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While The Band’s first two albums are rightly hailed as game changers in the history of rock and roll and as works of great musical art, the third release, Stage Fright often gets overlooked when critics are writing about the band. Those first two albums do cast a long shadow but in my view Stage Fright is at least the equal of them. And what’s more, the public seemed to agree as it was their highest charting album in both UK and USA, making #15 and #5.
Released in August 1970 it dials down the Americana of those first two releases and ups the quotient of electric guitar and rock. The Shape I’m In and the title track are both The Band classics and express the best of what they’re about on this record. Rambunctious and rowdy, they have such a unique sound, captured here by producer and engineer, the mighty Todd Rundgren. He and Glyn Johns both did a mix of the record but no-one knows which ones were actually used.
It always sounds like they are in the room with the listener, if you know what I mean. There’s no sense of it being recorded. It feels organic and wholesome. Achieving this must be every bit as much down studio wizardry as making something highly produced.
Interestingly it was recorded at Woodstock Playhouse in upstate New York and later Robbie Robertson said they were difficult sessions with the band dabbling in various drugs. There’s an edgy mood to the songs, for sure, but as ever, the band are in fine form. The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show carries on their tradition around recollections of a gone America.
Daniel and the Sacred Harp might just be one of The Band’s greatest songs, the lyrics a quasi-religious exploration of greed which reads like a story out of the Old Testament.
Had the first two albums not been such profound releases, Stage Fright would stand as one of the greatest albums of that or any era and is part of one of the greatest trifecta of records ever released by any band.