The Band decided to release their first live album in 1972, which was probably a wise decision. Cahoots, released in 1971, was their fourth album of original material in four years and was a weak effort when compared to the classic status of Music From Big Pink, The Band, and Stage Fright. People have argued over the years as to which live album is better, Rock Of Ages or The Last Waltz. That argument is moot as both are excellent concert recordings and a reminder of just how brilliant they were in person.
Rock Of Ages was recorded December 28-31 during a series of concerts at the Academy Of Music in New York City. These concerts produced enough material for a double album release at the time. The Band seemed to be enjoying themselves as they were at the top of their game so to speak. The musicianship is technically excellent and the harmonies precise. They even bring Allen Toussaint’s horn section along to fill out the sound.
The Band leads off with the Marvin Gaye classic, “Don’t Do It.” Motown material was always a good match for their soulful side and their interpretation of this song is no exception. “Get Out Jake” is given a rousing version and is live music at its best. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is one of the songs that is enhanced by the use of brass. It is also a rare song that can work when stripped to its basics or with a virtual wall of sound.
The first half of the album is good but the second half contains some of the best live performances ever recorded. The poignancy of “The Unfaithful Servant,” the rousing “Life Is A Carnival” and the classics “Rag Mama Rag,” “The Weight,” and “The Shape I’m In” all take on new textures and structures when compared to the studio versions. Garth Hudson’s, “The Genetic Method,” has some wonderful improvisation on the organ and it is followed by the brilliant keyboard introduction to “Chest Fever.” Chuck Willis’ soul hit, “(I Don’t Want To) Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes” is presented as straightforward rock ‘n’ roll and it doesn’t get much better.
The 2001 CD reissue of Rock Of Ages is one of the few instances that I prefer a CD over the original vinyl. The Stevie Wonder song, “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever” plus live versions of “Up On Cripple Creek” and a spiritual “I Shall Be Released” are excellent and why they were left off of the original release remains a mystery.
The CD bonus tracks just keep getting better. Bob Dylan was a guest at their New Year's Eve concert and the four songs he performed are included. “Down In The Flood,” “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” “Don’t Ya Tell Henry” and “Like A Rolling Stone” make up his short set. Even Dylan seems to be having a good time as he flubs the words to “Like A Rolling Stone” and it doesn’t seem to bother him.
Rock Of Ages remains a live testament to one of the great rock ‘n’ roll groups and a sad reminder of what can never be again.