The Band at the Albert Hall
The story of the Band is one of the most beautiful and tragic in the history of popular music. But at the Albert Hall on June 2, 1971, we only knew the half of it: the beautiful half. Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson gave us one of the finest concerts imaginable, something that would stay in the memory of everyone lucky enough to have been there.
It was one of those nights when you felt you knew every single person in the audience: a kind of clan gathering, drawn together by a tremendous sense of anticipation. It’s hard to imagine that there was a single person among the 5,000 who didn’t have every note of Music from Big Pink and The Band engraved on their hearts. Even so, we got more than we expected.
On a Monday afternoon two weeks earlier the five members of the Band could be found in the Hamilton Suite on the second floor of the Inn on the Park, close to Hyde Park Corner. After assembling on the balcony for group photographs, they gave interviews. I talked to Robertson and Danko, my Melody Maker colleague Chris Welch spoke to Helm, Hudson and Manuel, while Barrie Wentzell took photographs for the spread we produced. The NME‘s Nick Logan discussed the history of jazz piano with Garth (I’m still jealous), and Caroline Boucher was there to introduce these mysterious musicians to the readers of Disc. It was a pleasant and polite affair, with drinks and canapés, arranged by their record company. They left us all looking forward to the gig, which would come towards the end of their European tour.
The Albert Hall concerts — there were two, on June 2 and 3 — had several salient features. The first was the layout of the instruments, arranged as if in a studio or a front room rather than on a proscenium stage, making it easy and natural for the musicians to swap instruments — Helm picking up a mandolin or a second Telecaster while Manuel took over at the drums, Danko setting aside the bass guitar for a fiddle, Hudson getting up from the organ to play tenor saxophone or accordion.
The second was the quality of the sound. The Albert Hall had been notoriously unfriendly to rock bands, whose amplified instruments floundered in a haze of unwanted natural echo created by the high ceiling. But, as Danko told me, the British audio engineer and PA builder Charlie Watkins had visited the Band in the US and noted the specifications of their regular equipment before creating something similar for their European concerts. Just as important, they played at a volume level which allowed them to hear and respond to each other while permitting the audience to appreciate the nuances of their music.
They played with an astonishing blend of finesse and emotion, of musicianship and modesty. There were four songs from Big Pink, eight from The Band, five from Stage Fright — released the previous summer — and two Motown covers, the Four Tops’ “Loving You Is Sweeter than Ever” and Marvin Gaye’s “Baby Don’t Do It”, plus Little Richard’s “Slippin’ and Slidin'” as a final encore. They made even the most familiar of the songs sound new — and what a thrill it was to hear, in person, the voices of Danko, Manuel and Helm alternating leads and creating those overlapping coarse-grained harmonies.
Everything sounded even better than the records: more present, of course, but also more pristine, which was a surprise given the number of times they must have played these songs. The subtle complexity of “King Harvest” was laid out in all its rustic splendour. Hearts were broken as Danko sang “The Unfaithful Servant” with such tender ardour and mended by the centuries-old ache in Manuel’s voice on “I Shall Be Released”. Danko’s fretless bass imitated the weight of a tuba on “Time to Kill”. Robertson didn’t need to show off — the intro to “The Weight” was enough to tell us that the house’s electricity supply was running through the strings of his Tele — but the eight-bar solo bridging into Hudson’s tenor coda on “Unfaithful Servant” was worth the entire careers of some of the more famous guitarists in the audience.
Levon sang “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” with fervour and drew both resonance and whipcrack from a lovely old kit — placed stage left, side on — that looked as though it might have been around since Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Garth gave us a hint of the pitch-warping capabilities of his keyboards on the opening “The Shape I’m In” and then, deep into the second half, let it all out on the unaccompanied four-minute introduction to “Chest Fever”, given its own title — “The Genetic Method” — and sounding as though the pipes of the mighty Albert Hall organ had been attached to his Lowrey console in order to facilitate some magical union of J. S. Bach and Sun Ra.
But it really wasn’t about the individuals. As Bruce Springsteen observes in the 2019 documentary Once Were Brothers, when those five musicians got together, “something miraculous occurred.” You could hear it when they kicked into “Baby Don’t Do It”, overlaying a Second Line accent on Holland-Dozier-Holland’s version of the Bo Diddley rhythm, generating a steady collective surge that had nothing to do with volume.
