"When I listened to it, I had this flashback," Robertson tells Billboard with a chuckle. "We played on the final night and it had just gotten dark out and it was the perfect time to play, but we kinda thought, 'I dunno if we fit in here.' The audience was in ecstasy of their experience and the music and the mud and the partying and going crazy, and there's people jumping up and down, screaming. And we go out and play this concert, and it was the equivalent of going out and playing hymns. It was so NOT what they were looking for. They stopped jumping up and down. Their arms weren't in the air anymore. It was like they went into a spell, a whole different feeling. So we played and left and then they went back to the party."
The set on The Band certainly speaks to the quality of The Band's performance, though the group's relative neophyte status as a live act on its own -- after having toured with Bob Dylan -- is what played a part in the recordings staying mostly in the vaults until now. "It was (manager) Albert Grossman who was saying, 'I don't think we should be part of that (film and album),' although he had other acts on the show that were," Robertson says. "I think because we had not played many jobs as The Band before we played in front of 500,000 people he was quick to say, 'When they play there'll be nobody running around on stage with a camera. They have to be able to do their thing and communicate with one another musically, so no cameras'." Robertson says there is Woodstock footage of The Band taken from a distance, but that remains in the vaults.
"I guess all these (audio) records were in a storage bin somewhere," Robertson says. "I wasn't paying close attention to it, but when we started working on (The Band) reissue they said, 'This is a show you guys played in 1969. It's a historic event; Maybe we should consider including it.' It was, like, the original recording and original mix of it. It's untouched, but it felt like it was appropriate to include in this."
A coda to The Band's Woodstock experience was their reception back in Woodstock itself, where the group was living at the time. "We got cold-shouldered," Robertson remembers. "We were the only group actually from Woodstock, but (the festival) made it the most famous small town in the world and there were Volkswagen buses as far as the eye could see in every direction, coming toward Woodstock. The townspeople in Woodstock were not very happy that we participated."
The Band box set is just one of several active projects Robertson has been juggling recently. Sinematic, his sixth solo album, came out in September with guest appearances by Van Morrison, Citizen Cope and Derek Trucks -- as well as the track "Once Were Brothers," which is also the title of The Band documentary. Based on Robertson's 2016 memoir Testimony, it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and made its U.S. debut on Nov. 6 at DOC NYC. It will be coming to theaters during early 2020. And that comes alongside The Irishman, which has been rolling out in theaters since Nov. 1 and comes to Netflix on Nov. 27.
"It just keeps on keeping on," says Robertson, who's already working on the next Scorsese film as well as a follow-up to Testimony, which he thinks will be part of a trilogy. "But, y'know, it's all great stuff, so I can't complain too much. And in all these years I've never had projects that just became part of the same gumbo for me -- there's stuff from The Irishman from my album, there's stuff in there from the documentary or from Vol. 2 of the autobiography and stuff that connects to The Band collection. In the past I'd always think you've got to keep them separated, but in this case I just let everything bleed into the other and it felt good. And it made it easier to spin plates and run back and forth between them."
Photo © Elliott Landy/www.elliottlandy.com