Friday, April 25, 2014

Band 5: Rock Of Ages

While it wasn’t completely apparent at the time, The Band were out of ideas after four albums on their own. According to Levon’s autobiography, it was his idea to do a double live album to keep the record company off their backs, and Robbie suggested bringing in a horn section to make the concerts that much more special. Recorded at the comparatively intimate Academy of Music in Brooklyn, the resultant Rock Of Ages presents tight, well-worn tunes, with horn arrangements by Allen Toussaint that don’t get in the way at all.
After a brief explanation, their cover of “Don’t Do It” arguably rivals that of The Who, and on they go through the classics: “King Harvest”, “Caledonia Mission”, a curve ball in “Get Up Jake”, an outtake from the second album, “W.S. Walcott”. Richard is in particularly good voice, as is Levon. Rick gets to shine on “Stage Fright” and “This Wheel’s On Fire”, while a stately intro to “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” prefaces the grace within, with an inspired segue into an increasingly raucous “Across The Great Divide” and “Rag Mama Rag”, the latter with particularly crazy piano work from Garth.
“The Weight” is a little loose, with even a few mistakes left in to prove that it’s live, but things get back in order for “The Shape I’m In”. “Unfaithful Servant” is just as mournful as ever, and “Life Is A Carnival” shows where Allen Toussaint came into the picture in the first place. Garth’s lengthy, bent-note organ improvisation, titled “The Genetic Method”, detours into “Auld Lang Syne” at the appropriate moment, before finding its way to “Chest Fever” (which pale to the studio version). The package ends with a cover of “(I Don’t Want To) Hang Up My Rock ‘N Roll Shoes”, a prophetic title, and something of a harbinger of their next album.
As was not uncommon for double albums in the early part of the digital era, the first CD of Rock Of Ages presented an abridged version of the album (this after it had already been split into two budget-priced LPs/cassettes). By the 1990s it was restored in full, albeit across two discs. After the turn of the century, Robbie managed to squeeze it all on one disc, but added a second CD of ten more songs from the concerts, including the four with special guest Bob Dylan. This was only a few months after the Concert For Bangla Desh, and apparently now he was ready to rock. And he does, with “Crash On The Levee”, a barely-there “Don’t Ya Tell Henry”, the Band arrangement of “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and, finally, “Like A Rolling Stone” with mumbled words but still much better than at the Isle Of Wight (two years earlier, not six or sixteen). Even the horns get into it.
And as if that wasn’t enough, Robbie spearheaded a further expansion presented two different ways. Live At The Academy Of Music 1971 offered of “every song played over the course of the four concerts” one two discs—basically a reshuffled, remastered version of the 2001 reissue, plus two songs never released anywhere. (Or, you could empty your wallet for the super-deluxe-in-all-but-title version that added on the complete December 31 show in what they call a surround mix, possibly to ease the pain of buying eleven songs twice in the same package.)
Either of the versions released this century shows the Band in their best element, a few years before another, bigger concert overshadowed their legacy. The extra tracks are certainly welcome, with more hits and better versions of “Smoke Signal” and “The Rumor”, plus the Motown nugget “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever”. And Dylan fanatics will welcome the missing piece of his “lost years”.

The Band Rock Of Ages (1972)—
2001 CD reissue: same as 1972, plus 10 extra tracks
2013 Live At The Academy Of Music 1971: The Rock Of Ages Concerts: same as 2001, plus 2 extra tracks (CD/DVD version adds 27 extra tracks)

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