Most of that has been stored in my head for half a century, always ready to be unpacked in any discussion of the greatest gigs of all time. It was a thrill when three tracks — “Strawberry Wine”, “Rockin’ Chair” and “Look Out Cleveland” — turned up in 2005 on The Band: A Musical History, a six-CD box supervised by Robertson. Here was proof that the concert had been recorded — by EMI on a humble four-track machine, as it turns out. And now the whole thing, less only “Slippin’ and Slidin'”, is available as the second disc on a 50th anniversary edition of Stage Fright, with sound every bit as good as it was on the night.
In Testimony, his autobiography (which provided the basis of Once Were Brothers), Robertson describes the Albert Hall audience as “rippling with enthusiasm.” In the notes for the Stage Fright reissue, he calls it “one of the greatest live concerts the Band ever played.” What is clear now is that shadows were already looming. Newly acquired wealth and the ability to indulge in damaging habits had begun to warp the relationships between the musicians, eroding the work ethic and the sense of purpose that had driven them through the first two albums. In particular, a rift between Helm and Robertson would be opened and never closed. With The Last Waltz, in 1978, the story of the five-man band was over. Although Robertson’s take on the background events often invites a charge of self-justification, it seems understandable that his patience was eventually exhausted.
Now Richard, Rick and Levon are dead. But at the Albert Hall in June 1971, a last-minute decision ensured that the sound of the Band at their zenith would be preserved. You had to be there, and now you are. In a dark time, it’s a shaft of light.
* The new edition of Stage Fright is released on February 12 by Capitol Records in CD and vinyl formats. The original studio album is rearranged into the running order originally intended, and the set includes alternate mixes and an informal hotel-room session. The DVD of Once Were Brothers is on Dazzler Media. Robbie Robertson’s Testimony was published by William Heinemann in 2016. A revised edition of This Wheel’s on Fire, by Levon Helm with Stephen Davis, was published by Chicago Review Press in 2000. Barney Hoskyns’ Across the Great Divide: The Band and America (Viking, 1993) is highly recommended. The photographs of the Band at the Albert Hall on June 2, 1971 are by Barrie Wentzell (barriewentzell.com), and are used by kind permission.
[sigh] I am so jealous. At that time (I was 17) I naively thought there’d always be another opportunity to see them…
Seconded – with bells on
Having lived with the album for sometime I must admit to a feeling of disappointment. I’ve looked forward to hearing this music for the best part of 50 years so maybe my expectations were unreasonably high.
My main grouch is the recording itself I find it too forward and brash as is the way with many releases nowadays.
Of course it contains many sterling interpretations and is better than virtually any other live album I can think of, I’ll continue to listen and hopefully come to terms with the sound
Great story, thanks!
Can’t wait to hear this remarkable concert.
I wasn’t there but managed to see them at Wembley Stadium in 1974- a rather different environment and I suspect that the difficulties that you refer to were well developed by then.
Still, glad I saw them live though.
As always Richard, it’s a joy to benefit from your great experience, fantastic taste and brilliant writing. Thank you.
Hi Richard I was at this memorable concerts as well and I had the thrill of talking to Jack Nicholson who was there as well. Great gig great memories. Thanksfor reminding me.
Hello, Mike. According to Robbie’s book, Nicholson was there both nights and said the second was better…
Im not sure which concert I was at but Nicholson and I chatted about Five Easy Pieces. 🙂
Envy and jealousy here too. Really looking forward to getting the record. What a Band !
Brilliant band (Band). Great post. Thanks Richard.
Ahhh … the Band … had the pleasure many times including jamming with Levon when I lived across the lake from ‘ The Barn ‘
As I’ve said many times when the discussion of who’s the most influential in rock ….
” All Roads Lead to Dylan ” ( also the title of a a university / conservatory lecture I still occasionally give ) .. including the Band … without which we’d have no Allman Brothers .. Grateful Dead ( post psychedelic era ) … etc .. etc … etc .. et al … to the Nth degree
FYI; Did the Band exist prior to linking up with Dylan ? Why yes they did .. in near obscurity … But … it was Dylan who brought them into the public eye affording them the ability to gain both the fame and legendary status they had earned … the hard way
The Band. What more is there to say. They could take a person to so many highs. The way they harmonized was just incredible. I have loved The Band since I was a young child. Though, I was too young to ever see them on stage, the first song I heard if theirs, I was hooked. Then to find out later on, that they were backup for another of my faves, Bob Dylan, I was in heaven. So sad that life got between them. There will never be another band like them. A true work of art.
