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The Band’s Stage Fright 50th Anniversary Boxed Set, Pt. 1: Vinyl

The new super-deluxe edition of The Band’s 1970 release called Stage Fright is both a celebration of the original album and an opportunity to present the music in a better light than it has received in the past. The original edition was engineered and mixed (respectively) by no less than Todd Rundgren and Glyn Johns, so it stands to reason that it was a pretty good sounding album.

Except for people like me and Robbie Robertson who didn’t connect with the mix…

Honestly folks, I never quite knew what bothered me about Stage Fright but compared to the glory of their second eponymously titled album especially, the original presentation of Stage Fright has always left me unsatisfied for some reason. 

But when I read Robbie’s opening liner notes to the new Stage Fright – 50th Anniversary collection, I had one of those big “ah hah” moments! In short: the track listing issued on the original album was not the first — and ultimately desired — version of the album and the band was not involved with the final album mix as they were on tour at the time!  

As the lone surviving creative writing member of The Band, Robbie Robertson saw this as an opportunity to re-cast the album in its original form. He addresses all this in the opening paragraphs of the booklet that comes with the Stage Fright – 50th Anniversary set.  

Apparently the decision to put Levon Helm’s “Strawberry Wine” and Richard Manuel’s “Sleeping” up front was designed to encourage them as song writers. But that wasn’t necessarily the best thing for the album’s pacing and vibe ultimately as it starts up with a loose rocker and then slams into a dramatic and beautiful farewell song.

Stage Fright was recorded on a small vintage play house stage in Woodstock, New York. Originally The Band wanted to to make a live recording but they could not get permission from the local community to do a concert there, so they ended up recording the album there in a live remote studio scenario.The original lineup of the tracks was going to proceed more akin to how a live performance might have. 

Now, please stop to pause for a moment and reflect on The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — that record which loosely proceeds like a show by an imaginary band opens with a welcoming overture of-a-sort before diving into the heart of the album. 

Likewise, Stage Fright now opens with the driving “W.S. Walcott Medicine Show” followed by the one-two punch of “The Shape I’m In.”  More or less. Side Two is now Side One, as it follows with the three songs which closed the old version of the album, “Daniel and the Sacred Harp,” “Stage Fright” and “The Rumor.”  Opening Side Two with the “Time To Kill” and “Just Another Whistle Stop” packs a wallop and sets the stage for Richard Manuel’s haunting“Sleeping” which closes the album on a beautiful, if a bit ominous, note. 

Stage Fright was never my favorite album by The Band for numerous reasons, many of which I could never put my finger on. Now I realize that the album never flowed well, and it didn’t draw me in, especially when compared to the prior release. So as soon as I heard the new running order for the album I loved it immediately — all of a sudden the song cycle is making a lot more sense. 

In the booklet included in the set, Robertson also reminds fans that the original album will always be there for them to listen to and enjoy – it is not going away! But if you too were unsatisfied with the old version of Stage Fright, this new version may well be a revelation. 

I think it is wonderful and for me it has made me completely re-consider this album. I’ll put it this way: now it feels like a strong and worthy successor to their 1969 breakthrough, The Band

The new Stereo remix is also quite a revelation. This is not just a remaster of the old mix.

Robertson wisely decided to remix the entire album from scratch while they had this opportunity to create something new. He hired legendary engineer Bob Clearmountain to work with him and the results are quite spectacular. Suddenly, Stage Fright sounds finished with a beautiful rich sparkle worthy of being a successor to their game changing second album from 1969 (which I reviewed a couple years ago, click here). 

The high end on Stage Fright – 50th Anniversary is noticeably brighter and crisp without feeling artificial. The low end is richer and rounder, expanding bassist Rick Danko’s work to more beautiful sonic pastures On the original version at times it sounded like the bass guitar was recorded in a tissue box. On this new edition the bass is richer and more open, seeming to capture more of the essence of the room where it was recorded.  

Levon Helms’ drums also sound much more alive and vibrant on the new mix.  His kick drum is much more distinct and the drums in general sound punchy, not like they are in a box. The cymbals are much clearer and they decay beautifully. There is a wonderful sense of detailing going on here. 

Listen on the title track how (I assume) Levon Helm drops out his drums during the solo supporting it with the most sparse of percussion and leaving space for him to drive home the song to the final chorus. Truly, its an orchestral drum performance delivered here and now this craft is much more audible than before.

Robbie’s guitars sound fuller with much amplifier tone coming through the mix. The acoustic instrumentation on “Daniel And The Sacred Heart” is gorgeous – rich strumming acoustic and slide guitars, harpsichord, violin, accordions are all now extremely present and resonant.  The electric guitars on “Time To Kill” are just pure rockin’ joy. 

So combining the new mix and the new track running order, I consider Stage Fright – 50th Anniversary effectively a new album that recasts the music in its most positive light.

And that is a very good thing, indeed because there are some tremendous songs here which became the basis of The Band’s legacy.

The new vinyl pressing, by the way, is excellent. It is pressed on perfectly centered and dead quiet 180-gram black vinyl and comes housed in an audiophile grade lined inner sleeve. So, no problems there. 

In part two of my review of The Band’s Stage Fright – 50th Anniversary, I will explore the Blu-ray disc included in the set which contains the whole album mixed into 5.1 surround sound. It also includes a fantastic concert recorded at The Royal Albert Hall in London, England.

Be sure to tune in tomorrow…

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