Band’s ‘Stage Fright’ revisited

By Tom Von Malder | Feb 12, 2021
Photo by: Capitol/UMe The Band's "Stage Fright."

Owls Head — The Band: Stage Fright 50th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition (1970, Capitol/UMe, LP, 7-inch, 2 CDs + Blu-ray). “Stage Fright” was The Band’s third brilliant album in a row, after “Music from Big Pink” (1968) and “The Band” (1969). While it did not quite receive the same critical praise as the other two, the album did bring us classics in “The Shape I’m In,” “Stage Fright,” “The Rumor” and “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show,” all written by Robbie Robertson, who supplies booklet notes here and had the album’s song order rearranged to match the original intention. Robertson writes that a different sequence was used on the album “to feature and encourage Richard (Manuel) and Levon’s (Helm) songwriting participation.” The original song order pulls one into the “Stage Fright” concept immediately, opening with “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show.”

The deluxe boxed edition comes with the newly remixed and remastered album on vinyl, CD and Blu-ray, with the latter also containing 5.1 surround sound version of the album and hi-resolution stereo versions of the album, bonus tracks and live concert. The new mix was done with Bob Clearmountain. While Robertson writes that Glyn Johns and Todd Rundgren “did a terrific job on the original mixes in London while The Band was on the Festival Express tour across Canada with Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead,” he points out that the group had been involved in the mixing process before and so it always felt like the “album was a little unfinished.”

There is a new clarity, even depth, to the recordings, which I very much enjoy. The album CD includes two unreleased alternate mixes of “Strawberry Wine” and “Sleeping,” and seven loose late-night tracks from a Calgary hotel jam session between Robertson, Manuel and Rick Danko. The latter recordings were made while the album was in the mixing stage. The box set also contains a previously unreleased June 1971 concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall, which Robertson calls “one of the greatest live concerts The Band ever played.” Also included is an exclusive reproduction of the Spanish pressing of The Band’s 1971 7-inch vinyl single for “Time to Kill,” backed with “The Shape I’m In,” in their new stereo mixes. In addition to Robertson’s notes, the booklet contains a reprint of Robert Hilburn’s original review of the album for the Los Angeles Times, notes by tour photographer John Scheele and 14 pages of his photographs of the group, as well as other vintage photos. There also are three lithographs, suitable for framing.

The main album itself was recorded over 12 days at the since-burned-down Woodstock Playhouse in Woodstock, N.Y., where the band members lived. The Band consisted of Danko on bass, vocals and fiddle; Robertson on guitar and vocals; Manuel on keyboards, drums and vocals; Helm on drums, vocals, mandolin and guitar; and Garth Brooks on keyboards, accordion and saxophone. Manuel passed in 1986, Danko in 1999 and Helm in 2012, leaving Hudson and Robertson as the only surviving members.

Among the many flavors of Americana on the album is the sense of a rural church in “Daniel and the Sacred Harp,” which is about being willing to sell one’s soul. “Strawberry Wine” is a strong rocker and “Just Another Whistle Stop” is an optimistic song about there being better days ahead. Robertson’s sense of humor comes through in “The Shape I’m In,” as Manuel sings: “I just spent 60 days in the jailhouse/For the crime of having no dough, no, no/Now, here I am, back on the street/For the crime of having nowhere to go.”

The Calgary Hotel Recordings include two attempts at “Get Up Jake,” Robertson’s “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show” and “Calgary Blues,” and covers of “Before You Accuse Me” (Bo Diddley), “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” (Huey Piano Smith) and “Mojo Hannah” (Clarence Paul and Andre Williams).

The terrific live show includes five songs from “Stage Fright” among the 20 performed. All the classics are here, including an outstanding “The Weight,” “King Harvest (Has Surely Come),” “Chest Fever” with its lengthy organ intro, “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and their cover of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released. Other covers include Stevie Wonder’s “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever” and Holland-Dozier-Holland’s “Don’t Do It.”

