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Stage Fright and Cahoots
by Rob BowmanFrom the article "Life Is A Carnival", Goldmine magazine, July 26, 1991, Vol.17, No.15, Issue 287.
© Rob Bowman and Goldmine magazine. Reprinted with permission.
For their next LP the Band decided to retreat back to Woodstock and record live at a little wood theater known as the Woodstock Playhouse. It was during the off season, and the performance was ostensibly to be for a small audience of locals. The Woodstock Town Council didn't see it that way. Instead, it envisioned being overrrun by residents of the Big Apple and New Jersey, and consequently turned thumbs down. The Band went ahead and used the occasion anyway, sans audience. Robertson brought in Todd Rundgren, whom he had met the year earlier when he produced Jesse Winchester's debut album, to engineer. The sessions were done pretty quickly (a total of about two weeks) as the Band had already worked out the songs, anticipating a live performance for the recording.
The new LP was called Stage Fright, with several of its songs being a direct respone to the craziness the Band found surrending it. In Robertson's mind, it was originally supposed to be a lighter, less serious, more rock'n'roll type of album.
"After The Band album, I thought this thing's being taken way to seriously," said Robertson. "Let's have a little bit of goof here. Let's do some touching things, let's do some funny things, and let's do more of just a good-time kind of record."
By the time Stage Fright was released in September 1970, several of the songs had become increasingly dark. Said Robertson: "It was named after the experience of having put ourselves in the public eye but we were kind of private people at the same time. Taking our music out and performing it, there was something very private about it and the way we performed it was not very flashy or showy. We just came for business so we could go on and play our hearts out. There was som kind of yin-yang between our nature and what concerts really were. It was almost like a classical music in performance than it was of coming out and wearing cut-off leotards and buckskins. We're not here for nonsense, we're not here for people to get drunk while we're playing anymore. We wanted to shed that skin. It was just a different thing. Not being very showy it all added up to this kind of stage fright thematic thing in our lives. It became so vulnerable and sensitive somehow, presenting this music in public."
The album had changed because the Band had changed. A few of the songs, such as "Strawberry Wine" and "W.S. Walcott Medicine Show,", seemed to reflect the groups original intentions. The latter opens with a crackling electric lead guitar (Robertson, in general, played much more guitar on this record) before telling a tale of one of the great southern travelling minstrel shows. Robertson had heard both Ronnie Hawkins and Levon Helm talk about these troupes (Hawkins had learned his patented camel walk from watching one such tent show). Between Robertson's writing, Helm, Danko and Manuel's singing and Hudson's sax solo (his first on record so far), the spirit of mystery, allure, music and sexuality that was the southern tent shows is captured perfectly.
"Daniel And The Sacred Harp", "The Shape I'm In" and "Stage Fright" were on the darker side. Daniel And The Sacred Harpe, ala "The Weight", is another allegory, replete with religious allusions. The story, of selling one's soul, is as old as the hills. The Band, utilizing Hudson's pump organ, Danko's fiddle, tambourine, acoustic and electric guitar, piano, bass and drums, gave it a whole new meaning. Helm took the role of the narrator, while Manuel played the part of Daniel.
"The Shape I'm In" and "Stage Fright" were to remain staples of the Band's repertoire right up until their last gig in 1976. The two songs combined say plenty about the state of the Band at this point. The former is a stomp, sung by Manuel, while on the latter Danko turns in one of the finest vocal performances of his life. Also of note on "Stage Fright" was Helm's wonderfully unpredictable ride pattern.
The Band decided to experiment with the finished LP by having Glyn Johns and Todd Rundgren do completely separate mixes. Everyone's memory is a little vague now, but it appears that, for the most part, they opted for John's work, although a few Rundgren mixes may have also made it into the final record.
With Stage Fright completed, the Band spent much of the next 12 months on the road before returning to Woodstock to begin working on their fourth album. Cahoots was released in October 1971. It was the first album recorded at Albert Grossman's Bearsville Studios. It was also the first time the Band had been in a regular studio setting for a full album since Big Pink.
The sessions were difficult, as the studio was still having the bugs worked out and the Band was undergoing internal problems. Hudson felt that Robertson's songs were also much more difficult. The structures, chord changes and arrangements were that much more complex. "It was harder for me to find something different for every song," said Hudson.
