Strike Up The Band

A close-up of a piglet's snout thrusts forward on the cover of the current issue of Fortean Times: Journal of Strange Phenomena kicking around at Levon Helms' recording studio. "Swine Fever! Trawlermen's Trotter Trauma" exclaimed the title below, referring to an article inside which attempted to trace the origins of sow superstitions among British fishermen. On the wall, a recently tacked-up poster portrays a grotesque, dressed-up boar with a bankroll as a symbol of greed and sports the legend HIGH ON THE HOG; title of The Band album to be released this week.

The studio is a rendezvous point in early evening for a warm-up gig at the Night Shift Cafe in North Adams, Massachusetts, a step of preparation for promotional tours upcoming, and Randy Ciarlante, a perpetual motion steward with the talents to have been drafted from local slopes by the legendary group, is tapping out a restless rhythm. With guitarist and fellow Ulster County native, Jimmy Weider, and roustabout Canadian pianist, Richard Bell, who started in the same Ronnie Hawkins pipeline as founding members Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson, Ciarlante is a key element of the new blood recruited to bring fresh energies to a highly revered chunk of rock history. His pre-gig enthusiasm bubbles the sound room.

A chalkboard with 30 songtitles, 14 of them check-marked, sits in the unglassed control booth, almost all of them unfamiliar to classic Band set lists and hinting mutely of a new dawn over the horizon, a renaissance sparked by strong new material to supplement those golden rays still beaming from the sunset of The Last Waltz. A single from the new album, "Stand Up," is second on the list which also features "The Battle Is Over," "King Fish," "The Line," "The Great Beyond," "Two Close Chairs," "Atomic Cafe," and other promising titles youíve got to hope arenít suffocated by recent leanings to overproduction. The curtain is about to be drawn, revealing the identity and strength of the tracks on Hog but they still belong to the last six to nine months of recording time and the evening's moment is reserved for immediate performance preparations as the players arrive.

Also arriving for the trek to the gig is Tom Pacheco, a prolific songwriter and former Woodstocker, who has returned to have his latest CD produced by Jim Weider. Like Four Men & A Dog, who have just finished an album here to be released in June, Pacheco traveled all the way from Ireland to record in this laid-back woodhewn studio; an inspired move, to judge by the 13 tracks put down in the last few weeks. One of them, a haunting ballad called "Hills of Woodstock," recalling his years here and featuring a verse about Albert Grossman, "He who managed Dylan and The Band," is easily the most indelible love song ever written to this town. But, beyond Weider's surprising gifts for production and Pacheco's unique talents as singer-songwriter, the most notable item of the sessions is the awesome and exciting effect the Band still conjures when handling powerful material. (Although Tom's songs are chartmakers in Europe, his last four albums have yet to be distributed here and Woodstock Winter, when it's released worldwide by Mercury in late summer or early fall, will be the first available as a non-import).

Once assembled, the group heads for the waiting vehicles, Rick and Levon, with driver Butch, following the white stretch limo bearing the rest of the Band on the night road north. Tom, with mate Annie and brother Paul, take up the rear. Roadies had long before headed out with the equipment.

Stopping for a light on the way through Troy, an oval, bright yellow sign in front of a restaurant proclaims in small letters Under New Management and below, in larger script, Change Is Good, one of the songtitles on the chalk board and a meaningful one for a group striving for transition to something more; who have added the ingredients they hope will take them that step beyond their already classic image. A good omen.

Two sheets of detailed instructions in each vehicle will reveal some glitches on the far end which lead to a comedy of following each other up dead end streets but the troupe pulls into the Mass MOCA complex (Mass. Museum of Contemporary Art) housing the Night Shift Cafe with time to spare and a cheer goes up when they make their appearance.

The Night Shift Cafe is a parking garage sized space with difficult ceilings low above the bandstand. The restroom pipes have chosen the night of the concert to create a wading pool at the far end of the room. Band memorabilia is hawked from booths 50 yards to stage left, pizza, beer, wings, wine, etc., to the right. The crowd is a remarkable stretch of age groups.

"Now, all the way from Woodstock, New York..." The announcement booms and the room ignites as soon as they launch into "Shape I'm In," followed by "The Girl You Love," with a rail-thin Levon churning out the lead vocal, a heftier Rick in sports jacket and Lou Costello haircut sounding huskier than usual in the dense acoustics of the space. "Blind Willie McTell" has them swaying and singing along. Someone nearby says "It's a fine night. It's a really fine night when The Band comes to your town."

The double-barrel attack of twin keyboards and drums is varied as Ciarlante switches to bass and Danko backs his vocal with acoustic guitar on "Long Black Veil." Helm picks up mandolin and Hudson accordion for "Rag Mama Rag" as Bell's boiling keyboard punches new zest into an old favorite. "Atlantic City," "Caledonia Mission" keep the fever high as Helm's voice cuts a rousing pace and plies a plaintive counter to Danko's as Weider's loping, stinging solo masterfully captures the group's treasured sound and adds a hotly flavored zing. The set is jelling seamlessly.

The crowd is starting to shake the floor a bit and worry the old factory ceiling as Levon plays bass on "Crazy Mama" against Bell's raging keys and Ciarlante's pulse-driving beat. The new boys are bringing their stuff to the dance. Hudson is pouring off a mesmerizing sax part on a surprise instrumental version of Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers" which follows "The Weight" and "Dr.Walcott." A progression of "Ophelia," "Stage Fright" and Chuck Willis's long-lost "Hang Up My Rock & Roll Shoes" closes out the set to a partying but respectfully behaving crowd. Phantom of the Opry, Garth eases back on stage following the ovation to rage over the intro of "Chest Fever" before the rest join him on the encore. Then it's over.

Riding back through the night toward Woodstock the exhilaration of the music clings despite some disappointment at the absence of the brand new material. The seasoned sound still catches the heartbeat but that vital ingredient of renewed focus taunts from offstage. But the new album is only at the starting gate and this chops-toning rust-shaker is what they called it back at the studio...a warm up.

-Gary Alexander