Vogue Theatre, Vancouver, 21 July 1994
by Peter VineyCopyright © 1995 Peter Viney.
The Vogue Theatre on Vancouver's Granville Street is a converted 1930s cinema, complete with pastel pink hoardings. Panhandlers and street musicians line the sidewalk hustling for spare change, Crazies mouth off at passers-by. It somehow seemed a fitting scene for The Band - a slightly quieter version of Yonge Street in Toronto where The Hawks learned their trade. Ten minutes before show time, and it's nearly empty. There can't be more than 400 seats in the building anyway. There's no merchandise. No programmes, no baseball hats, no T-shirts. The only guy trying to sell anything has a pile of cassettes by support singer, Michael Kroll. You can get a ticket for beer or wine - $4 each, or three for $10. I got my concert ticket on the day. I'd read an interview with Rick Danko in that morning's 'Vancouver Sun' and lit out for Ticketmaster. There were posters all round the city for J. J.. Cale the previous night, but not one poster or flier for The Band.
'A ticket for
The Band, please.'
Michael Kroll played to fewer than a hundred people. At the back of the hall a bunch of guys hooted and hollered through his act, until a gentleman stood up carefully, turned round and pleaded with sweet but emphatic reason, 'Slow down, guys. Slow down.'
He meant it.
Suddenly the hall was full. The P.A. seemed to be running through Levon Helm's Desert Island Disc selection (First Time I Met The Blues etc.) until The Band strolled on stage on the dot of nine. There was a five minute standing ovation before they hit a note. It took thirty five years of paying dues to earn that. The mood was amiable. There was none of that surge of charisma you get from McCartney or Jagger or Bowie. They didn't lead off with anything spectacular either, they just warmed themselves up with the old blues standard Caldonia. It gave you a chance to check out the line up. Twin drum kits on stage left for Levon Helm and Randy Ciarlante, Rick Danko on bass ambling around the whole centre area, then Jim Weider on guitar, a slight figure filling the biggest boots in rock guitar playing (well, I always thought Robbie had seen Clapton off in The Last Waltz). Behind Jim Weider, Garth Hudson was conjuring keyboard magic, a cowboy hat and his resplendent beard covering his face. I reckon Garth got through the whole 90 minutes without one shot of eye contact with the audience. On the extreme stage right new piano player Richard Bell was filling the auditorium with smoke from a very large handrolled cigarette. He surely needed something to calm his nerves. After all, the latest album, Jericho, featured no less than three posthumous piano performances (Richard Manuel, Stan Szelest and Champion Jack Dupree). And Billy Preston who replaced Stan Szelest got himself unavoidably detained in prison.
The audience were up for Remedy from the new album. It was a single in Canada at least, and had instant recognition. The sound was full and tight, and they showed none of their old reputation for playing quietly. I guess the amplification was designed for a bigger venue. The Vogue's acoustics were poor and the sound bounced around, muddying things up. They had better instrument separation twenty years ago in the stadiums. Everyone must have had Jericho - Blind Willie McTell followed to more self congratulatory applause after two bars. The Band did the best version of Dylan's best eighties song on the album, and reproduced it pretty well exactly on stage. The switch between Rick Danko's voice and Levon Helm's brought back the real feel of The Band. The fourth number was the first survivor from the original line-up, It Makes No Difference. Then back to Jericho for Springsteen's Atlantic City, with Levon on mandolin. Something in Levon's accent and interpretation makes a great song even greater. I began to wonder if they were going to run through Jericho more or less in order. They were pretty canny though. The power of the material shouts out on Blind Willie McTell and Atlantic City, and they were the two tracks that I found myself programming again and again when I first got the album.
Time to assess the new boys. On It Makes No Difference, my neighbour turned to me during the guitar part.
'Too loud. Robbie wouldn't've played that!'
No, he wouldn't. Not exactly. But Robbie hasn't been there for eighteen years now, and Jim Weider's been playing with them for nearly ten.
Because Richard Manuel had doubled on piano and drums, he'd needed two replacements. Randy Ciarlante enabled Levon to go off on mandolin, though not as much as I'd expected. More often they used twin drummers as a powerhouse. Richard Bell played keyboards as well as just piano, which allowed synth backing while Garth soloed on saxophone. Richard Manuel's voice is irreplaceable. There's no argument about that. Careful selection of numbers helped cover the problem, while Randy Ciarlante filled in the third part well where needed.
After Atlantic City, it was back catalogue time (at last, for some of the audience). Levon stayed on mandolin for a suitably ragged and loping Rag Mama Rag, which was followed by Caledonia Mission, the first offering from Music From Big Pink, which got the biggest cheer of the evening so far. (The audience was patting itself on the back for recognising a relatively lesser known song from the first album). Randy Ciarlante had moved to bass for this, allowing Rick Danko to play guitar. In the years of small clubs and sitting in, Danko has seemed to avoid bass whenever possible. When they toured with The Cate Brothers in the eighties, he'd spent most of the evening strumming acoustic. Danko seems to relish concentrating on vocals alone. Maybe it's because bass comes so easily to him. Throughout the evening he wanders around, spinning off melodic bass parts effortlessly. If you listen back to the basement tapes (especially the illegal ones), Danko's meandering bass seems to dominate everything. He always seems happier when the bass parts avoid simple riffing. Maybe he just gets bored. Anyhow, on the next song, Levon took over bass for the repetitive riffing throughout a hypnotic version of Crazy Mama - a J.J. Cale cover. He seemed in his element, crouching low in modified duck walk position. I recalled that Levon had given Robbie bass lessons thirty five years back.
