Rock of Ages - Rolling Stone
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Rock of Ages

There is, if my addition and the record company’s listed times are correct, precisely one hour, 11 minutes and 11 seconds of music on this album and it is the bargain of the decade at your favorite discount house. Recorded during the Band’s four-night gig at the end of 1971 at New York’s Academy of Music (you can hear a “Happy New Year” from the audience) it is a live-in-person double LP concert album.

Live albums (what’s a dead one?) do not always work in electric music because of the complexity of set up and the usual necessity for precise control of the sound. But this album, even on first hearing (and it gets better and better the more you listen to it) immediately joins the ranks of such celebrated in-person recordings as Mingus at Monterey, Count Basie in Sweden, Duke Ellington’s Seattle Concert, Miles at the Blackhawk and Ray Charles at Atlanta. In other words, it is a classic; 17 beautiful tracks (The Band played 18 numbers at the last concert I went to) and at the discount price the equivalent of a concert ticket except you can take it home and play it.

My litany of sacred “live” albums above listed is mainly jazz. Even the Stones concert LP didn’t quite make it for me and, aside from some tracks from Janis, the Airplane and the Grateful Dead, electric music has fared better in the studio, as far as records go, than on the stage. But we’ve all regretted it and hoped for some way to preserve that crackling moment which blew our minds so that we could take it from the top and start right over again. This one lets us do it, thank God.

The problem in concert recordings is more than the difference in the possible exercise of control. In a studio you can do it over as well as add to it if you don’t like what you have the first time. On a concert recording you get to do it once and that’s it. And as far as I know, this album presents the Band’s music precisely as it went down at the Academy of Music. Robbie says, incidentally, that about 80% of it was from the last night of a three-night gig.

The Band has always given a strong impression of precise control in its albums and in its concerts more attention has been paid to set up and sound than almost any group of which I can think. Their success here is all the more surprising since this album was not only done in concert but done with the addition of a horn section (“We’re gonna try something tonight we’ve never done before,” Robbie says in opening the show) which had only one rehearsal before the concert. That is a tribute to Allen Toussaint, who arranged the horns. Toussaint aided on the last Band LP, of course, and is someone for whom Robbie has had deep admiration since “I was a kid starting out.” Back there with “Mother-in-Law” and the rest.

For a brief time on tour the Band had a horn section and of course they have always taken advantage of Garth Hudson’s ability to play wind instruments as well as keyboards. So the idea of horns was in itself not so revolutionary, but it is who the horn players are and what Toussaint did with them that just knocks me out.

On trumpet and fluegelhorn is Snooky Young, unquestionably one of the greatest lead trumpet players in the history of jazz and a veteran of the big bands of Jimmie Lunceford, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton and Benny Carter as well as hundreds of studio groups and several TV talk show bands. When you hear him hit that high trumpet shake on “W.S. Walcott Medicine Show,” think of him as he used to be in the Basie brass section, sitting there, the ultimate in cool nonchalance, doing those incredible things with only one hand holding the trumpet.

Howard Johnson, who plays baritone sax, tuba and euphonium, has played and recorded with Ray Charles, Gerald Wilson, Miles Davis and Gil Evans, and is the man who contributed that amazing sound to Taj Mahal’s “Dixie.” Joe Farrell (tenor and soprano sax and English horn) is a familiar on the New York jazz scene, having been with Elvin Jones and Mingus (currently with Chick Corea) and having recorded extensively. Earl McIntire is a young (17 years old!) trombonist who was a member of the touring tuba section that Howard Johnson put together for Taj Mahal, while J.D. Parron is a reedman from St. Louis who’d only been in New York two weeks when he was picked for this date.

Add these musical personalities to the members of the Band plus Toussaint and you have an amalgam of rock, country, blues, jazz, free from, and classical influences in playing in addition to the folk, rock, kids’ songs, campfire singalong, protestant church and soul music sounds in the group’s material and vocal sound. It is a kind a summation of American music, if you will. A cultural mix unequaled in contemporary music.