The two CDs in the set are also available as a stand-alone release, if one cannot afford the box set. Grade: box set A; live concert CD A+

Joyann Parker: Out of the Dark (Hopeless Romantics CD). This is the second album for the Minneapolis-based singer-songwriter, who here co-writes all 11 songs with guitarist Mark Lamoine. Parker also co-produced the album with Lamoine and Kevin Bowe (Etta James, Jonny Lang, the Replacements). Parker has a terrific voice and she and Lamoine have written several very good songs. Five songs on the album were completed before the pandemic forced a four-month break in recording, allowing Parker to re-examine what she wanted to accomplish with the album. Resuming in June, the album was not finished until August, as musicians had to enter the studio one at a time.

During the break, Parker wrote the title song, which ends the album. In a press release, she says the song is “about the way I’ve been feeling and changing over the past year, figuring out who I am. I was coming out of my own darkness.”

The bluesy “Gone So Long,” with slide guitar, turns into a Southern rocker, while the solid first single, “Carry On,” is blues rock and a song of perseverance that uses some of the Book of Isaiah for its lyrics. Rory Hoffman adds harmonica to “Bad Version of Myself,” which is softer R&B and rock. Several of the songs contain warnings, such as the melodic and upbeat “What Did You Expect” and “Predator,” with its Latin beat and lyrics about “soulless serpent” men. Yet, on the more raucous, New Orleans-flavored “Dirty Rotten Guy,” that is the type of guy she wants. So, it is a case of don’t do as I act, but do as I say.

“Either Way” is a ballad, while “Come On Baby (Take Me Dancing)” merges R&B and pop, and has a nice sax break. Tim Wick, a Professor Longhair disciple, plays piano on “Hit Me Like a Train” and “Dirty Rotten Guy.” Another standout track is the low, smokey and well-sung “Fool For You.”

Parker and Lamoine also have a live show, “The Music of Patsy Cline,” which is now in its third year with more than 200 sold-out performances. Grade: A

Ten Years After: A Sting in the Tale Deluxe Edition (2017, Deko CD). This is a reissue of the veteran band’s 2017 self-released album, the first with its new lineup and first album since 2008, with four live tracks added. The current band consists of founding and constant members Chick Churchill (keyboards) and Ric Lee (drums), plus vocalist-guitarist Marcus Bonfanti and bassist Colin Hodgkinson (Alexis Korner), who both joined in 2014.

Most will know the British blues rockers Ten Years After from their highly successful first incarnation, 1966-1974, when Alvin Lee (no relation to Ric) was the guitarist and vocalist and Leo Lyons was the bassist. In five years (1968-1973), the band had eight Top 40 albums in the United Kingdom and had 12 albums land in the Billboard Top 200. Their song “I’m Going Home” was a smash after it appeared in the film “Woodstock.” Other hits were “I’d Love to Change the World,” “Hear Me Calling” and “Love Like a Man.” The band reformed for a year in 1983 and then for good in 1988, although Alvin Lee, known for his fiery guitar playing, left in 2003. Lee subsequently died in 2013.

The album opens with two of its top rockers in “Year of the Vandals,” which features a train-like sound as it closes and which appropriately leads to “Iron Horse.” Both “Stoned Alone” and “Up in Smoke” are slower, softer and a bit mournful. The latter has a nice melodic coda. “Miss Constable” is bluesy, “Retired Hurt” is opened by an organ and the highlight “Suranne Suranne” is a melodic blues rocker. Also good, “Two Lost Souls,” is fueled by harmonic and organ. “Diamond Girl” is a bit boring until it speeds up for its second half. “Guitar Hero” is in the band’s classic style, with clean sound.

