Earlier this month, Capitol Records released a five-disc box set of the The Band’s concerts at New York’s Academy of Music. Originally recorded at the tail end of 1971, these shows caught Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, et al, at an interesting point: they were supporting their fourth album, Cahoots, and were augmented by a five-piece horn section and none other than Bob Dylan.
It’s a curious document for a few reasons. The first is the obvious: with Dylan and the horns, they didn’t sound like they did on their albums, let alone on an average night. Which wasn’t always great to begin with. In Mystery Train, Greil Marcus writes about a disastrous early gig:
“After hours of delays, excuses, promises and interminable tuning up, the Band came on with Robbie dazed and sick, dragging along a hypnotist to cure him. The hypnotist stood on the stage conjuring up spells while the Band fell apart before the crowd’s very eyes. They struggled through a handful of weak, ragged tunes and then they turned and ran… the Band’s first concert ended with an outpouring of anger and rage unlike anything I have ever seen at a rock’n’roll show.” (pg 58)
They didn’t call one of their albums Stage Fright for nothing.
It’s kind of odd, when you think about it. This was a group that had toured and played together for years: first with Ronnie Hawkins, then Bob Dylan. But once they were out on their own, they faltered and sounded wooden. Consequently, their live albums feel a little strange, like they’re overcompensating for something. The band on Rock of Ages doesn’t sound like The Band do on their studio albums.
The box set doesn’t do much to dispel this, although it’s a decent album. It’s just oddly presented: two CDs feature versions of every song played, a sort of best-of of the series of concerts, and another two have a “soundboard mix,” which I assume means it’s the raw tapes from a single night. There’s also a DVD, which has a nice mix, but one that’s not lossless (which is usually the selling point on a high-def recording). It’s not a definitive set of the concerts, most of which are still unissued. It’s more like an expanded version of Rock of Ages.
There’s better ways to hear them live, anyway. My favorite is a recording from August 1976 at the Carter Baron Amphitheater in Washington DC. Yes, it’s a bootleg. And, no, it doesn’t sound like crap: it was recorded professionally for a syndicated radio program called The King Biscuit Flour Hour, which aired live concerts and gave countless bootleggers pristine-sounding material to work with.
This was The Band near the end of their run. They were just weeks away from their final concert (which became the overstuffed movie The Last Waltz) and Robertson left the band shortly after. This recording shows them as seasoned vets, playing material they’d been comfortable with for years. And they just rip into it right from the get-go.
The tape opens with a cover of the old Marvin Gaye tune, “Don’t Do It”, where Robertson’s choppy guitar fits right in with the slinking groove set by Helm and Rick Danko. They give the Motown number a swampy mood, especially with Helm growling into the microphone about being heartbroken.
Another highlight is “King Harvest”. It’s arguably their roughest tune: the story of a farmer’s crop failing, his farm collapsing, and ending with him on the street with an uncertain future, looking to a labour union for help. Here again, Helm howls and yelps like a desperate man while somehow keeping time, before Robertson winds down the song with a guitar solo.
It wouldn’t be a Band show without a couple Dylan covers, too. On “Tears of Rage” the band slowly building up the tension like few others could. And on “This Wheel’s on Fire”, they pound into the Dylan classic with a Crazy Horse-like passion. In both, Robertson’s wrestling with his guitar makes this tape a keeper.
The two big numbers come near the end. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is a dirge, even at the best of times, and it’s played with a slow fury here: Garth Hudson’s synthesizer adds an eerie texture to Robertson’s full-throated guitar as Helm yelling with a righteous fury. When he says “it’s a time I remember oh-so-well,” it’s hard not to believe him.
The second-to-last one here is an extended riff on their big hit, “Up on Cripple Creek”. They stretch their vaguely-funky classic out to nearly six minutes, slowing it down just a bit. For once, Helm sounds like he’s enjoying himself a bit, too.
Only a few months after this show, The Band was no more. Robertson left the group, and although they reformed here and there, it wasn’t really the same. In 1999, Danko died and they broke up for good; by that point, Helm and Robertson weren’t on speaking terms and Richard Manuel had been dead for over a decade. It makes this bootleg all the more important: it’s not just a snapshot of them at their peak, but it’s a great-sounding recording of them in one of the final shows they’d all play together.
The whole tape is pretty easily found online, but if you’re wary of downloading, it’s also available for streaming at Wolfgang’s Vault and, while it lasts, on Youtube. Either way, it’s worth checking out.