Now Playing: The Band – ‘Northern Lights’ Casino Arena July 20, 1976

by | Nov 25, 2016 | 3 comments

Flickering in the ‘rock room’ today is a fantastic A/V
document of the ‘Band’ in their original configuration and on their final tour
in the summer/fall of 1976. Taking place four months before the famed Last Waltz this pro shot black and white
film offers a detailed look at the Band while spotlighting a solid performance
by only the group with no additional horn section.  The filmed document is one of many to emanate
from the expansive vaults of Bill Graham and is available for streaming by the
executors of his musical estate ‘Wolfgang’s Vault’. There are multiple cameras shooting for this July 20, 1976 concert at Casino Arena in Ashbury Park, NewJersey. The resulting film (believed to be for a CCTV broadcast) is a softly
muted and kindly aged, but more than acceptable filmed look at the group with a
good sounding accompanying soundboard soundtrack.

Thankfully there are a number of recorded documents to hail
from the Band’s final year in existence, such as the famed King Biscuit
broadcast at the Carter Baron Amphitheater on July 17, 1976, the Lenox Inn show
from August and the awesome performance from the Palladium on September 18 with
the horns and Paul Butterfield. This Casino Arena show is the perfect visual
addition to these aforementioned concerts and features the same sort of musical
fire. While the Band were never about being improvisational beasts, their
concerts featured crisply played and song oriented performances most effective
in more intimate environments. Admittedly there were ups and downs on the tour,  some evident in this video, but those are the realities of rock on the road.
The front row seat in the time machine begins with the funky
stomp of ‘Don’t Do It’ the typical but welcome opener for the Band during this
era. There is a well balanced mix and the ‘non professional’ footage lends
equal time to each principal of the group unlike The Last Waltz film. The cross stage shot that encompasses all 5
members of the group is stunning and offers a rare look at the group in action
from this era.
‘The Shape I’m In’ keeps the early part of the show
percolating but shines an unintentional spotlight on Richard Manuel’s roughed
up vocal issues. The tour had brutalized Manuel’s throat and his recreational
choices of the time didn’t help matters. Regardless, the opening one two punch
is a classic capture.
Rick Danko’s vocal spotlight follows for a pastoral and dramatic ‘It Makes No Difference’, one of Robbie Robertson’s finest
compositions. Each rendition of this song seems to top the previous and here
Robertson coaxes charged staccato licks that respond to Garth Hudson’s sweetly
swelling soprano saxophone statements. 
The cross stage camera shot encompassing Danko, Robertson and Helm is
worth the price of admission! Danko’s investment and ownership of the Northern Lights, Southern Cross number
is never in doubt with this early concert highlight.

‘The Weight’ follows to great response from the crowd and is
ushered in by Robertson’s high-strung  1958 Stratocaster acrobatics; A typically
great rendition of the oft-played classic highlighted by  Ricky Danko’s  joyously flapping ‘duck arms’.
‘King Harvest’ comes next and the Danko/Helm rhythm section
illustrates a bank vault tight togetherness. Manuel digs deep for his vocal
attack and the group responds in kind. The group is beginning to heat up and
the following series of songs illustrates that point.
The gentle dusk of ‘Twilight’ a highlight of many of the
1976 concerts comes next. According to Robbie Robertson’s biography Danko threw
out some convincing words around in order to make sure he got the lead vocal
duties for this deep cut Robertson composition.  Actually released as a single, the track later
appeared on a ‘best of’ Band compilation and remains one of the most enduring
and poignant Band cuts. In concert the song emits a gentle and smoky reggae
lilt, earlier versions including Robertson’s piano demo capture deeper underlying
emotions. The rendition here is a wonderful performance of one of Robertson’s
finest compositions, with all band members contributing admirably.
Two new songs alternate with two introductory songs from Music from Big Pink making for a well
played central core of the concert. ‘Ophelia’ starts things off with ‘hot to
the touch’ guitar and a swirling calliope of keyboards creating a joyous
undercurrent played by maestro Garth Hudson. Levon sings the shit out of it while appearing in all of his ‘Last Waltz’ glory and it just feels good. This track
signals to me the moment when the show really begins to take off.
‘Tears of Rage’ comes next its poignancy is increased by
Manuel’s struggle to hit his vocal reaches and the contemplative swing of the group. Robertson
smirks embarrassingly as Manuel pushes through the first verse, is  by
the second set of words Richard has found his path and sings an emotive version
of the quintessential Band song. Like a classic car stated on a cold Catskill
morning Manuel’s voice takes a while to warm up and while not as youthful as it once was
still retains a moving timbre.
A brand new number for the time, ‘Forbidden Fruit’ comes next and is a
not so indirect comment on the state of some of the principal members of the
group. Constructed around Robertson’s guttural string bends and tremolo bar
flexing the song moves like liquid and is one of the Band’s best late era
compositions. The obvious strength of the Band is still tangible even in the ‘Twilight’
of their career, the unfortunate issues with addiction and in fighting suppressed
by their pure on stage talent and abilities. Kudos to Hudson and Robertson who
are both stunning in their coloring in the lines of the song and whom are
unafraid to pluck the low hanging fruit from its musical branches. At this
point in the video there are some issues with sound and the visuals, nothing too horrible…. but stick through it as it will soon improve.

