Upon it release 41 years ago, Rock of Ages quickly lived up to its title. It was a double concert album of rock and Americana fire split between the quintet going it alone and tunes beefed up by a horn section playing arrangements by the great New Orleans soul stylist Allan Toussaint. In terms of rootsy might, artistic abandon and sheer performance drive, the recording was (and still is) a concert album for the ages.
Rock of Ages was recorded over four nights at New York’s Academy of Music at the close of 1971. Since then, other bits and pieces from those shows have surfaced as bonus tracks on reissues of the album. But two editions the new Live at the Academy of Music offer the motherlode.
The first, a two disc version, is essentially Rock of Ages with a few more bonus tracks and a revamped running order that reflects the setlists of the actual concerts. That’s all well and good. But the real kick is a five disc (4 CD/1DVD) set that includes the entire double disc edition plus the full New Year’s Eve performance of that run.
Admittedly, revisiting the Rock of Ages shows in such luxurious fashion might seem like a lesson in redundancy for some. Here are two reasons why that’s not the case.
There are several songs here that weren’t included in any form on Rock of Ages – mostly album tracks and non hits that are nonetheless wonderful keepsakes of The Band’s rootsy ingenuity. Among the pick of these entries are Smoke Signal, a forgotten gem from the 1971 studio album Cahoots that serves as yet another reminder of what a potently soulful vocalist Levon Helm was, and The Rumor, the finale song from 1970’s Stage Fright that has Helm, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel trading vocal lines in the manner of a vintage spiritual.
The other reason to dig into this huge mass of music is the sound quality. The original Rock of Ages was considered state of the art during its time. Live at the Academy of Music’s new sound mix, courtesy of Bob Clearmountain, redefines that sound with sublime vocal clarity and an even greater brass charge. Hearing them both in overdrive on the Helm-led cover of Don’t Do It (the standout track from the original Rock of Ages) is truly exhilarating.
The alternate versions of previously released Rock of Ages songs are a riot, too – like Garth Hudson’s organ solo excursion The Genetic Method, which finds even greater expanse between the psychedelic and the spiritual. And while not entirely new finds, the four encore tunes with Bob Dylan on the New Year’s Eve disc offer a sense of historical perspective to a rock sound that is proudly ageless.