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.