Does anyone else find it odd a band with four members from Southern Ontario, Canada is considered by so many the inspiration for what’s known as the Americana genre of popular music? Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson all hail from north of the 49th parallel, so how did they end up being the group Mumford & Sons refer to as “an incredible influence on so many musicians, not the least on the four of us”? The answer lies in part with who they all were as musicians and in part with the path their career took.
First there was Ronnie Hawkins, who came up to Toronto from his native Arkansas to spread the gospel of rockabilly and ended up relocating permanently. The band he brought up with him included a young drummer, Levon Helm, and while the rest of Hawkins’ Hawks were gradually replaced by the above mentioned quartet from Ontario, Helm continued to anchor the band’s rhythm section. They toured up and down North America playing Hawkins’ country-influenced rockabilly from 1960 to 1962 and then struck out on their own as Levon and the Hawks, Helm being the senior member of the group. However, a guy named Bob Dylan happened to catch their show one night and wondered if they’d be interested in backing him up onstage for his upcoming tour of England. While Helm ended up leaving the tour, the others continued with Bob to be booed off stages across Great Britain.
When the tour ended they all retreated to upstate New York, where Dylan had a house in Woodstock, to lick their wounds and prepare for the second stage of what was supposed to be a world tour. However, Dylan wiped out on his motorcycle and used that as an excuse to retire from performing for a while. Finding themselves at loose ends the group settled into a house of their own, invited Helm to come join them, and began writing and creating their own music. Music From Big Pink, their first release as The Band, came out in 1968 and was the complete antithesis to what the rest of popular music was doing. It drew upon everything that had influenced rock and roll in the first place, blues, country and gospel, and put them through the grist of their mill of experience as a hard playing, hard living bar band and touring ensemble. It was as a rough gem of a record destined to be a classic.
Three years and three albums later, The Band booked The Academy of Music in New York City for four nights of concerts, December 28-31, 1971. In 1972, the double album Rock Of Ages was released as a record of those four nights. In 2001 Capital Records reissued it on CD with a bonus disc including tracks featuring Bob Dylan accompanying The Band on four songs and six other tracks not on the original album. Now for the first time ever, Capitol/Universal Music is releasing the definitive recording of that concert as a four-CD, one-DVD set co-produced by lead guitarist Robertson, Live at The Academy of Music 1971.
The first two discs contain copies of every song played over the four nights of the concert, specially re-mixed for this release, while discs three and four contain the soundboard mix of the entire New Year’s Eve concert. The DVD has the songs from the first two discs remastered in 5.1 surround sound, plus copies of two songs from the concerts filmed by Howard Alk and Murray Lerner. The entire set comes in a 48-page hardcover book containing previously unseen photos, an essay by Robertson about the concert, appreciations of The Band and the set’s recordings from Jim James (of My Morning Jacket) and Mumford & Sons (where the quote earlier is taken from). (Note: as a reviewer I was only sent a digital copy of the above and the four CDs but not the DVD, so I can’t comment on the 5.1 remix or the video clips.)
While studio albums of The Band give you an idea as to the quality of their music, it’s only by listening to them perform live that you come to appreciate them for what they were. For it’s here you realize what it was that made them so special. The raw, chaotic power held together by years of performing with each other allowed them to play with complete abandon, secure in the knowledge that even if one of them made a mistake, the others would be right there to smooth things over. At times you are literally holding your breath for it can be like watching a train careen down the tracks on the verge of running off the rail, but which somehow or other miraculously doesn’t crash and comes safely into the station.
Listening to the New Year’s Eve concert through the soundboard, with it’s raw unfiltered mix picking up the chatter on the stage, including them and Dylan deciding at the last minute which songs to play during the encore (prior to plunging into “Like A Rolling Stone” you hear Dylan say “haven’t played this one together in 16 years”) puts you into the centre of that ride. You can almost feel the energy bursting from your speakers as they put everything they have into each song. The soundboard mix is not what is played back through the public address (PA) system for the audience. Instead you hear each instrument and vocal track as a distinct stream, balanced with everything else, but not mixed down into one overall sound. (As an experiment listen to the recording of “Like A Rolling Stone” on Disc 4 from the soundboard mix then listen to the version of Disc 2 from the same concert through the regular mix and you’ll hear what sounds like almost two different versions of the song, with the former being a lot rougher but infinitely more exciting.)
I’ve heard many other collections of musicians sing their versions of songs The Band performed. While they might be gifted performers, there always seems to be something missing. It’s an indescribable and undefinable quality which I’ve never been able to put my finger on. The closest I’ve come to it is when trying to describe their vocal harmonies on their classic gospel tune “The Weight” as saying they sound like they shouldn’t work, but they end up sounding perfect. The Band weren’t just playing a style of music, they were the living embodiment of all that makes the music so vital and intense. Something you can only achieve from living and breathing the music together in every situation imaginable.
On this four disc set you’ll hear versions of what most consider their best material, “Across the Great Divide”, “Stage Fright”, “The Weight”, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, “The Shape I’m In” “Life is a Carnival”, “Up On Cripple Creek” and some songs you’ll have never heard them play before, like the old 1950s number “(I Don’t Want To) Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes” and Stevie Wonder’s “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever”. Any band would be happy to have written a couple of those songs over the course of a career and The Band had written them all in their first three years of existence.
The four nights of concerts performed at the end of 1971 at New York City’s Academy of Music was The Band’s coming out party as a force to be reckoned with in rock and roll. They had shared the bill with others at festivals and shows, but this was their event. This four-CD, one-DVD collection is a wonderful reminder of just how amazing a group they were. A celebration of rock and roll and music like you’ve never heard before performed by the band who personified the music as few others ever have.