The four live tracks include a 6:30 version of “I’d Love to Change the World” – the second of the four, not the last as listed on the CD package – while the other three are versions of this album’s “Land of the Vandals,” “Silverspoon Lady” and “Last Night of the Bottle.” The live recordings were made after the album in Erfurt, Germany. Grade: B+

Diana Ross & the Supremes: Sing and Perform “Funny Girl”: The Ultimate Edition (1968, Motown/Real Gone, 2 CDs). I had been intended to review this 2020 release for several weeks, but never quite got around to it. Now, with the recent passing of Mary Wilson, who wrote a booklet introduction, I am including it to honor her, although the album really was a showcase for Diana Ross and probably helped her get the lead in the film version of “Lady Sings the Blues” (1972), which earned Ross an Oscar nomination, won her a Golden Globe and which Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment is releasing on Blu-ray for the first time Feb. 23.

While “Lady Sings the Blues” was the biopic of Billie Holiday, “Funny Girl” was the Broadway musical story of Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice, played memorably by Barbra Streisand in the film version of “Funny Girl,” which came out in October, two months after The Supremes’ album on Aug. 26. Curiously, this album was released the same day as the group’s “Live at London’s Talk of the Town” album. Also, strangely, this is the only Supremes album to never be released on CD until now, although a version was made available for streaming and downloading in April 2014. The album was The Supremes’ 13th studio album.

This 2-CD set contains the mono and stereo versions of the whole album on the first disc, while the second disc removes excess backing vocals and features only the voices of The Supremes, who were then Ross, Wilson and Cindy Birdsong. There also are five bonus tracks on disc two.

Producer Gordy Berry picked nine songs from the Broadway show and the 10th was the new film title song, written specifically for the upcoming film. According to the booklet essay by George Solomon and Andrew Skurow, Gil Askey, who produced the album along with Berry, is quoted as saying the album was a “rush job,” recorded in two days. Jule Styne, who wrote the musical’s music – Bob Merrill wrote the lyrics – assisted in the studio during the recording sessions and wrote liner notes for the album, reproduced here, along with a 1987 interview. Styne died in 1994.

As was the Motown process at the time, the orchestra was recorded all on June 20, 1968. Lead and background vocals were added July 8 and July 22. Berry’s preference – disliked verbally by Styne – was to add backing vocals to the tracks; Styne would have preferred just the Supremes, as is heard on the second disc. On the opening “Funny Girl,” the added backing vocals are by The Blackberries (Sherlie Matthews, Clydie King, Venetta Fields), while for the rest of the album they were by Motown’s own The Andantes, made up of Jackie Hicks, Marlene Barrow and Louvain Demps. The Andantes cut background vocals on nearly all of the Motown records recorded in Detroit.

While the original album sounds great, and the orchestra is in fine form, it is so nice to just hear the Supremes on disc two. All three can be heard on “I Am Woman,” “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” “Cornet Man,” playfully on “His Love Makes Me Beautiful” and “Sadie Sadie.” Other classics in the score include “People,” “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty” and “I’m the Greatest Star.” The Supremes, when Florence Ballard still was with them, often performed “People” and “I am Woman” in their live shows.

The bonus tracks are alternate takes of “Cornet Man,” “His Love Makes Me Beautiful” and “Sadie Sadie”; an outtake, with some late flubs, of “I’m the Greatest Star” from the “Live T.C.B.” TV production; and a live solo “My Man” from Ross’ final engagement with The Supremes on Jan. 13, 1970 at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. The 32-page booklet also includes a history of the Broadway show by Joe Marchese and some classic photos form the original album’s cover photo sessions. Grade: A.

Diana Ross: Supertonic Mixes (Motown, Ume CD). This album, produced by Ross, takes 10 of her classic singles – three of which topped the dance charts – and has them remixed by Eric Kupper. Much of the remixing involves adding upbeat synthesizers, which works well on “Touch Me in the Morning” and “Surrender,” but really the overall effect is not that big. The songs – the melodies and the uplifting lyrics – are what matters and six of the nine were written by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, among my favorite songwriting teams. One misstep is to squeeze together “I’m Coming Out” and “Upside Down,” both written by Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers for Chic, in the brief opening track. Both original versions by Ross are forceful classics. Grade: B

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