The boogie mood stayed with them for Muddy Waters' Stuff You Gotta Watch, again from the new album. That was the last we were going to hear from Jericho, though. It was getting to oldies time. Stage Fright gave way to The Weight (with Randy Ciarlante taking over Richard Manuel's verse). There are at many different recorded versions of The Weight by Band members in circulation, if you include bootlegs. The only one where the words exactly match Music From Big Pink is the Robbie Robertson version from the Seville Guitar Legends concert. He should know, but it's Levon's song now. It's so familiar that it's impossible to judge. You're too busy enjoying. And beer throwing (as a means of appreciation?) is getting distracting.
The surprise of the night was next, with an instrumental version of Jimmy Cliff's Many Rivers To Cross, led by Jim Weider picking out the melody. The people round me were arguing over which song it was for at least two minutes. This very much showcased the new guys. Then comes a predictable sequenceOphelia, Life Is A Carnival and The Shape I'm In. If you're an aficionado of the various live performances from the seventies and eighties on video, you'll have multiple versions of all of them. It's sad in a way that the same few songs get repeated from such a wide and rich repertoire (although their other two staples The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and Up On Cripple Creek were both missing at Vancouver). And that was it for the main show. For the first time in the whole evening one of them spoke. Rick Danko simply said, 'Thank you, Canada.'
The encore started in time-honoured style. Garth sidled back on and began the long keyboard introduction (known since the Rock of Ages set as The Genetic Method) which becomes Chest Fever. I thought back to Wembley in 1974. Throughout The Band's set there the guys in front of me had loudly discussed the merits of various Yes albums, ignoring what was going on right in front of them. As Garth had started the Genetic Method, one had turned to the other:
'Wow! That's grrreat. Sounds like Pink Floyd.'
It didn't then, and it doesn't now. There have been longer Genetic Method solos (check out the fairly easily available 'Italian' live album Live in Washinton (sic) DC for an amazing one), but this was fine enough. The surge of crowd adrenalin as The Band re-assembled behind him and took off into Chest Fever was electric.
Just as they did on Rock of Ages, they wound up the whole thing with (I Don't Want To) Hang Up My Rock 'n' Roll Shoes. Richard Bell improved on the earlier attempt with stunning pyrotechnics on piano. The audience stomped and shouted until the microphones were unplugged and taken away.
How do you sum them up? As legends certainly, not as dinosaurs. They're still tighter and funkier than almost any of the opposition. Levon and Rick still have that magical vocal quality. As they've both said, Garth is the musical centre and leader (on tapes of a Tokyo performance earlier in the same extended tour, Rick introduces Garth as 'our leader'), and he's back on board. The criticisms of a quarter of a century ago still apply. They are amiable rather than charismatic, and however much Levon derided Robbie Robertson's performance in The Last Waltz as hogging the limelight, Robbie, the non-singer, had the tangible charisma on stage. Every reviewer has pointed out their dilemma nowadays. They lack a material writer without Robbie. As long as their choice remains as sure as it was with Dylan's Blind Willie McTell and Springsteen's Atlantic City, they can overcome that. There's a pretty reasonable reservoire of available songs from those two particular guys without going much further. And no one has access to more (and so they say, still unheard) Basement material than they do. Maybe they can get Danko writing more. He contributed no songs to Jericho. After all, he co-wrote This Wheel's On Fire, and a slew of great stuff on his 1977 solo album. He also contributed to two songs on the new Jules Shear album, Healing Bones and one on the recent Danko, Fjeld, Andersen set. Maybe he's saving material for the rumoured imminent second solo album. Whatever, his track record might be good, but he's hardly prolific.
Plenty has been said by The Band about Robbie Robertson. Barny Hoskyn's Across The Great Divide is marked by a growing dislike for Robbie as the book progresses. Levon's This Wheel's On Fire contains increasingly vehement diatribes (Robbie didn't sing, wasn't a singer, didn't like to sing). Rick Danko in The Vancouver Sun was quoted as saying:
'Jericho is the result of everybody collaborating, paying attention and giving 2000 per cent. It's not one person being a dickhead. Why The Band broke up? You can likely hear it in the later records. It wasn't really a Band project anymore. Kind of like Roger Waters and Pink Floyd.'
But some of Robbie Robertson's solo songs - Somewhere Down The Crazy River, Fallen Angel, Breaking The Rules, Soap Box Preacher - eclipse anything The Band have added to their repertoire. They not only have the quality, they also show that Robbie has listened and continued to evolve - check out his production on Twisted Hair. It's hard to imagine Robbie playing a 400 seat hall either, and impossible to imagine him doing it with no publicity campaign. I don't know if that's a criticism of The Band or a compliment. In any case, Robbie has his own agenda, and the album with The Red Road Ensemble Music for The Native Americans. When The Band got their Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame Award this year, Robbie turned up, but Levon stayed away. Robbie was the most notable absentee of all from the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration, though Levon was there. It's said that the two men will not patch up their differences. That doesn't stop The Band using material that would be perfect for them. I'd love to see Levon and Rick wrapping their voices around Breaking The Rules or Soap Box Preacher. I'd love to hear what textures Garth might add.
I guess The Band need a new publicist, or maybe they're just so popular in Canada that one interview in the morning paper was free publicity and all that they needed . They could get their act together on revenue-doubling merchandise (I'd have bought a T-shirt, a programme and a baseball cap at least) and someattempt at stage lighting wouldn't go amiss. But the new guys are great. The Band were obviously enjoying themselves as much as the audience. And no one sounds like The Band.