"Rock Of Ages" Even Better in Retrospect

Recorded late 1971 during a multi-night gig at New York City's Academy of Music and released the next summer, Rock of Ages was intended to be a celebratory send-off for one of the greatest bands of that era as it contemplated a long touring and recording break that went on for far longer than expected.

Most of the tracks here were culled from the final New Year's Eve concert (Garth Hudson breaks into "Auld Lang Syne" in the midst of the "Chest Fever" intro) that was nothing short of magical. Whether or not the songs here were tracked as performed isn't clear, not that it matters.

However, when it was first released, the reaction was mixed. It was a time of rapid musical movement and new album releases outpaced the ability of many record fans to buy all they wanted. So was there money for an hour plus length double LP release of already issued familiar songs? Was the addition of horns really sufficient inducement to buy?

I got a promo copy, played it a few times, put it away and promptly forgot about it. My mistake! Sometimes it takes a wake-up call like a Mo-Fi remastered reissue from the original tapes to remind you of how great an album was and is, musically and sonically.

By this time group unity had frayed. Robbie Robertson was exerting greater control of The Band as drug, alcohol and depression problems plagued some of of its members. That's one reason The Band didn't record an album of new material until 1974. That's only three years later, but back then three years was a rock'n'roll eternity.

There probably was bickering and in-fighting among the members but during this gig and on this album you wouldn't know it. Instead, the group lifts off from the opener, Holland-Dozier-Holland's " Don't Do It" and remains there throughout, bouyed by Allen Toussaint's exquisite horn arrangements expertly played by great jazzmen: trumpeter Snooky Young (Count Basie Band, Benny Carter), baritone saxophonist and tuba player Howard Johnson (Miles Davis, Gil Evans), tenor and soprano saxophonist Joe Farrell (Elvin Jones, Chick Corea and his own solo albums), trombonist Earl McIntyre and woodwind player J.D. Parran (misspelled on the original and reissue jacket as "Parron."

The horns embellish the familiar songs (almost all are from previous Band albums) with greater drive and fill as the road-hardened ensemble takes the familiar tunes at a slightly slower pace than on the studio albums and dissects and delivers them with a deliberateness not found on the originals. Whether or not there were later studio overdubs (and I doubt there were), the playing and singing is simultaneously polished and dazzlingly loose-limbed. Every song is delivered as a celebration, which is only appropriate on a New Year's Eve.

Every popular musical genre is included not as part of a numbered catalog but rather imbued in the musical DNA of the performers and the original tunes. They are all here: the earthy "King Harvest," Robertson's performance anxiety exposé "Stage Fright", the mysterious "Caledonia Mission," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" commenced with a short, gorgeous horn intro, and of course the greatest "Chest Fever" on record. Pay attention to Touissant's horn arrangement for "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and you'll hear genius.

As great as is the instrumental playing, the intense singing is even more astonishing. You have to listen in to catch it all because the busy mix of instruments can sometimes bury the harmonies and vocal textures but they are sensational.

Live rock albums can be sonically treacherous, though of course there are some great ones too. This one is very, very fine not surprising considering that Phil Ramone manned the board (with Mark Harman) and did the mixing! The recording captures a fine blend between the direct sound and the hall's reverb so that you get the feel of a live performance without an excess of image dilution. The sonics aren't quite up there with some of The Grateful Dead's amazing live recordings but they are better than most of that era.

I've often said to not bet against any Bob Ludwig original because in most cases Bob's masterings can't be beat. The comparison between the original red label Capitol mastered by Ludwig at Sterling and this reissue mastered by Krieg Wunderlich produced interesting results. The bass was deeper and punchier on the original pressing but the reissue's was more nuanced texturally and tonally.

But beyond that, I thought the Mo-Fi reissue won in every other way, particularly in the way it brought forth the vocals and the "meat" of the horns without at all hampering the top end extension and of course in the blackness of the backgrounds. 1972 wasn't a great time for vinyl pressing because of the oil shortage.

The cymbals may be slightly more present and extended on the original, but that's what happens to tape after forty plus years. Overall though, the tape sounds to be in remarkable shape, in part probably because this album has long been under-appreciated.

Mobile Fidelity's triple gatefold packaging carefully duplicates the original. This is a deluxe, worthwhile reissue. If you have a clean original don't expect a revelatory experience, but if you don't have this album be prepared for one.

Live albums tend to gloss over the depth, mystery and emotional intensity found on studio versions of the same songs, particularly when the group speeds things up to cover its inability to produce the desired results live. Here, The Band slows everything down, producing even more intense, deliberate and emotinally satisfying versions of familiar songs. Each play reveals more gems hidden within the musical folds.

Be sure to crank it up!

Music Direct Buy It Now

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COMMENTS
rosser's picture

I was with you until you wrote, "The cymbals may be slightly more present and extended on the original..." I am a fan of a number of recent (and not-so-recent) MoFi reissues, but some of them have been extremely wanting for this reason. I thought the reissue of Live/Dead was appalling -- it sounds like someone threw a blanket over my speakers, and Garcia's guitar, which was so upfront and searing on the original, became distant and recessed on the MoFi. If the tapes were that bad, I say they should have just skipped it. Is this Band reissue better? I doubt I'll find out, since originals are plentiful, at least in the used stores around here, for about $5. 

Not a slam on MoFi -- as I said, they can be amazing. The recent Stevie Wonder "Talking Book" is a good example. But they can't make highs reappear that have been ravaged by time. 

