A report from Paris
by Geoffrey CannonAn review of a concert by The Band at the Olympia in Paris at the end of May/beginning of June 1971. The review was published in Melody Maker (now merged with NME) June 5, 1971. The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.
Thanks to Serge Daniloff for sending us a copy of the original article.
No difficulty knowing when you've just finished hearing a great rock concert. Because you'll be in the middle of a great crowd of people standing on their seats, holding their arms up in V's, cheering, begging for more.
And others, sitting and stomping their feet so the auditorium itself becomes a drum, vibrating and pulsing with sound. And you'll be stomping too; and, looking around, everyone is grinning like idiots. And then the musicians come on stage, their energy drained and replaced by the emotion of having done it, of having played, at that time, on that day, exactly their best.
They know it, you know it. They smile, half-wave, try to speak, can't make it to say anything coherent, and walk off slowly with bent shoulders, like athletes do. Gifts have been exchanged.
That's how it was last week at the Olympia, Paris, when The Band played. I guess hundreds of you who are reading this failed to get in to the Albert Hall; you'll be sickened to know that The Olympia was not more than two-thirds full. A friend in Paris told me that some of The Band's European gigs had even been cancelled, for lack of interest. But, everyone who turned up at The Olympia made it clear that he or she was a fanatic for American rock music.
"Oo-oh, you don't kno-ow the shape I'm in." No sooner were they on stage than they'd started playing full out, coming to terms with the song they knew well, but which had to be recreated. On stage, the thought that each musician is putting into his part of the song and his concentration on the others' playing immediatly pitches the atmosphere in the concert hall up. There's a lot of feelings of mutual respect.
They play just one chord of "The Weight" and are greeted with rapturous cheers of recognition. The studio perfomance, impressive enough on Music From Big Pink, comes alive and alight in performance. The Band are reckoned as masters in the studio. It's the other way around for me. Their records work best as a reminder of hearing them live. And however closely worked out their live performances are, each is, I'm sure, different from the others. In concert, Chigago and Creedence copy their records. Not so with the Band.
The song soars up, and Robbie bends back from his guitar like he's been playing rock 'n' roll for the past ten years (which he has). He has a faintly shabby air on stage, wearing an off-white suit which is a bit crumpled, with no tie; and he wrestles with the fingering of his guitar. But there's no hesitation with the runs of music that he pours out. The theme of "The Weight", as they play it once again, and well, is carried on their shoulders. "I pulled into Nazareth, was feeling about haf-past dead." They take the heaviness away from you as they play, and give it sense and shape, like all great performers can do.
Robbie gives a little abstracted nod of his head, taps his foot, mutters "1, 2;1, 1, 2," and they start a new song, Garth Hudson massive behind an accordion, and Richard Manuel playing drums in a precise, almost pedantic style, pulling his elbow right out behind him. "Strawberry Wine". The sound comes out chuckling, but with a mystery in it too, like a story heard in childhood. "Climbing up the walls, and laughing in the dark" - that line jumps out like a part of a conversation heard at the other end of a room. The words have the complexity that Dylan had at the time The Band played with him, without his intensity. There's room to stretch out, both for the musicians and for the audience.
Rick Danko, who seems as different as Robbie, begins to sing. "See the man with the stage-fright, got caught in the spot-light." And there he is. Garth, back on organ, sends out scuds and sheets of sounds. Then Levon Helm, with "Up On Cripple Creek", backed by that amazing jiggering and juddering Jewsharp sound.
An interval; and they've been playing for nearly an hour. An American voice behind me "It's kept it's punch, y'know. From cheap bars. Don't get spaced out to much." His girl nods. He's right. After ten minutes, The Band are back, and another voice bellows "We got our sleeping bags!" Robbie gives a little grin, and, again, they go straight into the first number: "The W. S. Walcott Medicine Show." Garth plays tenor sax, and as he shambles up stage with it - yet another instrument he's mastered - he has the air of a man roped into a village hall dance band from the audience.
Two men with Arriflexes walk across the stage constantly, filming. Sometimes it gets to be a scrum, as various members of the band squeeze past to take up and play a new instrument. The Band's astonishing virtuosity comes over as entirely unforced: it's as if they pick up in any instrument that happens to be at hand. Levon sings his song, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", and the grand themes The Band stands for come into focus. He strains up as he plays and sings, his lips an inch away from the mike. "Like my father before me, I will work the land." And then Richard Manuel sweeps into "Standing by your window pain."
The Band sing about the American experience. The whole thing, for the last two and a half hundred years. They've taken on the epic that the greatest American novelists and film-makers struggle at: the sense of the limit-less horizon; the cutting down of hope by violence; building from nothing; the jokes and sayings that springs from pain (of which the Blues are just one part; The Poor White tradition is also strong); wind, weather, snow, mountains; self-reliance against too many odds. As Richard Manuel sang on, phrases from "Across the Great Divide", made coherent by the beautful lament of the music sprang out:
I've mentioned less than half the songs they played: I counted, I think, 20, and the concert went on for two hours, with two tumultuous encores. They ended with the perfect number for The Hawks: Little Richard's "Slippin' and Slidin'". Richard Manuel played stride piano, as every singer in the band roared the words into his mike. Garth Hudson surfed and soared on organ, everyone leaps up, laughing, shouting and saluting The Band. And then the rhythm of the foot-stompin', until we were all of us exhausted with pleasure. A great evening. Listen, I really hope you made it to the Albert Hall.