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Festival Reports: A Joyous Return to Watatic

by Jeff McLaughlin

From the Boston Globe, July 31, 1984.
The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.

Sunday dawned with a mile-high azure sky. Plump cumulus clouds, floating beneath it like dirigibles, looked as dry as cotton balls. Here, at the Mt. Watatic Ski Area on the New Hampshire border, the sighs of relief could have filled the Graf Zeppelin. The fourth annual Great Northeast Arts & Energy Festival would be blessed with a perfect July day.

From Thursday on, forecasters cautioned that dreary, even raw and rainy weather was likely for the festival's return to Mt. Watatic (after a year in Laconia, N.H.), and producer David Werlin was worried the fourth edition might be the last.

But the glorious weather produced the largest last-minute box-office sale in the festival's history, and the 7000-plus attendance put Werlin's project in the black for the first time.

The last-minute rush, combined with the tiny on-site parking, did produce a logistical problem. At 12:30, the line of cars on the road leading in was crawling. People parked in pastures up to five miles away and walked or rode in shuttle buses. It took 60-90 minutes, but the day was magical, complaints few.

The audience was a harmonious blend of boisterous (as opposed to rowdy or truculent) beerdrinkers, mostly in their 20s; nuzzling couples in their 20s and 30s, many with children; intense fans of fine picking (a category without age limits); and the inevitable cadre of Epicurean space cadets getting one more wearing out of '60s-era tie-dyed shirts and Dr. Hook hats.

The festival was a perfectly paced eight hours of folk and country-rock music that reached its climax with an incandescent performance by The Band. Priscilla Herdman's pure soprano was followed by guitarist Alex DeGrassi with a lovely display of "Windham Hill music," the amalgam of folk, jazz and classical characteristic of that label. Then pianist Barbara Higbie and violinist Darol Anger, in the debut of their scintillating new quartet, showed Windham Hill's jazzier, harder-edged side in a fine set.

The bluegrass and blues band led by instrumental wizard David Bromberg - and joined by guitarist Artie Traum - was typically tight, the highlight coming on a tune Bromberg dubbed, "The Mt. Watatic Sunshine Granola Fiddle Medley No. 13," with a hard-driving triple-mandolin front-line. Arlo Guthrie and Shenandoah came out with a foot-to-the-floor approach to his "Motorcycle Song" that sent the energy level soaring. Guthrie lavished care on Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man," summoned the spirit of Woody Guthrie with "Oklahoma Hills Where I Was Born," and closed with an inspiring "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" that had a choir of thousands of voices.

The Band - Levon Helm, RickDanko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson, but minus Robbie Robertson - has been reunited since last summer. Early reviews were favorable, but no preparation for the virtuosic heat the group cooked up Sunday: no new tunes, just a searing reminder that The Band at its best was The Best. Looking extremely fit, with instrumental chops and mental telepathy at a razor-sharp level, The Band produced dancing delirium in front of the stage and huzzahs from the slopes.

Robertson's been "replaced" by four members of the Cate Brothers band from Arkansas and it's time for Band devotees to stop bemoaning Robertson's movie success. The Cates are superb country pickers with soul (Earl Cate's leads on guitar were exquisite), Helm and Danko have never sung better, Hudson can still take charge of any song any time on any instrument he chooses, Manuel's still the next best thing to Ray Charles... The Band may still be The Best, and Mt. Watatic was a triumph

The Band Plays on after Manuel's Death

by Steve Morse

From the Boston Globe, March 21, 1986.
The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.

The rock world was stunned recently by the suicide of Richard Manuel, pianist for the beloved '60s group The Band. Two weeks ago he hanged himself in a Florida hotel room. His action caught fellow members of the Band by complete surprise, according to singer/bassist Rick Danko, who vowed the group will continue as Manuel would have wished.

"I can't believe in a million years that he meant for that to happen. There was just no sign," Danko said in an interview that broke The Band's silence since the tragedy. "I'm still a little in shock -- a lot in shock, actually," Danko said by telephone this week from his home in Woodstock, N.Y. He was to about resume a tour that brings the Band to Boston's Channel club tonight.

"Things had been in a shining, bright place for us since we toured with Crosby, Stills & Nash last summer. And Richard really enjoyed being on the road. He enjoyed playing music, so I have to think this was just a god-damned silly accident," Danko said. "He had such a flair for dramatics that I think he was maybe just checking a new sophisticated knot. That may sound weird, but that's what I believe."

