In lieu of the more lavish five disc collection within a hard-bound book with additional photographic and written content, the two CD edition of The Band Live At The Academy of Music 1971 may suffice, especially as it is not what it appears on the surface: merely a reissue of the expanded version of this seminal group’s concert album, Rock of Ages.
Instead, the two discs, in addition to the encore numbers with Bob Dylan, collate a version of every number The Band played on their four-night run at the New York venue. Punchy and streamlined in just the proper proportions, the new mix by Bob Clearmountain, as guitarist/songwriter Robbie Robertson attests in his accompanying essay, does greater justice than its previous production to the gritty expertise within the musicianship of a group that, as My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and Mumford & Sons attest in their written tributes, maintains a resounding influence forty years after these recordings.
The first impression that may hit when hearing The Rock of Ages concerts is what accomplished vocalists drummer Levon Helm, pianist Richard Manuel and bassist Rick Danko were. Alone and together, these men found nuances in melody and lyric even the composers of the songs, themselves, guitarist Robbie Robertson, Bob Dylan or Motown’s Holland/Dozier Holland (“Don’t Do It”) might not have imagined. In the context of alternately salty and majestic arrangements by New Orleans legend Allan Toussaint, the singing cuts to the heart of the material and the listener.
Hearing, watching and reading about this one-of-a-kind event suggests that The Band might better have ended their career with this series of concerts rather than The Last Waltz. As tight as they are focused, the group never sounded more impassioned than on these four nights, except perhaps when backing Dylan as the Hawks in 1965 and 1966 (and at certain junctures on their 1974 reunion). And, in tracing the roots of this epochal group’s music, the selection of material from The Band’s first four studio albums, is arguably just as vivid, if not more so, than the literal-minded, show-business presentation of their final show in 1976.
From the joyous ribaldry of “Strawberry Wine” to the foreboding of “King Harvest (Has Surely Come),” the soul of the playing here matches its precision, whether in the kaleidoscopic colors of Garth Hudson’s keyboards or the earthy yet exalting horns of Howard Johnson, Snooky Young, Joe Farrell, Earl McIntyre and J.D. Parron. These men are as capable at conjuring up the unsettling mystery of “Chest Fever,” as the euphoric irreverence of “(I Don’t Want to) Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes.”
Perhaps because there were two predecessors (To Kingdom Come in 1989 and Across the Great Divide in 1994) to the most comprehensive anthology of The Band, 2005’s A Musical History (upon which the design of this larger package is modeled), it’s impossible not to suspect these releases of Live at The Academy of Music 1971 are precursor to the inevitable release of the entire run of shows. Whether or not that happens, these packages remind, in no uncertain terms, that these recordings are as essential to The Band’s legacy as Music From Big Pink and its eponymous successor.