[Out of all my many great influences and inspirations in the vast tapestry of American music, the work of The Band – along with the New Orleans R&B tradition – stands at the very forefront. The music recorded by the classic original group of “four Canadians and an Arkansas drummer” between 1968 and 1976 incorporates virtually every style of American music – and blends those styles into something completely unique through the magical chemistry of these five unique individual talents. This brief piece about a concert (one of many) I was lucky enough to attend was written around 2007 as a sample chapter for a book on their music which I hope to complete sometime in the next few years.]
It’s July 31, 1973 – just two days after The Band played their first gig in eighteen months, at the gigantic Watkins Glen rock festival in upstate New York. They’re in Jersey City now, at Roosevelt Stadium, to play two more outdoor concerts, again sharing the bill with their Watkins Glen co-stars the Grateful Dead. I’m 27, I’ve been a huge fan since I first heard Big Pink five years earlier, and I happen to be on the East Coast visiting a drummer friend in Boston. We decide not to brave the giant festival crowd, and instead we drive down to Jersey to “come on out and catch the show.”
The Band take the stage in the early-evening sunlight. I’ve seen them perform several times before, and it soon becomes clear that their on-stage energy is different this time. For these shows they have dispensed with their careful moving around to pick up different acoustic instruments for each new song. They stick entirely to their basic electric band lineup, and they dig in hard and pour on the rock and roll! It’s exhilarating!
They play a number of songs I haven’t heard before. Their “oldies” album Moondog Matinee hasn’t been released yet, so I’m not familiar with their versions of Leiber and Stoller’s romping LaVern Baker hit “Saved,” or Bobby Bland’s gorgeous “Share Your Love.” I’ve also never heard the wonderful, rocking set opener, “Goin’ Back To Memphis” (an obscure Chuck Berry gem) or the powerful, careening Robbie Robertson original “Endless Highway.” And although “The Weight,” “Dixie,” and “I Shall Be Released” are of course played, most of the set consists of tough, hard-driving rockers – “Loving You,” “Don’t Do It,” “Chest Fever,” burning versions of “Cripple Creek” and “Stage Fright.” Robertson is absolutely on fire, blasting out his guitar themes with a big, snarling Telecaster tone, and taking hot, adventurous solos on “This Wheel’s On Fire” and “Life Is A Carnival.”
It’s clear early on that singer-pianist Richard Manuel has, let us say, been indulging in some extra fun, to the point where his performances occasionally wander off the rails. There are a few very uncharacteristic wobbly notes in the ballads, a forgotten line in “Across the Great Divide,” a fumbled chord change in “Dixie,” and he tries to come in singing at the wrong point for the bridge of “Shape I’m In.” None of this seems to matter very much. The Band all look loose and happy, like they’re having a specially good time on stage, and the audience is going crazy.
Manuel’s erratic condition even leads to a magical moment for fans of Robbie’s guitar work. The group launches into “Saved”: “I used to smoke” – bomp! – “I used to drink” – bomp! “I used to smoke! drink! and dance the hoochy-koo…” Richard sings the first two verse-and-chorus sequences, over thrilling, thunderous drumming from Levon Helm, and then Robertson digs in for his two-chorus guitar solo. (Hearing the performance back on a bootleg recording, many years later, I realize that it’s a variation on the great, imaginative, carefully structured solo he plays on the Moondog album.) He finishes the second chorus, looks up, and – Manuel fails to come back in singing! He’s grooving and nodding and smiling out into the crowd, over there at the electric piano, and somehow doesn’t realize it’s time to sing again.
There’s a moment of uncertainty on stage, but it only lasts for a second. Then Robbie shrugs, smiles, and ad libs two more wailing guitar choruses, till Richard can get his bearings back. It’s so unusual to see this group, whose intricate concert performances are usually letter-perfect, make mistakes and have fun with them! I’m loving every moment of it. (You can hear this performance of “Saved” in a YouTube recording of the full concert. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=25ePaLebOhM Move your cursor to 48:15 to hear the song.)
But it’s one final mishap, on the very last number of the set, that leads to the truly amazing feat of improvised on-stage creativity.
The last song is “W.S. Walcott Medicine Show.” It starts out fine and having seen The Band play it more than once, I know what to expect. Garth Hudson will remain behind the organ as the first two verses of the song unfold, and he will wait so long to stand up that you wonder how he can possibly make it to the front of the stage in time for his classic, gritty sax solo. Then, as the second chorus rolls by, he will finally stand up and amble lazily towards the microphone with his tenor sax in hand. He’ll reach the edge of the stage just barely in time, lift the horn to his lips at the absolute last moment, and blast into the solo, right on the beat. It’s a fun little moment of onstage theater – and in fact, it’s virtually the only moment of theater, of shtick, in The Band’s meticulous, musically focused concerts.
Tonight in Jersey City everything seems to be going according to plan. It’s the end of a wonderful show (even with its rough edges)… the crowd is on its feet… The second chorus comes around… bassist Rick Danko sings “I’d rather die happy than not die at all…” Hudson stands up and ambles to the front of the stage. With perfect timing, he lifts the horn to his mouth and blows…
And no sound comes out! The sax mic is dead!
The rest of The Band realize it instantly – clearly, it’s the mic itself, or its cable, that is dead, and there’s no sax sound in the monitors. But all they can do is keep playing. Rick, Robbie, and Richard are all bobbing and grooving there on stage, looking around, wondering what next, but still smiling as they play their way through the chord changes. They’re having too good a time to let anything faze them. And besides, what can they do?
It’s Levon Helm who takes charge and provides the answer. He actually looks angry that the mic has gone out on them, and he’s determined not to let it ruin their final number. From behind the drums, he hollers (off microphone): “Garth!” and Hudson turns around. Continuing to play his kit with both feet and one hand, Levon has reached up with the other hand and is lifting his own mic stand – a big, heavy, ungainly “boom” stand with the mic at the end of its long cross-bar piece – straight up into the air and out over his tom-toms! I’ve never seen anything like it.
You can hear it all clearly on the bootleg recording of the show. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=25ePaLebOhM Move your cursor to 1:16:50 to get the essential moment. The singers finish verse 2; the sax solo begins but is barely audible; Levon calls to Garth; and the drum pattern changes, simplifies, markedly as he picks up the boom stand. In an instant, Hudson steps back to the drum riser to meet him, and Helm hands him down the stand with the mic and cable still attached. Robbie and Rick are watching and playing the groove… the chord progression of the song has now gone almost all the way by, through a complete verse-and-chorus cycle and into a brief guitar tag… Hudson is making his way back to the front of the stage, mic stand in hand…
The chord sequence reaches its last bar! Hudson sets the mic stand down, lifts the horn to his lips, and right on time, on the first beat of the chord progression – blows!
Bwa-da-da-DAAAH! The fat, raunchy sax sound roars out over the crowd. And of course, the crowd roars back.
Hudson plays his usual fine solo, but the game isn’t over yet. Once he’s done, he has just 15 seconds to get the stand and mic back up onto the drum riser, so that Levon can sing the next verse. Nothing can stop them now! He hands the stand back up over the drums with seconds to spare! And then, right on the beat, Levon is singing: “Go to see Miss Bare Foxhole with bright diamonds in her teeth…” They finish the song in high style, and the show is over.