Backward glance

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The first proper record for the Band, after years of touring behind Ronnie Hawkins and then, famously, Bob Dylan himself, was Music From Big Pink. Opening with “Tears of Rage,” a song filled with the pain of a father who wonders — as so many fathers did during the ’60s — “why must I always play the thief,” Big Pink demanded that respect for prior generations go hand in hand with revolution. In this sense, the Band was ready to reclaim every moment of the past as a glimpse into a living future. After all the hardships suffered within “The Weight,” the future comes and deliverance responds with “We Can Talk.” Rick Danko and Richard Manuel yell together and apart: “Everybody everywhere/ do you really care!/ Then pick up your heads and walk/ we can talk about it now!”

Freedom and loss follow the Band, again and again, in these reissues. In The Band, the results are almost too rich, built on the heaviness of too many melancholy nights channeling the ghosts of America. From “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” to the final guitar licks in “King Harvest (Has Surely Come),” the Band seems to take on too much for rock ’n’ roll to hold.

But then the Band gets funky, conjuring its sound from Motown and Stax as well as Monroe and Guthrie. Levon Helm’s vocals on “Up On Cripple Creek,” Robbie Robertson’s riffs on “Look Out Cleveland” or Rick Danko’s James Jamerson moments during “Jawbone” all hail the dirty meeting points between country, R&B and rock ’n’ roll. The extra tracks here only add to the mystique, whether it’s a false start version of “The Night They Drove …” or a gentle jam before another version of “King Harvest.” Breathtaking.

But the greatest rock record of all time — or at least of the Band’s career — may lie in the highly underrated Stage Fright, an album built over the Band’s ever-growing personal abysses. The arrangements on Stage Fright are just too tight and restrictive to fulfill the group’s persona. And yet the feeling of suffocation is apt. The straight-jacket that all the characters of Stage Fright wear — alcoholism (“Strawberry Wine”), midlife crisis (“Sleeping”), the show itself (“The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show”) — is worn on the sleeves of every stiff tempo and jilted solo. Whether it’s the nonchalant realism within “The Shape I’m In” (“Save your neck or save your brother/Looks like it’s one or the other”) or the desperate observation that, even within the Band, “It’s odd man out/ you know it’s the rule” (“Just Another Whistle Stop”), Stage Fright dwells in an honesty that would never feel this ripe — or cold — in a Band record again.

Cahoots finishes the reissues tepidly. Where Stage Fright shows the Band’s instincts laid raw but still coherent and rich, Cahoots shows a group heading off to Disney World. Despite a few gemlike moments — the vocal fight-out between guest Van Morrison and Richard Manuel in “4% Pantomime,” the sweet beauty of “The River Hymn” — Cahoots betrays the personal tolls taken by the group in its short recording successes. In less than four years, members of the Band have become as thin and vulnerable as the generation around them, searching for a lost past with little hope of redemption.

Carleton S. Gholz writes about music for the Metro Times. E-Mail [email protected].

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