Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Rock Of Ages

Rock Of Ages is up there with the very best live records of that era: The Stones' Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out, The Allman Brothers' Live At Fillmore East and The Who's Live At Leeds. It was during the Cahoots period that The Band recorded these concerts in New York. It's safe to say most of the live versions of the songs present on the two discs (the 2000 remaster) are superior to their studio counterparts, with the exception of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. Not better or worse; it's just different. Here it's been slowed down significantly, which makes it much more somber; you can hear the sadness and anguish in Levon Helm's voice as he sings. And without skipping a beat, the band goes right into Across The Great Divide, a superbly executed tune that contains not a lot of words but says more about America than most folk songs of that time do. Oh the genius of Robbie Robertson's songwriting. And I love love love the horn arrangements too. Also I wanna mention the majestic Stage Fright; never have I believed Rick Danko so much as in this particular performance.

The Weight, obviously one of their best-known songs, is given a new life on this live record. I actually felt like I was listening to it for the first time. It's always thrilling to hear Rick, Richard Manuel and Levon harmonizing the last verse together. And of course not forgetting the other important man who made this group great, Garth Hudson. He paints a wide musical canvas on the long intro to Chest Fever (The Genetic Method), but it's not some self-indulgent playing. The album ends proper with a rousing cover of (I Don't Wanna To) Hang Up My Rock & Roll Shoes. It's important to note that it was also the horns that made these performances ultra-special -- songs like King Harvest, Caledonia Mission, The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show, Unfaithful Servant and obviously Life Is A Carnival. Reading the liner notes, I realized that The Band's friendship with New Orleans' Allen Toussaint started during this period; he would help arrange the horns again at their farewell show in '76 - The Last Waltz.

The second disc, also consisting of songs from the four-show run in New York, is just as good. I'm glad The Rumor was included inside because it's simply a phenomenal song. And Bob Dylan 'guest stars' with his old friends, singing those tunes he penned, but those that had significance for The Band. He puts a more ferocious spin to When I Paint My Masterpiece. Last but not least, it's always fun to hear Like A Rolling Stone. But given this particular context, it was an emotional performance; the first time Dylan and The Band (or The Hawks) would play it since his ground-breaking tour of '66. Again, a totally different animal. Rock Of Ages was the Band at their peak.