Rock for the Ages–The Band Live at the Academy of Music 1971
On Thanksgiving Day in 1976, The Band, spent from years on the road and by then from internal disagreements about musical directions, mustered their considerable musicianship, as well as their huge coterie of musical friends and devoted fans, and came together for one last show, a dance of the spirit immortalized in Martin Scorcese’s affectionate film, The Last Waltz. While there has always been some debate about whether the film was simply a vehicle for Robbie and his talent as the band split, there’s never been any question that the night was about the music. Fast forward through the interviews—though they’re very telling about The Band’s own view of itself and its music—and just watch the performances and listen to the transcendent unity of sound that the group produces in that concert. These five guys know how to listen to each other, can anticipate each other’s vocal and musical moves, and they move as one; for those hours that they’re playing, at least, no matter what follows, Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson are one body, and the spirit of that musical body washes across Winterland, making community and bringing people together with their overwhelming musical spirit.
Just five years earlier, The Band played four now legendary concerts on December 28, 29, 30, and 31, 1971, at New York’s Academy of Music, and the transcendent quality so apparent in The Last Waltz permeates these concerts.Talking to Rolling Stone‘s co-founder, Ralph J. Gleason, soon after the performances, Robbie Robertson reflected on those nights:”As soon as we kicked off the first song, it was over. We weren’t even touching ground. You could see the sound covering the people. It was the greatest experience of our life, we were overwhelmed by the feeling it gave.” In order to capture the spirit of those performances, The Band released its now-classic double album of select highlights from these four concerts, Rock of Ages, in 1972, which peaked at number 6 on the Billboard 200. In his October 12, 1972, Rolling Stone review, Gleason hails the album, as did many critics at the time, for capturing the “feeling and the spirit that was in the concert hall.”
For those of us who bought Rock of Ages in 1972, the album provided us access to that night in New York where this eclectic band of musical seers shared their vision of a tapestry of musical styles that wove together the strands of country, blues, R&B, gospel, soul, rockabilly, art songs, folk, New Orleans brass band music, and rock. The original album showcases each musician’s canny ability to play off, around, and under the others; during this four-night run, a horn section, with new horn parts arranged by the great Allen Toussaint, simply added a breathtaking new dimension to the already rich music of the group. Rock of Ages captures The Band at the height of its career, with seventeen songs purporting to be from the New Year’s Eve show. For the final night, Bob Dylan, the group’s mentor and peripatetic sixth man, joined The Band for a series of encores, rolling through “Down in the Flood,” “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” “Don’t Ya Tell Henry,” and “Like a Rolling Stone,” though these encores weren’t on the original Rock of Ages. Although the set lists for each of the four nights were announced to be the same, they weren’t, and Dylan appeared only on the final night and during one other performance.
Now, thanks to Robertson and co-producers Michael Murphy and Matt D’Amico, and Capitol/UME, we have Live at the Academy of Music 1971, a four CD and DVD collection that captures the searing exhilaration of those nights in 1971 when The Band reached a musical peak on which they could stand only momentarily before descending the heights and moving in different directions. Still, one these four nights, The Band staked out a rich territory now plowed by a huge variety of bands identified as Americana or roots music. The first two discs, which will also be released separately as a two-CD set, feature performances of every song played over the four nights, while the soundboard mixes of discs 3 and 4, capture with crystal clarity the power of the New Year’s Eve concert. The collection features new stereo and 5.1 Surround mixes, contains 19 previously unreleased performances, and newly discovered footage of two songs—”King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” and “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show”—filmed by Howard Alk and Murray Lerner. The legendary producer who just died earlier this year, Phil Ramone, and Mark Harman recorded the concerts originally. For this collection, Bob Clearmountain did the stereo mixes for the first two discs and the DVD’s 5.1 Surround; Robertson’s son, Sebastian, and Jon Castelli, assisted by Ryan Nasci, did the stereo mixes for discs 3 and 4. Patricia Sullivan mastered the collection at Bernie Grundman Mastering. Robertson admits that he was never satisfied with the original mixes of the Academy of Music shows. Now, though, he writes, “I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to have another crack at this…Bob Clearmountain has brought out a sonic life in these recordings that was meant to be. This is a fulfillment of that extraordinary musical experience that I can now wholeheartedly feel great about sharing.”
(Photo credit: John Scheele)
And this new set does capture a moment in ways that the original album does not. Here we can hear clear, re-mastered, and never-before-issued performances that reveal, for example, just how masterful an improviser Garth Hudson is on “Genetic Method,” which begins as an intro to “Chest Fever,” but becomes a soaring fugal musical setting all its own in which he weaves snatches of nursery rhymes, ancient ballads, free jazz, and even “Auld Lange Syne” into his musical quilt. In the 48-page illustrated book that accompanies the CD/DVD set, which features never-before seen photos as well as Gleason’s Rolling Stone review of the original album, Robertson looks back on the performances with pride and fondness: “Garth’s improvisations had no limits. His sounds and techniques, no one in the world could touch him…Rick showed something during this period that I still don’t understand. While singing like a bird, he played a fretless bass…Richard was ‘in the zone’ singing and playing as good as ever…making us cry with that voice. Levon showed up with a musical force that the rest of us leaned on to make the magic happen. He sang and played his heart out during every one of those shows, and nailed it every night. All this gave me the freedom to play anything that felt good…and it also allowed me to develop signals and interplay with the horn section for certain dynamics.” You can hear Robertson’s sweet guitar weaving and wending around and under the horns in “Life is a Carnival.” The Band nails “The Weight,” the song now most familiar even to those not familiar with the group, with Helm’s punchy rhythm, and his driving voice that’s joined by Robertson, Danko, and Manuel’s tight harmonies. In addition, the shine of the group’s abilities grows even brighter on previously unissued performances such as “Strawberry Wine,” “Rockin’ Chair,” and “(I Don’t Want To) Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes.”
(Photo credit: Ernst Haas)
The Band, and especially Rock of Ages, has clearly influenced a number of bands, and the group, in many listeners’ minds, is the fount of Americana music. Whether or not The Band ought to be credited with being the first group playing Americana music is an ongoing conversation, but this stunning new collection makes clear how deeply instrumental The Band was in providing an example of a style of playing and singing that blended many styles to produce fresh and exciting sounds. As a part of this set, Mumford & Sons and Jim James of My Morning Jacket—whose sonic version of The Band’s “It Makes No Difference,” a song The Band released after Rock of Ages, is a faithful tribute to The Band’s music—offer their appreciation of the group and the recordings in this set. Mumford & Sons writes that “The Band has had an incredible influence on so many musicians—not least on the four of us—and this record harnesses their raw and real sound…the energy you get from these versions of the songs really defines the point of a live record.” For James, this set of recordings, as well as the power of The Band itself transcends a time and place: “they will be playing forever…messing with the space time continuum…inspiring future generations to keep it real with faith in pure music alive…no compromise…because our life is on the line. always has been. always will be. forever and ever amen.”
Although we’ve lost Rick, Richard, and Levon, The Band transcends time and place through music and songs that reach beyond the vagaries and the weight of everyday life, even while being still seeped in those mundane uncertainties of the carnival called life, and pull us toward release through a powerful music that reaches into our souls and won’t leave us alone. Rock of ages, indeed.