In these days of near-instantaneous, shit-sounding YouTube bootlegs, it’s hard to recall how great live recordings can be. Rock of Ages is indeed a great live recording – in his 1972 Rolling Stone review, included in this reissue, Ralph J. Gleason called it a “classic” straight out of the gate, ranking alongside “sacred” in-concert LPs like Mingus at Monterey. Taken from multitrack tapes of the ’71 four-night stand that sourced Rock, this five-disc set combines the expanded 2002 reissue with a soundboard recording of the run’s fabled New Year’s Eve gig, which was capped by a balls-out, back-from-exile Dylan cameo. Rarely do the historic and the ecstatic match up so juicily.
With jazz pros playing hot contrapuntal horn charts specially written for the shows by New Orleans maestro Allen Toussaint, the Band kill it on nearly every song, often improving the originals. The mournful gospel-blues arrangements on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” add a new emotional layer to Levon Helm’s Southern-man plaint, and the Dylan tracks are off-the-hook. The reading of “Like a Rolling Stone” is one of the most breathtaking ever, with Dylan hollering like a man just out of prison. All totaled: a trunkload of what at this point are barroom folk standards, played so vividly you’ll be bellowing along.