Robertson felt a lot of the ideas were only half-finished. "It was a frustrating, horrible feeling. I just wasn't as inspired to write. I was getting a little bit disillusioned by personal things and it was affecting me. I just didn't have the spirit to write. I feel, on a lot of things, this was a half-finished idea."
The album as a whole had a much brighter sound. "We had more clarity," continued Hudson, "more highs, which meant more punch. I used harder sound. The softer sound that made the earlier material a period piece dudn't fit in with the overall dynamics in the Cahoots album."
"It was kind of a phase," explained Robertson. " I don't like it. It's bright and cold to me. At the time there was like a race gion on trying to make loud records. At Capitol they were saying you should master this record with this guy and we did it. They just EQ it and limit it and make it sound a lot louder on the disc. In retrospect I think it's a mistake. I'd like to hear the album premastered."
"I was suspicious about it while we were mixing it and getting the cover together. But there is work in there that I still enjoy but it doesn't play comfortably for me, it nauseates me in places."
Despite some of the reservations cited above, the album does have its gems. First and foremost has to be "Life Is A Carnival". The metaphor is great and Danko's bass line is extremely funky, kicking the song along. (he had started playing fretless bass a year earlier, once more expanding the sonic resources of the Band.) The biggest lift, though, is the horn line, courtesy of legendary New Orleans R&B producer Allen Toussaint. Years before with Ronnie Hawkins, the Band had occasionally worked with a full horn section. "It resorted back to something that we had been into years before when we had little horn sections," said Robertson. "It was something we experimented with. We enjoyed the power that the horn sections gave us."
After hearing Lee Dorsey's brilliant Yes We Can LP, produced and arranged by Toussaint, Helm and Robertson thought it would be fun to use horns again.
"It was great," Robertson fondly recalled, "because the horns don't all play together. Other people would write horns and everybody would come in and everybody would go out. They would all start and stop at the same time. With Allen's thing, everybody'd play separately. It's kind of like a Dixieland approach."
(Another fabled arranger, Gil Evans, was originally approached to write charts for one other song found one Cahoots, "The Moon Struck One". Unfortunately, his schedule made such a collaberation an impossibility.)
Bob Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece" made its debut on Cahoots. (Dylans own version didn't see the light of day for another two months.) Helm's mandolin and Hudson's accordion lent the song a European feel. Their break after the first verse is especially descriptive. Helm's vocal has just the right, plaintive quality. Manuel vacated the piano to play the drums.
"4% Pantomime" was a fortunate stroke of mastery. Co-written by Van Morrison and Robertson and sung by Morrison and Manuel, it was the result of a chance visit by then-Woodstock resident Morrison to Robertson's house one afternoon. Robertson was in the process of writing a song, Morrison jumped in and "voila."
It was recorded in one take the same night. The title refers partially to the difference between Johnny Walker black and Johnny Walker red and partially to the incredible visual performance of Morrison and Manuel.
"Van and Richard were acting this whole thing out," described Robertson. "For a second when I was watching it, it became soundless and it all became visuals - people's hand and people's veins and people's necks. It was almost like this movement thing going on and the music was carrying itself."
The vocal performance was unbelievably soulful. Morrison and Manuel wail like two great Irish poets on fire. Robertson agreed: "It's bizarre and wild. It was a lot of fun to do it. It was an archive kind of thing that we actually put on record. I didn't know whether it ever meant anything to anybody else besides us because it was kind of a personal experience going on at the time." ("4% Pantomime", incidentally, contains the first reference to Morrison as the "Belfast Cowboy.")
Cahoots was closed out by the "The River Hymn." The song opened with Hudson's stoic nineteenth century parlor piano, after which Helm sings an ode to moments of pastoral beauty, power and grace, joined by Manuel on the bridge and Libby Titus (Helm's partner at the time) on the chorus. Lyrically, the song was in keeping with Cahoots' underlying theme of the disappearance of precious things once past their heyday. Musically it is quit unlike anything else in the band's canon.
"Where Do We Go From Here?" is a song that none of the members of the Band remember too fondly. "It's a shit-headed version," said Robertson. "We got into this thing, we got like hammer-headed. It was a terrible time working with these guys, to be really frank about it. It was just impossible to get anything better than we got on it. I don't like my choices. I don't like what I did then under the circumstances. There's a very moving something in there wanting to come out and it ain't there in this version."