"Richard Manuel was a whole show unto himself. He was hot. He was about the best singer I'd ever heard; most people said he reminded them of Ray Charles. He'd do those ballads, and the ladies would swoon. To me that became the highlight of our show."--Levon Helm
"He brought a lot of powers and strengths to the group. He brought in gospel music from his church upbringing. Plus, he loved to play and just come up with new things. It was like having a force of nature in the band."--Rick Danko
"Richard not only had the voice, he had this great rhythmic feel..."--Garth Hudson
While Robbie Robertson was their public face and Levon Helm sang all their big hits, there is no doubt that Richard Manuel was the Band’s heart and soul. His tale, though not atypical the annals of rock music, is a sad one: An enormously talented singer and musician, worshiped by fans and peers alike while somehow managing to remain genuinely modest and unassuming, he was nevertheless driven to despair by decades of drink and drug abuse, finally hanging himself in a cheap motel room following a gig early in 1986.
This album, the only one to be released under his name so far, captures an intimate live performance in the town of Saugerties, New York, five months before his death. His voice by now is hoarse and crackly, and the electric piano he plays has an annoyingly sharp sound, but he still manages to put in some absolutely stirring performances. The set includes songs he played with the Band and a bunch of R&B standards (including a few of his idol Ray Charles’ songs). Rick Danko guests on a couple of tracks, providing charmingly sloppy harmonies on “I Shall Be Released” and "Tears of Rage".
Then there’s a touching moment when someone in the audience calls for “Whispering Pines”, his haunting falsetto showcase off of the Band’s self-titled record, to which he chuckles and replies “I don’t know if I can hit that one”. He accepts the request after a bit of goading, but only after asking the audience to hum along if he screws up. The song is probably the highlight of this disk: a bit hoarse, a little off at times, but overflowing with emotion (that last line pretty much sums up the entire set).
While maybe not a great album in itself, this is an essential document, not only of the man’s substantial raw talent but also of his genuine kindness and modesty. If you didn’t know any better, the goofy, self-effacing banter between songs would make you think he were just playing a batch of tunes for a bunch of friends.