The horns are a tremendous asset to the album in every way. Whereas in the past, the shadings of color and texture, as far as the instruments go, were contributed mainly by Garth’s doubling, in this performance they are enhanced and extended by the astute use of the horns. The Band is a remarkable group of instrumentalists in the first place: Consider the fact that the group has three first-rate lead singers, two incredible drummers, and can avail itself of doubles on piano and various stringed instruments as well as the instruments Garth plays. When you can make music like this, you don’t need to talk. At all.

Vocally, of course, the Band is unique. Their development of a style which encompasses all the aspects of the human voice on the part of each of the singers affords them a flexibility no other contemporary group can match. Listen to these records on earphones with the volume turned up and you can get the full flavor of their voices, the subtlety with which they sneak in and out of ensemble vocal passages and the way in which they can switch from one lead to another not only effortlessly but with such a similarity in timbre and phrasing that you may not catch it first time round. Earphones also give you the added pleasure of picking up on all the weird shit Garth Hudson contributes on his various keyboards in the backgrounds of the ensemble passages and behind the vocals, each time almost providing a full solo improvisation.

The songs on the album are, with two exceptions, from their other Capitol LPs. One of the exceptions is a new song, “Get Up Jake,” which, while it is a good enough number, is for me the weakest effort on the album. The other exception is the opening track, “Don’t Do It,” which is available only on one of the bootleg LPs, the Los Angeles concert. There are four songs from Big Pink, five from The Band, three from Stage Fright and one from Cahoots, (“Life is a Carnival”). Eight, including “Don’t Do It,” are on the Los Angeles concert bootleg and the remarkable thing about all of them is that they run almost exactly the same length of time as in their other versions.

When songs are recorded first, then played on concert tours and then recorded “live” later, they mellow down and sometimes drop in tempo and usually change in length. All of these songs have mellowed down and now and then the tempo is a bit slower. The result is that the performances here are, for me at any rate, superior in every case to both the originals and to the bootleg versions. The differences are in the occasional addition of a voice on the spur of the moment and an occasional change in a lyric or tricky switch in lead singing. That and the unbelievably mellow yet intense feeling which pervades both LPs.

It is very clear on these LPs that the feeling and the spirit that was in the concert hall has been captured in the recording. It began right away, Robbie says. “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.” It was New Year’s Eve, a good time Saturday night ball from start to finish.

When I first started listening to these albums I wondered whether or not the sequence of songs was the same on the LPs as at the concert because every rearrangement effects how the ultimate program sounds. But as I listened I forgot all about that point. It doesn’t make any difference because the way the tracks are sequenced here is right within itself and a concert album, in this case anyway, is a thing apart from the concert itself.

“Don’t Do It (doncha break my heart),” that great Holland-Dozier-Holland number, opens the concert beginning with a permutation of Bo Diddley rhythm, the guitar and piano riffs and the horns behind the vocals and two guitar solos by Robbie surrounding the last vocal chorus. At the end, Robbie and guitar have it again. Levon sings lead on this with Rick and Richard adding the harmony. A rushing quality of excitement.

“King Harvest,” one of Robbie’s most deeply nostalgic compositions and one which expresses the common heritage of the Band, has a lovely guitar solo by Robbie over the horns which are quite unobtrusive throughout as they fill in the background punctuating the phrases. Richard sings lead with Levon on harmony and there is a deeper feeling of warmth to this version than to the other versions.

“Caledonia Mission” is one of Rick’s best vocals ever, and there is a sax obbligato to it which is delightful. Look for it just where Rick sings “I do believe in your hexagram …”

“Get Up Jake” has Richard singing lead with Rick and Levon harmonizing and Robbie plays a lovely guitar solo (it’s another of his tunes). While it is not a let down, it does not, at least so far, move me as the previous tracks do.

“W.S. Walcott Medicine Show” closes the first side, with the horns giving it a delightful dixieland feeling including some fine sliding tailgate trombone from McIntire. Garth Hudson has an outstanding tenor sax solo on this track, one of his best. The horn players were cheering him on, Robbie says, blowing with one fist in the air. It was a deserved tribute because, apprehensive as he was to be performing before these celebrated jazz men, Garth Hudson really dug in and blew himself a solo.