Lovely memories Richard and looking forward to the CD. I was there as a 19 year old and think they opened with Shape I’m In. Missed Jack Nicholson though…
Wonderful music. What a band. Seen then at Isle of White, summer of love 1969. Backing Mr Dillon. Retired far to early.
Lovely reminiscences Richard. I well remember how you raved about the concert in the office the next day.
Peter Doggett recommended a Band album to me and I’m I didn’t really see what the fuss was about. But your words here tempt me to make a purchase and give them another go 🙂
What a wonderful piece of writing. It made me feel as I was actually in the RHA and hearing this amazing music once again. Even without their connections to Dylan, The Band would have been one of my all time favourite bands. Just off now to order the reissue from Badlands.
Great piece, Richard – I am expecting delivery of the ‘Stage Fight/ Live at the Albert Hall’ set in a few days. I ordered it as soon as I heard about it just after Christmas and I can’t tell you how envious I am that you already have your hands on it!
Another Band-related book that is worth adding to your list, I think, is John Niven’s novella, ‘Music From Big Pink’. It is a fictionalised account told from the perspective of a drug dealer who counts members of the Band amongst his clients during the period around the recording of their debut album – a glimpse of the darker days ahead for the group, perhaps. But there is one episode in the book which describes a New York house party at which Richard Manuel is persuaded to sing at the piano, and treats a small audience in a room at the party to a reading of ‘I Shall Be Released’. OK, it’s a flight of fancy and the imagination, but it’s beautifully written and, like all the best fiction, probably reveals a deeper truth.
They fought. They fell out. From 68-71 they were sublime. All the rest? It makes no difference. Just glad I was on planet earth the same time they were. One of music’s greatest milestones. Thanks guys.
A lovely piece, Richard. £1.50 entrance charge – those were the days. In the end, it is the magical blend of those three fine, departed voices which lingers longest.
About a third of the way through this and I was thinking… Richard, you’re building this up so well that… maybe.. just maybe… that Albert Hall gig was recorded and it’ll be coming out soon. Hallelujah! One of those ‘can barely wait’ moments. Roll on whenever it’ll be available here in France. While not at this gig – boarding school got in the way – the mark made by (especially) the first two albums can never and should never be underestimated. Music that, quite literally, changed the game. My first copy of Big Pink was in mono and it was only later, hearing it in stereo, that I learned part of Chest Fever was missing. Duh! Years later, after the big falling out, was lucky enough to catch them minus RR in New York at (I think/am fairly certain) The Lone Star Café. Were they good..? Utterly magical. With this release, King Harvest has surely come.
A great name for a first class group of musicians.
In 1971 I was finishing A levels, but a friend was snoozing his way through a degree at Imperial, and living a few hundred metres from the RAH. He promised to get the tickets but his lifestyle intervened. By the time he got to the box office all they had were a handful of 50p seats in the very top row, just below the ceiling, and more or less vertically above the stage. For 49 years I have lived with reviewers commenting on the great sound and the great concert that night. I assume none of them were in the 50p seats, where random bits of sound swirled around, but at no point did it coalesce into the Band I knew and loved. I am so looking forward to this release, and the opportunity finally to hear what everyone else was hearing . . .
My favourite of all the comments on this piece. Thank you, Jonathan. Quite seriously, I’d be interested to hear whether you think the recording lives up all you’ve been told.
Thank you for this brilliantly evocative piece of writing Richard. Like others I have now ordered the CD release. Some terrific comments here, as is so often the case. I especially hope Jonathan Spencer enjoys the recording!
It’s not meeting Jack Nicholson that really rankles
A good friend of mine was at the RAH on one of these nights. The cost of admission – £1.50 for seats in front stalls. That is equivalent to £18.70 today.
I think today you’d find tickets would be £45 – £50 or more wouldn’t you? Ah! The price of progress.
I was lucky enough to be there and your description of it is just right. It was a quite wonderful and extraordinary concert which has burned brightly in my memory ever since. Many thanks for bringing it back to life .
Great piece Richard and thank you so much for the memories. Am looking forward to the CD. I’ve loved the Band since I first heard them, also in about ’71. This is one of the very few times that I wish I was older and could have caught them live.
My greatest ever concert. Remember Garth Hudson starting off Chest Fever on the Albert Hall organ
I was there! How I am so in love with this internet revolution. What a find. Brilliant article Richard. I so wish we could return to those times when we thought we could heal the world. What the eff happened?