Life at 33 1/3: Carnival time with The Band

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The Band, Rock Of Ages (Capitol)

These excerpts from The Band’s New Year concerts in New York, 28.-31. December 1971, were released in August 1972.  Spread across four album sides, and completely reshuffled  from the actual playlist.  The Band were in excellent shape on those evenings, delivering a summing up of their career so far, celebrating their roots and adding an inspired touch of rediscovery by trying out a whole new musical setting by fleshing out about half of the songs with horns.  Say hello to Allen Toussaint.

Toussaint had already given the group the feisty horn arrangement for “Life Is A Carnival” on the 1971 album “Cahoots”.  This boisterous shot of New Orleans whetted Robbie Robertson appetite.  He wanted more.  Toussaint was installed in a cabin up in Woodstock and wrote horn arrangements for 11 songs, all handpicked by Robertson.  These would constitute the second half of the concert program.  The audience was thus first served The Band as they knew them from their first three albums, and then the stage was set for the Toussaint show.

The concert on New Year’s Eve was very special as Bob Dylan surprisingly appeared and led the group through four of his songs, one of his very few live appearances between 1966 and the touring-comeback in 1974.  The album sleeve contains a photo of Dylan, but none of the four songs mentioned were included on the original vinyl version.

Robertson chose to focus on the Toussaint arrangements when he programmed “Rock Of Ages”.  All of Toussaint’s 11 are included among its 17 tracks.  An inspired decision as it makes the album a very independent entity in the group’s discography.  No other The Band record sounds like this one.

The horn arrangements suit the tunes perfectly.  It’s not the blasting, powerful riffs one associates with Stax soul.  This is New Orleans.  Carnival time.  The guys move all over the songs, curling notes around the melody lines, commenting on, answering or even teasing with certain phrases from the vocalists, firing them up, chilling them down.  The horn players don’t march as an organized body, some go up, some go down, some go left, some go right, always on the move giving the music its playful swagger.  Party time all over the rock solid ensemble playing of The Band, the members communicate telepathically, they know each other inside out.  And when the horn players invite him in, Robbie Robertson takes off and heads for the French Quarter.  What a show!  And boy do I miss Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel!  May they rest in peace!

I didn’t fall head over heels for “Rock Of Ages”.  It took time to digest the unfamiliar Toussaint overhaul of songs I loved.  To me “The Band” (1969) was the definitive sound of this wonderful group, and now I had to readjust.  But “Rock Of Ages” has grown over time – to a far greater extent than “Cahoots”, which I still have problems with.

On CD, the album got the bonus tracks treatment of course.  I prefer the 2001 edition which collects the original album on one CD and delivers 10 selected tracks (including the four with Dylan) on a second CD.  If you are hardcore you’d go for “Live at the Academy of Music in 1971: The Rock of Ages Concerts”, four CDs and one DVD chock full of recordings from those legendary December evenings in 1971 (including the December 31 concert in its entirety).

Released: August 15, 1972

Produced by: The Band

Contents:  Introduction by Robertson/Don’t Do It/King Harvest (Has Surely Come/Caledonia Mission/Get Up Jake/The W. S. Walcott Medicine Sho/Stage Fright/The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down/Across the Great Divide/This Wheel’s on Fire/Rag Mama Rag”  /The Weight/The Shape I’m In/The Unfaithful Servant/Life Is a Carnival/The Genetic Method/Chest Fever/(I Don’t Want to) Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes

The Band:

Rick Danko – vocal, bass, violin

Levon Helm – vocal, drums, mandolin

Garth Hudson – organ, piano, accordion, tenor saxophone and soprano saxophone solos

Richard Manuel – vocal, piano, organ, clavinet, drums

Robbie Robertson – guitar, backing vocal, introduction

Additional Musicians:

Howard Johnson – tuba, euphonium, baritone saxophone

Snooky Young – trumpet, flugelhorn

Joe Farrell – tenor and soprano saxophones, English horn

Earl McIntyre – trombone

J. D. Parran  – alto saxophone and E-flat clarinet