As for Manuel's general health, he noted, "He had had a few heart attacks, but the good Lord threw him back to us many, many times. He had also stopped drinking alcohol, except for nipping a bit. I truly loved him, and I'm truly going to miss him."substitute, Blonde Chapman, who has performed with the Beach Boys. They have since played four shows in the Midwest, starting in St. Louis, and all have been sold out.

"Four shows later, it's still a strange feeling. Richard touched a lot of people with his singing and his emotion, but life goes on," Danko said. "All we want to do is the right thing. It's the music that brought us together, and it's the music that has kept us together and will keep us together."

The group has, however, dropped from their set such Manuel songs as "You Don't Know Me" and "King Harvest." As Danko said sadly, "Those days are gone. I know I can't sing them."

Having become a late-'60s institution, and having toured with Bob Dylan and played with the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead before 600,000 fans at the Watkins Glen Festival in 1973, the Band broke up in 1976 after filming their last show, under the title "Last Waltz." But the group -- with charter members Danko, Manuel, Garth Hudson and Levon Helm but without guitarist Robbie Robertson -- reunited three years ago and have been on the upswing ever since.

They have not yet released a new album, but they recorded six new songs before Christmas and have been contemplating a live album. They also recently acted in a feature film, "Solitary Man," which will be released this summer. Directed by Mike Stouffer, who has made several National Geographic wildlife specials, it is a thriller set in a small Arkansas town. Danko plays the father of a boy who is kidnapped; Levon Helm plays the sheriff; Garth Hudson plays a recluse, and Manuel plays one of the men who helps find the kidnapper.

"The film was fun to do, but music is our life and is what we'll continue to do," said Danko, who also did eight acoustic shows with Manuel this winter, as well as playing with him on a brief Byrds reunion tour that featured several of the Band's songs.

"It's hard to believe he's not here, but I have to feel that what happened to Richard will be some sort of catapult for us," Danko concluded. "And I'm sure Richard would be glad we're treating it that way.

For The Band and Its Fans, Channel Concert Therapeutic

by Steve Morse

From the Boston Globe, March 24, 1986.
The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.

Following the suicide of charter member Richard Manuel two weeks ago, there was fear the Band might be kidding themselves by going back on the road so soon. Would they just be going through the motions? Would they cheapen their reputation by playing an embarrassing show? Would this only heighten the melancholy caused by Manuel's death?

The answers weren't hard to find. In a night that will live on as one of the best in their nearly 20-year history of playing in New England, they made their music serve as wondrous therapy for themselves and their fans. By the end of this barn-burning, almost two-hour show, the musicians had their arms raised triumphantly in the air and so did the fans. This was the healing side of rock 'n' roll -- the side you don't always hear about on the nightly news, but the side which ultimately keeps the music alive.

Leading the way were the remaining charter members Rick Danko (bass), Garth Hudson (keyboards and sax) and Levon Helm (drums). They pulled together and turned this into a celebration for the future, not a lament for the past. They brought a sharply honed edge to their old songs such as "Stage Fright," "Up on Cripple Creek" and "Java Blues," while rocking home in jubilant style on dance-party classics like "Hand Jive" and "Ain't Got No Home," a Clarence (Frogman) Henry tune that received a blasting sax solo from the usually tame Hudson.

Connecticut's Max Creek, a trippy, '60s-style group along the lines of the Grateful Dead, got the evening off to a buoyant start. And that's how it remained, for there were no tears shed nor long eulogies said (nothing at all, actually) about Manuel.

The music served as the eulogy, and there was a collective sense that Manuel would have approved. The Band sounded less cosmic than during his tenure, but they were more of a fundamental, pile-driving group with the new addition of rhythm guitarist Blondie Chaplin, who last played on Billy Swan's Black Tie tour. He teamed with lead guitarist Jim Weider for some accelerating exchanges that had the crowd screaming as though this were a stuffed-to-the- gills stadium, not a club.

New songs were few, but effective. The best was "The Battle is Over (and the War Goes On)," a plaint against money and corruption. It helped show that the Band, whose teaming of Southern fried boogie and elegant blues has always made them special, still have something to say for modern times and aren't just floating by on nostalgia.

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