"Rock Of Ages" Even Better in Retrospect
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!