Michael Fremer's picture

I understand what you're saying. Some of the early Mo-Fi's were particularly soft and weak on top, like the Little Feat reissues. This one isn't like those. The top end is very good. It's only by comparison that you hear a slight loss of presence. It's very slight and more than made up for by everything else. That said, if you have a clean, quiet original this reissue isn't a "must have" (though a copy of some kind is!) But how many clean, quiet originals are there given the state of vinyl pellets circa 1972?

rosser's picture

I'll give this one another round of consideration. Thanks for clarifying. 

Jim Tavegia's picture

I am 65 and have listen to vinyl most of my music player life and never, never considered a "mastering engineer?" or what they did or did not do, and really never thought about a "pressing plant", other than my dry cleaners. 

We all had some vinyl that sounded better than others, but always thought it was the recording and not what someone did to it after that.  What an eye opener you have been, but all along I should have thought that there are bad craftsmen in every walk of life, and pressings of vinyl should be no exception.

Now I know and when I listen to a marginal sounding lp I am not so quick to blame the recording engineer for it. Certainly a lot of comments both ways about Pallas and RTI have been made about being slighly variable in quality, but I think Mr. Kassem is going to push everyone to do better, or be forced to do work he just has no time to get to in the long run. 

I would not be surprised if he ended up with 20+ presses going 2 full shifts aday. Just think what would happen if vinyl wasn't dead.  He could never keep up. :>)

Puffer Belly's picture

The Oil Embargo started on October 1973, so in 1972 the quality of vinyl was probably still pretty good, unless there was something else that I've forgotten.

Michael Fremer's picture

Right. My time was off by a bit but still in 1972 American vinyl at least, was only OK.... Capitol was pretty poor at that time. Angel classical releases were awful and at some point Capitol just gave up and started importing EMI pressings....

Jim Tavegia's picture

I own this original album and just love it.  I think this is one of the best albums The Band ever did. Now you are going to make me pull it out and listen to it tonight.  Thanks. 

firedog55's picture

Have the original LP that I've always loved. Got the 2001 remaster on disc, which I like better than the original LP. Plus it has bonus tracks from the concert, including 4 songs with Dylan.

It's funny you write about that back in the day people wondered if this "expensive" live set was worth the money. I've always told people that if you only get one album by The Band, this should be it. Great performance and the song selection captures their real essence.

AnalogJ's picture

I have an original RL dead wax Rock Of Ages. I find that it's sort of bass heavy with the midrange and upper end sort of recessed -- not the most balanced sounding record. Not terrible, mind you, but not all that electric or immediate.

Musically, I do like it, but I find that it lacks some urgency overall, aside from a few specific tracks. The version of Rag Mama Rag is terrific and fun, for example. Perhaps because of the lack of immediacy to the recording is part of the reason I find it a bit lacking. I dunno. I just know that there are other records of their's I return to more than this one.

But as a live document, have y'all heard the Dylan/The Band live "Before The Flood"? While Dylan is over the top shouty, but oh so alive and energized, so is The Band. As is typical with Dylan shows with name bands behind him (He did this on his tour with Tom Petty, too), he does an electric set, allows the backing band to do a set, comes back to do an acoustic set, the backing band does another set, then Dylan comes back to finish. This is how Before The Flood is set up. It's the best I have ever heard The Band on record.

I have had the chance to see The Band twice live with Robertson and once after he had left the group. One little amusing anecdote, but frustrating at the time. At what is now The Wang/Citi Center For the Performing Arts in Boston, but then The Music Hall, Tom Rush opened for The Band. Rush was great, as usual. And then we waited....for over an hour. Finally The Band goes on, but without Rick Danko. We were told that Danko had been detained at the Canadian border. About 50 minutes or so into the set, Danko shows up on stage. They do four of his songs in a row, then do the "Thank you, goodnight" thing. A 75 minute set, mostly done without Danko? The crowd started to boo. As they walked off stage, Danko flipped the audience the finger. THAT was the end of that night.

drumarty's picture

Michael, 

I was at the New Years Eve show that week. The Band first played about an hour's worth of songs without the horn section. Then, the horns came out, & they began with Don't Do It. Dylan came out for the last encore, & did the 4 songs that are on the cd reissue. Of the 100 or so concerts I have been to over my life, this show was one of the most memorable. 

Did you know that there was no New Years Eve show originally scheduled? When these shows were announced, there were 4 shows starting 5 nights before NYE. I bought tickets for the first show. Then, that first show was rescheduled for NYE. Dylan only played at that last show, so I was extremely lucky!

Marty

Michael Fremer's picture

You were fortunate to see that live. I knew about the Dylan. Didn't know the horns came out afer an hour or that night one was scheduled. Great memories I'm sure...

Paul Boudreau's picture

...to the MoFi and it sounded great - great music also, of course.  I pulled out my red-label copy, which I haven't listened to in awhile, and the vinyl did look a little lumpy 'n' bumpy. 

Sad that only two of The Band members are still with us.

I wonder if MoFi plans to reissue the 2nd (brown) LP?  That would be nice.

sluggobeast's picture

Love The Band -- saw them three times with the original lineup (including Watkins Glen festival, where they ruled the day!) -- and IMO this captures them at their live best. Had an original RL pressing that I played recently, and it still sounds wonderful. For some reason I still can't understand, I bought the MFSL SACD of this album -- which sounds real nice, but nowhere near the original vinyl.

I recently got an original RL deadwax copy (pressed in Scranton) of the second "brown" album. Boy, does that sound fantastic! While I had an old copy, I picked it up a couple years after it first came out.

Love many MFSL releases -- but will stick with the original on this one.

Kevin Ray's picture

My copy has an orange label with "Capitol' in gold letters, looking like Helvetica. I'm assuming that's not an original.

Kevin Ray's picture

My copy has an orange label with "Capitol' in gold letters, looking like Helvetica. I'm assuming that's not an original.

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