In Part One of my review of the new super-deluxe edition of The Band’s 1970 release called Stage Fright, we explored the new Stereo remix of the album including the dramatic restoration of the original track listing as first envisioned by the band. If you missed that review, please click here to jump to it.
The Stage Fright – 50th Anniversary features not only a 180-gram vinyl LP of the new mix album but also a well designed and great sounding — if simple — Blu-ray Disc containing the album and their 1970 Royal Albert Hall concert mixed into 5.1 surround sound.
Stage Fright : The Surround Mix
For the purposes of this review I listened to The Band’s new Stage Fright – 50th Anniversary surround sound mix via the DTS-HD Master Audio version on the included Blu-ray Disc. A Dolby TrueHD option is also included which sounds fine but I find it less distinctive in terms of discrete channel detailing. There is also a high resolution LPCM Stereo version included. All of the versions sound excellent overall, presented in 96 kHz, 24-bit fidelity offering a nice balance between crisp highs, firm mid-ranges and more resonant lows without losing the fact that it was at its root a recording made in 1970.
The new 5.1 mix is gently immersive and very effective at creating a sense of the room the group was playing in while recording the album. The band is largely presented forward facing while the surround channels are used for selective overdubs and room ambiance. For example, on “W.S. Walcott Medicine Show,” the horn section fills up the room largely from behind, blending neatly at times when the solo saxophone takes center stage from the front.
Levon Helms’ drums are very present, also front and center, and they sound terrific. This mix grows on you nicely, making you feel like you are there in the theater with the group. And given that the live playhouse stage feel was part of the original intention of the album concept (according to the liner notes), in that light I feel this surround sound mix is a strong success on all fronts.
The Live Royal Albert Hall Concert
Included with Stage Fright – 50th Anniversary is a live concert recorded at the end of The Band’s 1971 European tour at the Royal Albert Hall in London. EMI recorded the concert on a four track machine it brought into the venue. It is so fortuitous that this show was preserved. According to Robertson’s notes in the booklet, the tour found the group performing at the top of its game and this show really reflects that notion.
Here they present a powerful 20 song set including a healthy dose of then-new material from the Stage Fright album. Consider how confident they were to open the show with a double whammy of then new songs “The Shape I’m In” and “Time To Kill” before playing familiar fan favorites like “The Weight.”
They perform about 3/4 of their smash hit second album (the self-titled, brown covered one). Given the simpler method of recording this concert, the producers wisely also kept the 5.1 mix quite simple. It is basically a Stereo spread across the front left-center-right channels with concert venue time-delay ambiance filling the room via the surround channels. It sounds extremely welcoming and enveloping — I found the 5.1 mix of the Royal Albert Hall concert a much more satisfying way to enjoy this excellent recording compared with the plain Stereo mix option that is also on the Blu-ray Disc.
Robertson calls this one of their best performances in the liner notes and I can’t help but agree. The Band is clearly on a mission here.
The CDs. The 45 and Other Things
Both the restored album and the live concert are included on standard CDs in the Stage Fright – 50th Anniversary set. These are handy for mobile use if you still have a car CD player or if you don’t feel like playing the Blu-ray or the vinyl LP. But, of the three options, it is the least appealing sonics wise. It is perfectly fine as CDs go, don’t get me wrong, but the Blu-ray sounds better and the vinyl sounds warmer still.
There are, however, some bonus tracks exclusive to the CDs which you’ll want to hear: acoustic rehearsals in a hotel room in Calgary while on tour! This is total fly on the wall stuff, things we were never supposed to hear. And, how wonderful it is to hear these legendary musicians work their way through their own songs and nuggets like Huey “Piano” Smith’s classic “Rockin’ Pneumonia and The Boogie Woogie Flu.” They may be relatively LoFi recordings but they are no doubt special so you’ll want to hear this.
In the Stage Fright – 50th Anniversary set you also get a reproduction of a rare Spanish picture sleeve and 45 RPM single featuring “Time To Kill” backed with “The Shape I’m In.” This is a very cool bonus for serious fans as finding original copies of rarities like this is difficult, at least here in the USA (there are some up on Discogs).
Also in the boxed set are a set of lovely art prints with original photograph of The Band from the period. Suitable for framing, these images underscore the instantly iconic stature this group had at the time.
Stage Fright – 50th Anniversary is a great collection and if you are fan of the group and this album you need to hear it. I would go so far as to call it an essential set given the way it showcases the music in such a positive new light. Seriously, as far as I’m concerned this is like getting a brand new Band album to enjoy so in its own way this may well be my favorite deluxe edition from The Band thus far.