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Watkins Glen?

by Patrick Brennan

[Live at Watkins Glen
In 1995, Band fans were more than mildly surprised when Capitol released "Live At Watkins Glen," a partial record of the boys' appearance at the legendary 1973 New York rock festival. Purchasers were treated to a stunning performance by the group, with a songlist that included rare castings of "Don't Ya Tell Henry," "The Rumor," "Time To Kill," and "Back To Memphis." Given both the paucity of new releases by the original quintet and the status of what is generally regarded as the largest rock concert in history, Watkins Glen was greeted with near reverence by the true believers. Five years later, the awe is still in place.

A recent internet sampling of opinions about the disc testifies to the place the concert holds in the collective hearts of Band fans. "The Band Watkins Glen Cd is one of my favorite CD's and would be a fine addition to your collection," wrote Richard Krivisky, continuing that "It is truly an amazing testament to the best band ever! Its so tight." Martin Rudow agrees, writing "I like this cd a lot.... Levon's opening number is wonderful." And the venerable Diamond Lil weighs in with "I have the Watkins Glen cd..and I really like it. Of course, it's short and incomplete, and I essentially bought it for that version of Rick doing 'Lovin you is...", but I do like it and listen to it often." Lil does voice an opinion that seemed to be almost universally shared, that the document was somewhat short given the assumed length of the show.

One writer commented on what was perhaps the most interesting moment during the show. Levon Helm told a story that rain drove the group from the stage midset, but that a genially served Garth Hudson remounted his keyboard throne and played the storm away. Wrote Ragtime Willie, "The thunderstorm break is one of these electrifying moments and when Garth's bursts out... that's pure magic." Indeed, Garth's break--aptly named "Too Wet Too Work"--captures the brilliance of the Band's organist quite well.

Oddly enough, a few worthies recorded their misgivings about the disc. Charlie Young offered, "I own the 'Watkins Glen CD' and think that it's OK, but lacking and length and something else I can't quite pinpoint." Jonathan Katz goes one step further, saying, "Its a good quality Band performance and worth the price.... The song selection is what distinguishes it from the several live performances officially released. Some have said that all of the tracks are not from WG, and that may be true." Given the controversy surrounding the "overdub question" with regards to the Basement Tapes and the Last Waltz, it would seem almost impossible to believe that the group would release a Watkins Glen disc that didn't contain Watkins Glen performances. Well, as is usual, the impossible has once again occurred.

I was drawn to this story innocently enough. Soon after Watkins Glen, the Band performed at Roosevelt Stadium with a group they shared the stage with at Watkins Glen, the Grateful Dead. A boot of the first show there--from July 31, 1973 and generally regarded as one of the worst Band shows ever committed to tape--has been around for years. But recently the second day's show has also surfaced, the well-titled "Roosevelt Stadium" on the Deep Six imprint. Fortunately, the group's execution is markedly improved. Three shows performed within days of each other (Watkins Glen having occurred on July 28) are now available, and the listener has a unique chance to compare three closely-knit Band concerts. Or so I thought.

All three shows open with the Chuck Berry chestnut "Back To Memphis." Then things get a bit strange. While WG continues with "Endless Highway", the RS shows reprise the Motown standard "Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever," and "Endless Highway" appears on both RS shows eighth. Even more problematic is the radical differences between the WG performances and the RS shows. On the WG "Loving You," the group kicks the song together, while on the RS boots, Rick Danko begins the song alone with a bass groove. Had the group scrapped the WG arrangement just for the RS shows? I guess that's possible. Differences in the various performances also crop up in "I Shall Be Released" and "Cripple Creek," but then something truly bizarre happens. "Don't Ya Tell Henry," "The Rumor," and "Time To Kill" appear on WG; not one of these three songs appear duing either RS performance. Did the group scrap the WG songlist in favor of the running order from RS where both Jersey shows are essentially the same? Call in the reinforcements.

Now I must admit, I have a little something riding on this. I was one of the lucky 750,000 people who attended Watkins Glen, and I was a committed enough Band fan that I made my way up to the front of the stage for their part of the show. Since then, I've passed on a number of chances to purchase boots of the show, most likely because I didn't want to sully my memory the show. However, these seeming contradictions forced my hand. I contacted the estimable Peter Viney and asked him if he had a boot of the show. Luckily, he did. Within days I had a fair copy of the show, complete with the warm Bill Graham introduction, and I sat down in a recording studio to compare the boot with the official release.

