When I think of The Band, which just happens to be my favorite group in the whole wide world, it’s not “The Weight” that first comes to mind, or “This Wheel’s on Fire” or “Rockin’ Chair” or even the brilliant body of ramshackle demos they recorded with Bob Dylan in the basement of the rented house they dubbed Big Pink in West Saugerties, New York in 1967.
No, what I think about is the scene in 2003’s Festival Express—a documentary about the financially ill-fated but fun for all involved 1970 rock tour that crossed Canada by train—where Rick Danko leads a lounge car full of rock stars (including Janis Joplin and Jerry Garcia) in a wonderfully wasted rendition of “Ain’t No More Cane (On the Brazos).” Danko is so gloriously fucked-up, and his crazed smile and arm-waving performance so full of joy, that it seems the embodiment of the spirit of The Band itself, whose ensemble playing brimmed over with high spirits, camaraderie, and the sheer joy of making music.
The Band—whose country and Motown-tinged roots rock and wonderful songs filled with colorful characters conjured up the topsy-turvy spirit of a mythical and long-lost America—released only one live album during its original incarnation, 1972’s double-live Rock of Ages. Recorded during a triumphant four-night stint at NYC’s Academy of Music as 1971 came to a close, Rock of Ages featured The Band supplemented by a five-piece horn section arranged by New Orleans’ Allen Toussaint, as well as a guest appearance by Bob Dylan. It remains one of rock’s greatest live albums, along with Bob Dylan at Budokan… er, make that Live 1966: The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert and Killdozer’s The Last Waltz, which is not to be confused with another album bearing the same name by a band I can’t think of at the moment.
But perhaps a mere double album wasn’t enough for you, scary-eyed Band fanatic. If so, Capitol Records/UMe has just done you a large by releasing a steroid-enhanced four-CD+DVD version of Rock of Ages entitled Live at the Academy of Music 1971. The new release includes two CDs containing the original songs off Rock of Ages—albeit sequenced differently and remixed in stereo and 5.1 Surround sound —along with two CDs captured straight from the soundboard of The Band’s stint-closing New Year’s Eve show. As for the DVD, it contains videos by Howard Alk and Murray Lerner of two songs from the shows.
But before we get to Capitol/Ume’s monumental new release, which is approximately the size of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey and weighs in at an impressive 5,467 tons, let us take the wayback machine to the early 1960s, when the boys who would become The Band—namely Canadians Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson, along with Turkey Scratch, Arkansas native Levon Helm—made their bones playing rockabilly as The Hawks behind Ronnie “Mr. Dynamo” Hawkins, the Ontario-by-way-of-Arkansas wild man whose recruitment pitch to young Toronto guitar ace Robbie Robertson went, “Well, son, you won’t make much money, but you’ll get more pussy than Frank Sinatra.”
Ronnie was as good as his word, but by 1964 his backing band must have had their fill of poontang—not to mention sleazy club owners, one of whom pissed them off so much they stuck around after closing time and torched his club with gasoline, almost blowing Hawkins to kingdom come in the process—because they left The Hawk to form their own group, only to wind up (after recording a few failed singles as Levon and the Hawks and The Canadian Squires) as the backing band of yet another, far bigger star, namely Bob Dylan. They provided the juice required to satisfy the amphetamine-fueled jester’s newfound love for electricity during his tumultuous 1965-66 tours, which met with such unrelenting fan hostility that Helm actually up and quit the band, preferring manual labor on an off-shore oil rig to being booed on a nightly basis.
Following Dylan’s much-debated “motorcycle accident,” he and his backing band crossed paths again, this time in the Catskill mountains of New York, where together they churned out the 100 or so inspired originals and covers that became known as the basement tapes. They then went out on their own for real, and after debating such names as The Honkies and The Crackers, finally settled on The Band. Their first two LPs, 1968’s Music From Big Pink and 1969’s eponymous The Band—which included such timeless classics as “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” “Whispering Pines,” and “Tears of Rage,” to name just a few—transformed them from perpetual road warriors to superstars, and so astounded fellow musicians that Eric Clapton, for one, declared his band Cream “obsolete.”
