The Band – Rock Of Ages – Capitol Records/Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab stereo-only SACD – UDSACD 2046, 79:14 *****:
(Rick Danko – bass, violin, vocals; Levon Helm – drum, mandolin, vocals; Garth Hudson – organ, accordion, piano, tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone; Richard Manuel – piano, organ, clavinet, drums, vocals; Robbie Robertson – guitar, vocals; with added horn section)
The name describes it all…The Band! Five musicians (four from Canada, and one from Arkansas) became a rock and roll legend by blending a variety of musical genres into a unique original amalgamation. After an apprenticeship backing up rockabilly performer Ronnie Hawkins, they became sidemen to Bob Dylan. Their prowess on the bootleg Basement Tapes established a reputation of instrumental luster that never wore out. Robbie Robertson’s songwriting abilities, effectively framed the culture for this multi-faceted quintet. Together with the gritty resonance of Levon Helm, the country evocations of Richard Manuel and Rick Danko, and the versatility of Garth Hudson, this seminal ensemble climbed the pinnacle of rock stardom. Encountering the predictable trinity of immense success (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), legendary cult worship (it was rumored that Eric Clapton was very interested in joining the group), and internal strife (a feud prevented any full reunion, and Danko and Manuel are now deceased), this is the legacy of a popular music supernova.
Rock Of Ages, performed at New York’s Academy of Music on New Year 1971/1972, finds The Band at the apex of their incandescent career. The opening number, “Don’t Do It”, a rhythm and blues staple, announces the group with serious attitude. Backed by a soulful horn chorus (with charts by New Orleans marvel, Allen Toussant), the group explodes with growling lead vocals by Levon Helm, and a blistering guitar solo by Robbie Robertson. However, the set is defined by the transcendent material from the first three albums. Rick Danko’s faltering baritone/falsetto is expressively full of humorous anxiety on the fear inspired, “Stage Fright”. Garth Hudson unleashes a boisterous Lowrie-esque organ run that spotlights the originality of the musical dynamics. Somehow, The Band mange to play with a tight cohesion, but maintain a loose organic feel at the same time. “Rag Mama Rag” disseminates its acoustic genesis as Dixieland country funk.
Material often described as “Americana” (or perhaps more accurately “North Americana”) dominates the proceedings. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, a Civil War anthem, exudes a forlorn undercurrent in the heartfelt singing of Helm and the New Orleans brass. The under-appreciated backup vocals from the other four singers combine in a spirited choir. A funky relaxed version of “The Weight” approximates a church hymn with its themes of salvation and redemption. Danko’s tenor warbling on the third verse is a nimble counterpoint to Helm. Clearly, there are three lead singers, and they alternate with grace and ease. Renditions of “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)”, “Caledonia Mission” and “Unfaithful Servant” voiced by the “unofficial” lead singer, Manuel, bring a ragged spirituality that transports the audience to a heartland summit.
At the core of the Band is their impressive musicianship. Helm could be the greatest drummer/singer ever, never losing tempo. Robertson’s guitar work and arrangements are riveting. Hudson’s astounding, nearly eight minute B-3 piece, “The Genetic Method”, ranks as one of the most creative instrumentals in rock history. Rock Of Ages represents the essence of The Band at its absolute peak. For those with a curiosity for anecdotal narrative, Martin Scorcese’s film on DVD, The Last Waltz, would be an integral companion to this.
Mo-Fi continues to produce dazzling re-mastered SACD recordings. Utilizing proprietary technology, the digital conversion manages to capture the instrumental and vocal depths of The Band without losing any of the raucous organics of a live show. Rock Of Ages is living proof of the lofty spirit of rock and roll.
TrackList: Don’t Do It; King Harvest (Has Surely Come); Caledonia Mission; Get Up Jake; The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show; Stage Fright; The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down; Across The Great Divide; This Wheel’s On Fire; Rag Momma Rag; The Weight; The Shape I’m In; Unfaithful Servant; Life Is A Carnival; The Genetic Method; Chest Fever; (I Don’t Want To) Hang Up My Rock And Roll Shoes
— Robbie Gerson