The reults of the listening test are shocking to say the least. After a few hours of analysis, I can safely say that the only material on the Capitol release of WG that is from the actual show is Bill Graham's intro, Garth's "Too Wet To Work," and the "Jam." Even to that point, all three are heavily edited. Otherwise, no song on the WG release is from that concert. Even more disturbing is the presence of "Henry," "The Rumor," and "Time To Kill,' none of which were even performed at the show. These discoveries beg a host of questions, but first let's deal with the nuts and bolts.

Bill Graham: "'Cause...uh...we've waited a long time to hear music which is real close to our's such a long time, like it' it's like waiting for good wine, it's worth the wait and it's been such a long time for us. We'd like to introduce them to you because they're very close to us...." With that ramble, promoter extrordinaire Bill Graham introduces each member of The Band to the massive audience. Someone in the group begins a handclap which leads into "Back To Memphis." On the boot, Robbie takes the first solo while Richard pounds out a Jerry Lee Lewis figure. On the Capitol release, Garth takes the first solo and Richard is barely audible. After some delay, Rick Danko starts up a funky bass line ala "Don't Do It" that Levon starts to support. Eventually the entire group falls into "Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever." On the official release--as the fourth song in the set-- the entire group comes in together. Already, it's painfully obvious that the Capitol release bears little resemblence to the actual show.

At Watkins Glen, the Band then continued with "Shape "I'm In," "The Weight,' and "Stage Fright," none of which made the official release. Richard then began his intro to "I Shall Be Released,' wherein he hits an obvious clam (musical mistake) then rewrites the second half of the intro on the fly. Capitol however gives us a letter perfect performance. Driven by a manic piano, "Endless Highway" then makes it's debut, a raggedly energetic look at life on the road. The official version of the song is staid in comparison, with none of Richard's rock 'n roll drive. In fact, my guess is that the Capitol version is a studio recording with the audience overdubbed.

Now comes some real confusion. My addled memory of the event is suspect, but I swear the rain started during "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." I recall commenting that the soaked concert grounds looked like Dixie was right there grovelling in the mud. But Levon's story of Garth's magic would place the rainstorm right after "Endless Highway," as Mr. Hudson's intro to "Chest Fever" begins at this point on the boot. Now, the Capitol release gives us an extremely shortened form of Garth's improv, but at least it finally matches at least a portion of the actual concert. But, surprise, on the boot there's no thunder, there's no rain, nothing at all signifying any sort of delay. The group comes back out and tears into "Chest Fever;" they follow that with "Dixie/Across The Great Divide." At this point on the boot, the rain is obviously falling and the group breaks.

When the rain ends and the Band retakes the stage, they evidentally feel the need for at least a short soundcheck. Thus, we get "Jam," which also appears in a shortened form on the official release. When the improv finally dies down, they hit "Saved" and "Cripple Creek." The latter is performed much faster than the Capitol release and suffers in places from feedback, a problem no doubt associated with the weather break. Also, between the last two songs you can hear the "Louder, can you hear that?" command from the stage which appears on the Capitol disc just before "Jam." The boot continues with "W.S.Walcott's Medicine Show" which is followed by the "Rooster Song" and a snippet of "Ain't That A Shame." "Slippin' and Slidin'" and "Rag, Mama, Rag." complete the boot performance.

It is barely worth commenting on the presence of "Henry," "The Rumor," and "Time To Kill" on the official release.

I also choose not to comment on the "Too Wet To Work" story.

It's easy in hindsight to pick up on the flaws. The tone and presence of the snare drum changes from song to song, as does the tone of the bass guitar. The performances are near perfect, these from a group that had just come off an 18 month vacation. And the songlist bears little resemblence to other shows just days later.

The official release claims that what you are hearing "is drawn from the most complete available tape of the Band's Watkins Glen performance." That is a falsehood, told with certitude by one Chris Morris of Billboard Magazine. However, the saddest element of this entire facade is in the Capitol credits. "Produced by THE BAND" would mean that the members of the group were involved in it. But weirder is the credit to Wayne Watkins as the reissue producer. First of all, it's no reissue. Secondly, is the use of this person with the uncannily ironic last name some kind of in-joke at the consumer's expense? I must confess, I hope I don't find out.

Finally, I emailed a few people that I was working on this article. One reply hit home, revealing that many inside the present Band organization feel that the Watkins Glen disc should be pulled. I agree. And the Watkins Glen disc is awfully good; the performances of "Henry" and "The Rumor" are exquisite. It just ain't Watkins Glen, folks.

Funny, though, I still love'em.

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