Unfortunately, follow-ups Stage Fright (1970) and Cahoots (1971) signaled a steep decline in the quality of The Band’s songwriting. Richard Manuel basically ceased writing due to his worsening alcoholism, while Robbie Robertson—The Band’s chief songwriter—developed writer’s block complicated by a severe case of pretentiousness, and as a result his songs grew increasingly stilted and wooden. Cahoots in particular was a bona fide clunker, with just three decent songs on it, one a Dylan cover, and another a collaboration with Van Morrison. The Band also largely abandoned the wonderful vocal interplay that made such tunes as “Rockin’ Chair” and “Whispering Pines” so sublimely beautiful, and their abandonment of unison singing seemed to symbolize a loss of the unity and brotherhood that had made the group’s music so powerful in the first place.
This was basically the situation The Band found itself in when it played the Academy of Music shows. They remained a crackerjack live act, but as recording artists they’d reached an impasse.
I’ve thought long and hard about this, and I think Live at the Academy of Music 1971 is worth owning, even if you already own Rock of Ages, for the New Year’s Eve soundboard recordings alone. I’m listening to the soundboard recording of Across the Great Divide as I write this, and Richard Manuel—who possessed one of the most versatile and evocative voices I’ve ever heard, and is one of the two vocalists who has ever brought me to tears—is kicking ass, growling in that great baritone of his, while the horn section blares away and Levon Helm brings the swing with that unique loosey-goosey drum technique of his.
The New Year’s Eve show also features a beautiful rendition of “The Unfaithful Servant,” with Richard Manuel pouring his heart out on vocals and Robbie Robertson playing an unbelievable, heavy-on-the-tremolo guitar solo. As for that night’s version of “Don’t Do It,” everybody’s in top form: Helm’s vocals are barn-burning, Hudson’s organ work is stellar, and Manuel plays some wild piano, while the horns blare away and Robertson—whom Bob Dylan once famously described as “the only mathematical guitar genius I’ve ever run into who does not offend my intestinal nervousness with his rear guard sound”—lets loose with a scorching solo. Helm also outdoes himself on the great “Up on Cripple Creek”—he once said, “I love horns, and the bigger the band, the better it sounds to my ear,” so he must have been in seventh heaven on those four nights—especially with his ecstatic yodeling towards the song’s close.
Manuel, whose vocals grew increasingly ragged as his drinking worsened, isn’t in best voice in the circus-like “The Shape I’m In,” but his straining attempts to hit his notes sound strangely appropriate given that he’s singing a desperate, first-person account of a man at the end of his rope. Meanwhile Hudson plays some whirling, swirling organ, Robertson tosses in some tasty fills as well as yet another great math problem of a solo, and Manuel sings “Save your neck or save your brother/Looks like its one or the other,” the despair palpable in his voice.
Manuel and Helm swap lines on the low-key but pretty “The Rumor,” while the pair outdo themselves on the sublime “Rockin’ Chair.” Manuel handles the main vocals in his most heartrending baritone, while the duo sing together on the choruses, but the song’s real kick comes toward the end, when the duo sing a round that is beautiful beyond words. Rick Danko contributes his trademark warbling vocals to the great “This Wheel’s on Fire,” which features a nice instrumental interlude—unusual for The Band—as well as some fancy cymbal work by Helm and tasty guitar fills by Robertson.
Manuel and Helm sing together on “Get Up, Jake,” which features some fancy organ work by Hudson, a piercing guitar solo by Robertson, and the great line “You tell me you’re dyin’/But I know it’s not true,” while the so-so “Smoke Signals” is worth hearing if only for Helm’s urgent hillbilly howl and the way Robertson and Helm hook up to play what can only be described as a guitar/drum solo.
As for “I Shall Be Released,” Manuel’s falsetto—ragged as it is—is tremendously moving, and the pain behind it almost palpable. Manuel–who hanged himself in 1986 in a Florida hotel room following a gig at a place called the Cheek-to-Cheek Lounge, which shows you just how far The Band, Robertson long since departed, had fallen—was one of the most soulful vocalists ever to play in a rock’n’roll band, and his ability to convey pure sorrow remains nothing less than miraculous. Indeed, about the only song Live at the Academy of Music 1971 unforgivably omits is “Whispering Pines,” which features an emotionally devastating vocal by Manuel that never fails to bring me to the brink of tears.