Side one is a knockout all on its own. Side two begins with “Stagefright,” Robbie’s classic analysis of the performing artist. Rick sings it beautifully, including a delightful “hoo hoo” after the line “he gets to sing just like a bird.” Garth has a fine organ solo and they go out on Robbie and Garth and in the earphones it sounds like a 70-piece orchestra with Howard Johnson underlining every bass note with his beautiful sound.

“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” which Robbie wrote for Levon so he could get it all out, all the heritage of his time and place, is a wonderful track. Snooky Young contributes a bugle call opening packed with nostalgia, wrenching from the heart chords the sounds of ‘way back home and later throwing in a touch of “Swanee River” just to make sure you get the point. There is a moving ensemble passage with interior shifting harmony by the horns and then they segue into “Across the Great Divide” which has a dixieland feeling when the horns sing out and some more mad scientist organ music by Garth.

“This Wheel’s on Fire,” Rick Danko’s collaboration with Dylan, has some beautiful tuba on the bottom, a delightful passage of unison guitar and organ before Robbie’s guitar solo plus some truly wild piano by Richard. Rick sings it and everyone joins in.

“Rag Mama Rag,” which I believe was the Band’s best selling single record, is sung by Levon and has Garth playing the piano this time, a wild, eccentric, abandoned solo that is like an old Cripple Clarence Lofton bit in its straight out use of dissonance and discontinuity. Howard Johnson’s tuba adds another dimension again as side two ends.

“The Weight” opens side three with Levon singing and Robbie, Richard and Rick on harmony. It is the classic song of poetic symbols in the Band’s repertoire and one of their most successful numbers. Rick’s bass is simply beautiful to hear and Richard’s piano obbligato is intriguing.

“The Shape I’m In” is slightly slower and groovier than the original and there is an impressive organ solo which evolves into a long instrumental passage with Robbie’s guitar. On this track Rick Danko gets the best tone I have ever heard from a Fender bass. At times it sounds like an upright bass, it is so mellow and sweet.

“Unfaithful Servant” is introduced by a voice from the audience yelling “Happy New Year!” It’s an unusually warm, moving version of this exquisite song and is the best vocal Rick contributes, possibly the best he’s done.

“Life is a Carnival” has Levon and Rick singing plus a fantastic instrumental passage with Robbie’s guitar leading the horns through a repeated jazz riff that is simply wild. It ends side three in an amazing blaze of excitement.

Side four is a masterpiece all by itself, one of the most incredible performances by any band on record. It opens with “The Genetic Method,” which is Garth Hudson’s name for his organ solo that once was merely the prelude to “Chest Fever” but is now an instrumental tour de force in which he combines all his vast knowledge of the whole range of music into one unbelievable solo shot. I find Garth’s organ playing a continual delight. He never blatantly quotes from his sources but rather builds improvisations on quotes, hinting at them and ringing changes in your ears that haunt you. He has mastered the use of dissonance and the unexpected note in a line in something of the manner of Thelonious Monk. I break up laughing at what Garth does, and then am totally frustrated trying to sort out the rearrangement of music he presents in this kaleidoscopic fashion. The only thing I can compare it to is Dylan’s harmonica solos at concerts when he was totally carried away. Garth runs through nursery rhymes, Celtic reels, late night show organ music, old hymns and ancient popular melodies and even gives us “Auld Lang Syne” for a Happy New Year’s good measure, slipping swiftly into “Chest Fever.”

Richard sings “Chest Fever” with Levon, Robbie and Rick on harmony and the glorious horns punching out riffs after the vocals, a furious solo from Garth and the churning rhythm and plunging horns taking it out. It was a fine climax and could only have been followed (after shouts for “More! More! More!”) by ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Shoes.” Levon sings this with Robbie and Rick harmonizing and the horns laying down a big band riff that is so good you want it to go on all night. The drums, tuba and bass swing like mad and Robbie plays two guitar solos on this track which I rank among the best he has ever done for pure economical excitement. From the beginning to the end of side four, the entire side simply cooks with a crackling, roaring, swinging energy that leaves you breathless at the end. Rock & roll is surely here to stay if the Band has anything to do with it. Everybody take a bow!

In This Article: The Band


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