Just after midnight at the Band's 1971 New Year's Eve blowout at New York's Academy of Music, they gave their fans a truly major surprise: Bob Dylan, whom they backed on his generation-shaking 1965-66 tour. Dylan arrived onstage looking remarkably like his old self – dark shades, long, curly hair and a Gibson strapped over his shoulder – and launched into a loose take on "Down in the Flood." "We were winging it," Robbie Robertson says of the gig. "We got to this place where everybody was sliding in, coming off, doubling up on each other, knowing when all of those things were supposed to happen. It was the real thing. It was just as good as what we could ever do."
The Band's four-night stand that week – augmented with a killer horn section arranged by New Orleans R&B great Allen Toussaint – was recorded for one of the finest live albums ever, 1972's Rock of Ages. "Everyone was thrilled about it," says Robertson, who co-produced the original double LP. "Except me – I didn't nail [the sound]." So earlier this year, Robertson went back to the original tapes and remixed them in California with engineers including his son Sebastian and Bob Clearmountain. The result is Live at the Academy of Music 1971 (out September 17th), a four-disc box set that includes a DVD with never-seen live footage from December 30th, 1971, and a book with pieces written by Robertson and superfans like Jim James and Mumford & Sons.
Revisiting the gigs, Robertson found himself stunned by the range and quality of the material – from the 1958 Chuck Willis tune "(I Don't Want to Hang Up) My Rock & Roll Shoes" and the melancholy "Get Up Jake" to furiously funky takes of "The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show" and the rarely played Cahoots rave-up "Smoke Signal." "We only did 'Smoke Signal' once or twice," says Robertson. "Levon [Helm] did an amazing job. It had been a long time since I thought of those things, for sure." Catch the premiere here.
In many ways, those 1971 shows marked a live peak for the Band. Following the New York run, they didn't perform together or record another album until 1973, when they released the all-covers set Moondog Matinee. "After that, you just didn't know what condition somebody was going to show up in – it was a roll of the dice," Robertson says. "It really felt like some kind of a little finale."
This story is from the September 26th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.