There are periods for any artists or band where they reach a point where the well has run and dry and that creative spark that has sustained them, in some cases, for long periods simply disappears. For many the fourth album from The Band, Cahoots marked that point where creative and musical inspiration dried up never to return. I would dispute that notion because I think Northern Lights Southern Cross is a good album but more on that particular record in another blog.
Their first two albums were recorded in a close atmosphere of collaboration, each member was able to contribute something to each song and that sense of creative partnership can be heard on those albums. Also there was less of a reliance on Robbie Robertson to come up with all of the material, Richard Manuel revealed himself to be a mature and sensitive songwriter and that contrast in songwriting styles was also important to the depth of their early work. However by the time they recorded Stage Fright that collaborative process was showing it's first signs of fragmenting, as the hazards of success caught up with them. In early 1971 the Band entered the newly built Bearsville Studio near Woodstock to begin recording the new album, by this point Richard Manuel was beginning his slow decline into alcoholism and did not contribute any material for the album. Cahoots lacks inspiration especially lyrically, there was enormous pressure on Robbie as the main songwriter to continue to come up with new and dynamic material.
The album starts on a bright note with Life is a Carnival that was written by Robbie, with Rick Danko and Levon Helm also sharing songwriting credit. The song has that typical Band feel with that unusual split timing, where it sounds like they are a little behind the beat. Rick Danko also shows how underrated he was as a bass player with his customary funky style filling the space between the sharp struts of the horn section. The horn parts were provided by legendary New Orleans musician Allen Toussaint. Also meshing nicely with the horns in the middle section is a powerful solo from Robbie.
The group dip into the Bob Dylan songbook for When I Paint My Masterpiece, I'm not sure Levon was the best choice for the lead vocal, Garth Hudson provides a colourful accordion solo throughout the song. On Last of The Blacksmiths we are given a typical emotive vocal from Richard but the song sounds flat and sparse, lyrically the song is ambitious and Richards vocal doesn't suit the lyrics. Where Do We Go From Here seems to sum up the Bands predicament at the time, however they rouse themselves for the highlight of the album 4% Pantomime, a duet with Van Morrison and Richard belted out in booze drenched style. What is also missing from Cahoots is that vocal interplay that the three main vocalists had developed on their previous albums. Shootout at Chinatown is jaunty but once again lacks a certain dynamic, it sounds flat with little innovation being displayed. Smoke Signal shows their funkier rockier side and would become a live favourite on subsequent tours. The Band do redeem themselves at the end with River Hymn which Levon delivers with appropriate pride. Cahoots isn't their worst album but you can certainly hear the fragmentation and how their once united musical vision had broken down.