“The Weight” is another revelation, what with Helm and Danko trading verses when they’re not singing in tandem, Manuel contributing some great piano, and Hudson throwing in some wonderful organ. Ditto for “Stage Fright,” Danko’s trademark moment in the spotlight. I love the way he warbles after singing “He gets to sound just like a bird,” just as I love the Hudson organ solo that follows, and the short jam that closes the song.
I’ve never been a big fan of “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show,” but I’ll be damned if the New Year’s Eve recording hasn’t changed my mind, what with its badass guitar intro, the way Helm and Danko swap verses or sing them together, and its wonderful horns, which include one particularly snazzy saxophone solo. As for “Rag Mama Rag,” it’s one of the strongest cuts on the release, what with its strange opening, Manuel’s wild honky-tonk piano, and Helm spitting out the vocals while other members join in here and there.
The New Year’s Eve version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is probably the best I’ve ever heard, from Helm’s impassioned vocals to the powerful choruses to Toussaint’s wonderful horn arrangement, which includes some mournful introductory trumpet and tuba work by Snooky Young and Howard Johnson, respectively, as well as Young’s inspired playing throughout.
I’ve never cared much for Hudson’s “The Genetic Method”—it’s far too baroque for my three-chord tastes—and the soundboard version on Disc 4 doesn’t change my mind, but the hard-rocking “Chest Fever” that follows is a different story altogether, what with Manuel and Helm spitting out the vocals in tandem, Hudson contributing some ominous organ as well as one very carnivalesque solo, and the horns playing big sheets of sound, the whole thing ending in a caterwaul followed by a cry of “Thank you! Happy New Year!”
As for The Band’s cover of Chuck “King of the Stroll” Willis’ “(I Don’t Want to) Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes,” the horn arrangement is tremendous, Manuel’s boogie-woogie piano is frantic, and Helm’s singing is inspired. The song also includes what is probably Robertson’s most off-the-leash guitar playing off the night.
As for the Dylan numbers, I’m afraid the foreshortened soundboard version of “Like a Rolling Stone” doesn’t hold a candle to the howling and raucous rendition on 1974’s Before The Flood. Meanwhile, Dylan transforms “Down in the Flood” to a raw and funky blues, with Robertson contributing a pair of nice solos, Dylan and The Band singing some nice tandem vocals, and Hudson doing a stellar job of filling in the background with some wild organ. The wonderful “When I Paint My Masterpiece” has Dylan doing his best wild cat yowl, while The Band provides some solid-rock backing. As for “Don’t You Tell Henry” it’s a wild slice of rock at its best, with Helm and Dylan shouting out the lyrics to the backing of some roughshod drumming while Robertson plays a jagged and ragged guitar solo. The song sounds like it could fall to pieces at any moment, and I love it because it better captures the raw spirit of the basement tapes than anything The Band, or Dylan for that matter, subsequently recorded.
And that’s that. The Band didn’t know it, but they were, after putting out two amazing LPs that completely redefined the possibilities of rock, pretty much a spent force. With the exception of the wonderful 1973 covers LP Moondog Matinee, The Band would never put out another studio album that truly mattered, much less a great one. And in this sense those four celebratory nights at the Academy of Music in late 1971 marked both the high-water mark and last gasp of a legendary band. Live at the Academy of Music 1971 is more than just a must-listen. It’s a testament—and requiem of sorts—to the late Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Levon Helm, as well as Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson, five musicians who together managed to produce some of the most ecstatic, profoundly moving, and important music of the rock era.
Me, I tend not to focus on the Band’s lost promise and sad end. I prefer to think of them as forever crossing the Canadian hinterlands crammed laughing into the Hawk’s white Cadillac, the ghost of infamous car wrecker Richard Manuel behind the wheel, a whiskey bottle passing from hand to hand, eager to hit the next bohunk town and burn another club down, preferably with their music, but with gasoline and a match if necessary.
GRADED ON A CURVE: