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Robbie Robertson on The Band's "Stage Fright" boxed set: Q&A

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

Posted: Thursday, February 11, 2021

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The Band, in its original form, finished in 1977, and then for good in 1999.

But the music that started from Big Pink has endured -- and surfaces again this week with an expanded box set reissue of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame troupe's third album, "Stage Fright," from 1970.

The Band's story is well-known, of course -- starting as Canadian rocker Ronnie Hawkins' Hawks during the early 60s, then joining Bob Dylan for his new "electric" era in 1965 Settling to record with Dylan in Woodstock, N.Y., the quintet established its own identity, starting with 1968's iconic "Music From Big Pink" and continuing for six more studio albums before finishing with "The Last Waltz" concert on Thanksgiving Day of 1976. The Band, without guitarist and chief songwriter Robbie Robertson, reformed in 1993 for three more albums.

Only Robertson -- who's gone on to a solo work and an active film scoring career, primarily for Martin Scorsese -- and keyboardist Garth Hudson remain from the original lineup. Robertson, 77, has taken the lead in compiling the box sets, and he says by phone from Los Angeles that he is "particularly happy" to have another crack at "Stage Fright," -- featuring a new song sequence, outtakes and demos and a full live concert from London's Royal Albert Hall during June of 1971 -- for a number of reasons...

What did you want to do with this new edition of "Stage Fright?"

Robertson: I was never satisfied with the mixes. It always felt incomplete to me. As much as anybody I love original mixes and the way it was and all of that stuff, but being able to hear this music without the technical limitations of the time, without the hiss, and to go back to the original running order and then, on top of that, to pull out this Albert Hall concert...Being able to revisit that and do it the way that I wanted to do it in the beginning was an incredible sense of fulfillment on this record. I'm on a high.

The sequence is very interesting. The new version, for the most part, positions the original Side Two at the front of the album. What's the story there?

Robertson: At that time I was trying too hard to get the other guys to be part of the songwriting. I wanted everybody to write -- that was the original idea with this group, that we would all write and all do this and all do that. That that had faded away, and I was really trying to restore that. I couldn't get it through my thick skull that some people write and some people don't, and that's just the way it is. I was trying to stuff something down somebody's throat, and it didn't make them feel good. So we recorded the album and I made up the sequence that's on the album now, and the other guys said, "Well, all the (stuff) that you were wanting us to do, you've got it buried in the sequence!" So I ended up resequencing it for all the wrong reasons, and it wasn't the best thing for the record at all. But, like I said, I was so trying to encourage them, and sometimes you do the right thing for the wrong reason.

How does the new sequence make "Stage Fright" different, then?

Robertson: I think when you put it in this sequence it takes you to the place that this record was made to be. Itís the journey. It's the truth in this record. We were unsettled. There were guys in the group experimenting with drugs, hard drugs, and it was really getting in the way of the work. It was difficult; When we got in there and we sat down to play, the magic happened, but in-between it was difficult. Everybody would wander off, and it was like, "Whoa, hey, guys -- come back. Come back!" And that came out in the songwriting this time -- "Stage Fright," "The Shape I'm In," you can hear it. I didn't mean for it, to, but I couldn't help it.

You recorded "Stage Fright" at the Woodstock Playhouse. It was intended to be in front of an audience, right?

Robertson: it was. We had played the Woodstock festival, and they thought we had kind of betrayed the intimacy and the charming art community quality of the place, and we didn't mean for that at all. So I was trying to think of a way to show them that we loved that place and we loved the experience we'd had there with Bob and doing "The Basement Tapes" and everything. (Woodstock) played a real part in our story. But they didn't like the idea; They were like, "No, it's just going to be people from New Jersey and New York and Connecticut, and we're gonna be standing outside wondering what went wrong. We don't want bring any more attention to this place." So we ended up playing it for nobody, but the quality of that old wooden theater, it had something. I was always into the environment being part of the music we were making, just like "The Basement Tapes," so we went ahead and did it there.

And, also famously, with Todd Rundgren in one of his first engineering sessions -- on those mixes you weren't quite happy with.

Robertson: Todd was doing a very interesting job of engineering it, but he and the guys in the band weren't a great mix. He didn't understand what was going on with the guys, drug-wise, and the whole experience was a bit of pulling teeth. Plus we were doing the train tour (Festival Express in Canada during June and early July of 1970); Todd and Glyn (Johns) were doing the mixing in London and in those days you couldn't just send mixes to a train going across Canada, so I would fly back to New York to sit down and hear them and then go back on the road. At the time I felt like, "I'm OK as long as the music really comes together," but, like I said before, it never felt complete to me, and I'm glad we got to have another crack at it.

The Royal Albert Hall concert is a nice addition to the The Band's recorded legacy.

Robertson: Isn't it? It was never recorded to be an album; It was only recorded because we were playing at Albert Hall and the record company was like, "You want us to lay this down on a four-track?," just to have. And I'm so glad they did. We were really locked in. We were really at a certain peak in our playing at that time, and to be able to share that is wonderful.

Were you at all apprehensive about returning to the same place where you weren't given a particular warm reception with Dylan back in 1966?

Robertson: (chuckles) Before we got there to play I couldnít help but revisit that in my memory and think, "Well, it's a different time now, and a different place." But, Jesus, at Albert Hall they were quite rude, and they were rude in front of all these other groups and musicians there to see us. So I still had that taste in my mouth. But when we played (in 1971) the audience was unbelievable, and it made us rise to an occasion, too, and everybody was on their game.

You've been rolling through The Band's catalog with these box sets. Is (1971's) "Cahoots" up next?

Robertson: They're already talking about that, and we've got some cool ideas for it, too. There's a ton of stuff, and every time one of these things comes along...like, I'd forgotten about the Albert Hall thing until we did this. So I hope we've still got some surprises up our sleeves for you.

What else is on your plate in the near future?

Robertson: Right now I'm writing volume two of my autobiography. I'm getting ready to start work on "Killers of the Flower Moon" (about the early 20th century Osage Indian murders) with Marin Scorsese; It's a big, big undertaking, and I don't even have the words for what I have to accomplish on that. And there's all kinds of other stuff going on, too, so I'm actually slammed with crazy, wonderful stuff, and that's not a bad thing.

The "kid" that made "Stage Fright" and album those Band albums would probably be surprised that at 77 he'd be busier than ever?

Robertson: That is so true. First of all, when you're young you don't think about anything. And whenever something like that does cross your mind, it seems so far-fetched you don't want to spend too much time dwelling on it. But I'm so happy it's turned out like this. So happy.

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