isn't even considering the song meaning (or, whether or not you think the song has strong allusions to heroin).
And what about the other songs? Richard Manuel's songs - Sleeping and Just Another Whistle Stop - are two of his very best, and also his last. Sleeping is so heartbreaking because (like Strawberry Wine), you can feel that maybe the song was a little more light-hearted at the time Richard recorded it. It has his classic line "To be called by noon is to be called too soon today", which Levon sees as a classic line to show Richard's personality. I think it's only when we hear the song in hindsight that we see how deeply sad and poetic the song really is. (That exact thought also applies to Strawberry Wine for me. At the time Strawberry Wine was a fun stomper about the joys of excess. In hindsight it has many dark allusions to the heroin use that was known to be within the Band at the time.) Just Another Whistle Stop offers a dark story reminiscent of the "turbulent political times" and the Band's own path down self-destruction through touring, substance abuse, and group problems (it's very similar to Look Out Cleveland's theme, for instance). Both songs feature the wonderfully unique structures that Richard's songs always had, and the arrangements and performances here are great. It's sad that this part of their sound faded completely after this album.
The only two purely positive songs on the album are Time To Kill and All La Glory, the two songs written about/for Robbie's wife and daughter. Side one has perfect closure, beginning and ending with a real natural type of song (both featuring the Richard - drums, Garth - accordion, Levon - acoustic guitar lineup). Again, notice the sonic twists on the closing All La Glory, a very natural, warm sounding ballad or lullaby. Robbie's delicate guitar work has a phaser effect or something similar, evoking shimmering images the same way Rick's fretless bassline somehow paints a starry picture Levon's "Looking for a star bright to shine down your light now" line by using slides and melody lines. It's one of Rick's greatest basslines ever. Garth's accordion is more natural sounding this time, but floating in reverb like smoke hanging in the air. He subtly adds a swirling, beautifully other-worldly organ line for his solo, bending and blurring the lines between each note with such mastery. Robbie also uses a slide for his gentle, sweet line after the title in the chorus. I believe this was the first time Robbie used a slide on record, and probably the only time I can even think of.
Many here favor side two over side one. I really lean towards side one, but if anything I would argue that both sides are equal. Side two has been spoken about at length, so I'll leave that to a few short comments. The Shape I'm In is obviously great, and also has that same "lighthearted at the time, revealing in hindsight" quality that other songs from this album do. W.S. Walcott and Stage Fright are also two of their best songs. Daniel & The Sacred Harp has grown on me. It is such a creative arrangement and has an interesting thing to express. The vocals are so great and the arrangement so interesting, that I can see looking over a few lyric sections that seem weak when analyzing. Though the early version of this song does have a very fresh, immediate feel, and the arrangement isn't as developed. The released version feels a bit crowded and over-arranged at times with Rick's vocals and fiddle and everything else going on, so perhaps the demo is as good or better. The song still has that really ambitious/maybe not quite making it-vibe to me, but it works for me more than it has in the past. The Rumor is definitely one of their best, and the vocals are amazing. Richard practically steals the entire show with his ascending vocal turns throughout the song.
Looking at this album now, I can say I considerate the equal of the first two albums. When you think about it, Stage Fright is kind of an inversion of The Band album. The Band had the group together in a clubhouse environment, carefully working through the arrangements of finely crafted story songs, with a natural sonic feel. Stage Fright reversed that - instead of a clubhouse environment, the setting was a more temporary makeshift studio in the Woodstock Playhouse. They took much less time creating the album, which resulted in a more immediate sound which was beautifully described as Todd Rundgren's "polaroid sound". And finally, instead of the more finely crafted story songs, the songwriting shifted focus and we began to see a more personal focus on the band and it's members. Think of the two album covers. The Band has a sepia toned photo, set against a natural dark brown. The group and their songs are seen through a vintage, old-world lens that reminds us of another time. On Stage Fright, there is no true cover photo (I am excluding the wrap-around poster as the official cover seems to be the painting.) Yet the picture is more focused, it's saturated with vibrant colors (like a psychedelic-tinged wood grain), and we see the Band through a clearer lens for the first time in their songs.
The album Stage Fright reminds me of Robbie's new album, which is
maybe what caused me to listen to it. Like Clairvoyant, the album
strongly features more personal and real themes (though still in a bit
of a mysterious/distant way) that came to the surface naturally.