THE BAND: ROCK OF AGES (1972)
1) Introduction; 2) Don't Do It; 3) King Harvest (Has Surely Come); 4) Caledonia Mission; 5) Get Up Jake; 6) The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show; 7) Stage Fright; 8) The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down; 9) Across The Great Divide; 10) This Wheel's On Fire; 11) Rag Mama Rag; 12) The Weight; 13) The Shape I'm In; 14) Unfaithful Servant; 15) Life Is A Carnival; 16) The Genetic Method; 17) Chest Fever; 18) (I Don't Want To) Hang Up My Rock'n'Roll Shoes; 19*) Loving You (Is Sweeter Than Ever); 20*) I Shall Be Released; 21*) Up On Cripple Creek; 22*) The Rumor; 23*) Rockin' Chair; 24*) Time To Kill; 25*) Down In The Flood; 26*) When I Paint My Masterpiece; 27*) Don't Ya Tell Henry; 28*) Like A Rolling Stone.
Not everybody in the world would have easily dared to slap a title like Rock Of Ages onto a live album, not even a double one. Pompous double (and triple) live albums were all the rage in the early 1970s, of course, but The Band still managed to stand out — releasing a concert record that could easily compete with the average prog live album in pretentiousness, without being in the least saddled by «prog» trappings (probably not counting Garth Hudson's solo spotlight, but we'll get to that soon enough).
Whoever saw The Last Waltz — and we will get around to that, too, eventually — could hardly walk away from it untouched by The Band's aura of self-importance (be it «awestruck» or «irritated», no matter), but would probably remain somewhat uncertain as to how much of that self-importance was immanent and how much of it was conjured by Scorsese's direction: after all, the master is quite famous for being able to perceive Biblical solemnity in whatever object he has chosen to idolize this morning. One listen to Rock Of Ages will put that uncertainty to rest: no Scorsese anywhere in sight, but the not-so-bad boys of Rustic'n'Roll are every bit as manipulative with their majesty here as they would be at their final show. Or, for that matter, any time, any day, as long as there were more than two of them assembled in any one place.
Recorded on the last days of December in New York City, at a venue (hardly coincidentally) called «Academy of Music», culminating in a Bob Dylan cameo (which was actually left off the original album, but faithfully waited in the archives until the remastered CD reissue), this is a totally huge show, with about 75% of The Band's material from their first three, «already classic» albums interspersed with a lonely ʽLife Is A Carnivalʼ off Cahoots and a few R&B covers here and there to provide the Impressive Link With The Past. The Bob cameo actually took place in the early morning hours of January 1, 1972, and on this new, expanded reissue finds its rightful place as the «climax» of the show. I mean, what with the humble servants working their asses off for two hours, it could be expected of The Prophet to come out at the end and provide one final blessing. He provided four.
In addition to all the grandness, Allen Toussaint himself, fresh from working on ʽLife Is A Carnivalʼ, had been recruited for writing extra horn arrangements, and a five-piece brass band is augmenting The Band here on many of (fortunately, not all) the numbers. Contrary to expectations, this does not provide the music with an authentic New Orleanian flavor, but it does add extra «beef» to the sound (and extra tragic hero flavor to ʽThe Night They Drove Old Dixie Downʼ), and this here is a show that needs as much beef as it can swallow without chewing.
The songs themselves, actually, are generally played quite close to the way they were originally recorded, because, to quote [an imaginary] Robbie Robertson, «why tamper with [my] perfection?» Apart from the extra brass parts, an occasional extra electronic gimmick from Garth, and a few flubbed notes from the vocalists here and there (very few, actually, compared to the usual leeway allowed themselves by most rock performers — these guys were tremendously disciplined onstage, which many people are tempted to interpret as «boring»), the music is faithfully transposed into a live environment. If there is anything here that overwhelms, it is simply the realization of how many goddamn great songs they had on these three albums — not a single stinker out here, just wave upon wave of greatness.
The bookmarks — that is where they fall short. Neither Marvin Gaye's ʽDon't Do Itʼ which opens the main part of the show, nor Chuck Willis' ʽHang Up My Rock'n'Roll Shoesʼ that closes it, really stand comparison with The Band's own songs. Not because they aren't fine old respectable R&B numbers — they are — but the idea here is to somehow ensure this link between the old and the new, to build a bridge between the old Hawks, still crediting the reverend masters, and the new Band, the masters of today. It doesn't work. ʽDon't Do Itʼ does set a groove, but the band almost seems to be afraid to truly «get into it», and as for Chuck Willis' number, well, it does look like they may not want to, but they pretty much hung up those rock'n'roll shoes for good, because this here ain't rock'n'roll, really, it's bland, generic pub boogie, and no amount of Allen Toussaint's brasswork on top is able to transform it into the «celebration» that it is supposed to be. In a way, these two numbers predict the terrible failure to come of Moondog Matinee — and the questionable excesses of The Last Waltz, of course.
What works much better is when it goes the other way — into the depths of pretentiousness, with Hudson showing off his «J. S. Bach Discovers The Power Of Electricity» routine on ʽThe Genetic Methodʼ, a lengthy organ instrumental that grew out of the original keyboard introduction to ʽChest Feverʼ. It is gimmicky, although certainly not as «flashy» as stuff that Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman or even Jon Lord would be doing at the time — sort of a half «mock-baroque», half «tongue-in-cheek-gothic» improvisation that shows who was really the boss (Hudson was the only one of them all with the proper academic training), and just as you start thinking that you have just about had enough, the clock strikes twelve (maybe) and Garth launches into ʽAuld Lang Syneʼ and the audience goes whoooh. A touching moment, really, and much more exciting than their lame, half-hearted attempts to «rock out». Leave ʽDon't Do Itʼ to its original master, boys — or, at least, to the likes of The Who, because there is no way you can unlock its ass-kicking potential. This is not the way.
The Dylan guestspot on the bonus section of the CD is indeed a nice conclusion, but a bit superfluous if you already know Before The Flood — recorded two years later, but setting more or less the same groove and with Bob in the same top-notch «shouting» form. The song selection that they do is rather curious, though, with two of the four numbers taken from The Basement Tapes (still not released officially at the time) — Bob is clearly being modest here, concentrating on stuff they wrote and made together, rather than turning The Band back into his backing outfit. But then, yeah, they're still on stage for the fans, so they can't help doing ʽLike A Rolling Stoneʼ anyway. Good version, but not too necessary.
Overall, yeah, Rock Of Ages — The Band pull no punches as they prepare themselves and their legacy for immortality. The album is more «important» as a memory of an event, a collection of terrific songs, a self-aggrandizing eulogy, than as something you will want to listen to over and over instead of the studio originals. Yet it does get a thumbs up, like any live album with a great setlist, plenty of verve, inspiration, and professionalism. The Band might not have had a lot of ideas about how to present their material on stage in a new light (the brass arrangements are a debatable touch), but they certainly showed us all how much they loved their own material on that stage. And I don't mind — they may be narcissistic about their songs, but as long as these are great songs, it is a pleasure to witness them get so orgiastic about them. On The Last Waltz, the egos may have been getting too out of hand — on Rock Of Ages, they are flaunted just about right.