Garth Hudson’s nightly ritual follows as he tosses out pages
ripped from the encyclopedia of music history, casually spun in cosmic yarns from his
keyboard arsenal. Any footage of ‘honey boy’ is more than welcome in the ‘rock
room’. The man is beyond musical discussion, his multiple talents must me
individually digested and contemplated to be fully understand and enjoyed.  The ‘sonic wizard’ of the Band spotlighted, ‘Chest
Fever’ follows Hudson’s ‘Genetic Method’ in a high octane version and proceeds
to give everyone in the venue flush faces.


 The downhill slope approached, ‘Stage Fright’, ‘Cripple Creek’, and ‘W.S. Walcott Medicine
Show’ conclude the concert in a spectacular trinity. The footage makes me giddy,
and for any fan of the Band it will do the same as its existence is a stunning
development! Collaborative vocals and general good vibe permeates the proceedings.
Danko is particularly spunky and a highlight of the camera frame. Levon’s sing
and drum dance is inspired and culminates with the sonic acrobatics of ‘W.S.
Wolcott’.The group leaves the stage to a wonderful ovation.
The encore follows and is a funky and hornless ‘Life Is a Carnival’, lending a
powerful and fun conclusion to the show. Helm is animated and feeling it as he and Danko lock
and key the distinctive drum/bass groove. Robertson is electric and directs the
song with his guitar neck until it skids to a well earned conclusion. A couple
of quick waves and a Levon Helm grin and the circulating video concludes. An
hour and twenty minutes that flies by but is obviously well spent.

1976 was the final year of the Band’s existence, in a way
brought on by increasingly erratic performances and a general struggle to regain
the camaraderie of years past.  There
were still moments of greatness and joy to be found in the creation of their music
but the end was near. This Casino Arena show finds the group in the middle of
the madness, but moving forward as a ‘band of brothers’. It is a welcome
addition to the story of the group located in a period only documented by The Last Waltz film. This review is not
a forum for a discussion of The Last Waltz, but
what cannot be denied is that this ‘unofficial’ document is a more all encompassing
view of the Band minus the guests. Dig in.

3 Comments

  1. Jonny Ace

    I attended the show two days earlier in Lennox, MA, and both setlist and execution were very similar. You have it all right, though perhaps a little too generous to Manuel. His voice was totally shot at this point, and the band was really carrying him, which was pretty tragic. It's hard to listen to at times, given how utterly perfect his voice had been just a few years earlier.

    Reply
  2. talkfromtherockroom

    Thank you for you comments. Excellent that you were able to see a show on the 76 tour! Yes, I concur, so sad about Richard, the group was propping him up at this point.

    Reply
  3. usama

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    Reply

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