With all the Thanksgiving ballyhoo surrounding the 40th anniversary of “The Last Waltz,” the all-star swan song concert by the original lineup of The Band, it is perhaps understandable how this weekend’s 45th anniversary of a series of New York performances the group gave that became “Rock of Ages” – still one of the most soulful and engaging concert recordings of, well, any age – is getting overshadowed.
In retrospect, “Rock of Ages” and “The Last Waltz” accomplished essentially the same thing. Both treated the art of performance as a hootenanny of sorts. On “The Last Waltz,” infatuated with the idea of a grand farewell, The Band went to work with a hefty celebrity guest list of contributors. On “Rock of Ages,” the party was more contained and combustible with Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson being augmented by a five-man horn section playing sublime horn arrangements by the great Allen Toussaint. The latter’s charts also propelled “The Last Waltz,” but it’s on “Rock of Ages” where they were first unleashed, fashioning “Rag Mama Rag” into a barrelhouse breakdown and bolstering “Life is a Carnival” with a deep, punctuated groove.
The Band’s old boss, Bob Dylan, showed up for the final night (New Year’s Eve), as he did in “The Last Waltz,” even though recordings of his contributions were kept under wraps for over 40 years until a collection of concert out-takes were assembled and released as “Live at the Academy of Music 1971.”
The drive and rootsy integrity of “Rock of Ages” are cemented as soon as Helm guides the group through an album-opening “Don’t Do It” with a performance that transforms the largely overlooked 1964 Marvin Gaye hit into a barnstorming blast of brass and lean rock ‘n’ roll might. At the other end of the show, Hudson brings The Band down the home stretch with his calliope-like organ improvisation, dubbed “The Genetic Method,” that veers off into “Auld Lang Syne” in a bout of dizzy jubilance before collecting itself into the churning musical fireball that ignites “Chest Fever” and a loose encore reading of the 1958 Chuck Willis b-side “(I Don’t Want to) Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes.”
As a whole, “Rock of Ages” was a both a summation and celebration of The Band in a way that was far more unassuming than the more purposely artful “The Last Waltz.” That’s why the former will forever be the better record.
Four decades ago, “The Last Waltz” honored a career – well, a phase of it, anyway – that had ended. Five years before that, the shows that became “Rock of Ages” placed the still actively vital music of The Band in proper perspective by placing it onstage without the intrusion of sentimentality. It was instead, a chapter of business as regally usual. As a result, its performances rocked like mad. That the music sounds so fresh and alive this New Year’s Eve, is a testament for a record that remains of and for the ages.