Rhino Factoids: The Band’s First Show
48 years ago today, The Band played their first live show on their own, as opposed to being someone else’s back-up group, but given the way Robbie Robertson was feeling, it was nothing short of miraculous that they played that night at all.
After making a name for themselves and their musicianship by playing with Bob Dylan, the members of The Band – Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and the aforementioned Mr. Robertson – decided to make a go for it on their own. Given their past credits, it was big news when they made this decision, which is why Ralph J. Gleason, rock critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, made such a buzz about it his column.
“The Band from Big Pink will make its first appearance in public at Winterland in a three-night stand April 17, 18, and 19,” wrote Gleason. “An appearance on May 9 and 10 has also been set for Fillmore East [in New York] as well. The Band from Big Pink has been in Hollywood recording for the past two weeks. Their first album has been one of the most impressive underground hits of the past year and an album of immense impact within the field of pop music.”
When The Band arrived in San Francisco on April 15, however, Robertson wasn’t feeling so hot.
“Robbie hadn’t eaten in two days and was airsick on the plane, but whatever was wrong wasn’t cured when we landed,” wrote Helm, in his memoir This Wheel’s On Fire. “By the time we checked into the Seal Rock Motel, he was running a fever of maybe 103 degrees. When Robbie felt even worse the next day, Bill Graham wanted to cancel the Thursday opening night and play on Sunday instead, but Albert [Grossman, the band’s manager] said no. He and Bill got into it a little.”
After a complete physical, Robertson was deemed to have nothing dramatically wrong with him, so it was suggested that they hire a hypnotist to help Robertson through his “nervous exhaustion.” In fact, the hypnotist they hired diagnosed it as extreme stage fright, but diagnosing it didn’t make it any easier to conquer.
The Band did eventually hit the stage…at 12:30 a.m., which means that technically they made their debut on the 18th, not the 17th. Still, the show was scheduled for the 17th, so we’re sticking with that date as the anniversary, even if the resulting performance wasn’t anything to write home about. In fact, according to Helm, “We played seven numbers for thirty-five minutes and followed Robbie when he walked off, unable to continue. People who’d come hundreds of miles felt ripped off. They booed and whistled and clapped, but the show was really over, and the audience was bummed as they filed out into the cold San Francisco night.”
Helm’s coda? “I bet they didn’t feel as bad we did.”