It’s been said that the Velvet Underground didn’t have many fans but that just about every one of them wound up starting an important rock group. You can’t quite make that statement about the Band—despite having only one top-30 hit (“Up on Cripple Creek”), it had lots of followers. But the group proved just as influential as the Velvets. It delivered Americana music (though four of its five members hailed from Canada) way before that label gained popularity, and it had a huge impact on subsequent generations of country-rockers.
The Band built its raunchy, R&B-spiced magic from many elements, including Richard Manuel’s mournful falsetto, Levon Helm’s southern twang, Garth Hudson’s prominently mixed revival-meeting organ, Robbie Robertson’s biting guitar and poignant lyrics, and Rick Danko’s brilliant work on everything from mandolin to trombone. Songs like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” gave the quintet’s music a timeless quality that placed it in a different universe from the work of contemporaries like Pink Floyd, the Beatles and even such country-rockers as the Eagles. I’ve often thought that if rock had existed in the years after the Civil War, it would have sounded a lot like the Band.
And the Band never sounded better than it did when it recorded the performances showcased in this four-CD, one-DVD package, which offers an exhaustive look at a four-night stand (Dec. 28-31, 1971) at New York’s Academy of Music. Not only was the group playing at its best, but it had quite a repertoire to play with, because, by this time, all of its most essential studio work—Music from Big Pink, The Band and Stage Fright, plus the then-still-unreleased Basement Tapes with Bob Dylan—was in the can. As an added bonus, it had a top-notch horn section with arrangements by none other than New Orleans giant Allen Toussaint.
Material from these shows first appeared on 1972’s excellent Rock of Ages and then on the expanded, digitally remastered version of that album that came out in 2001. But if you never got around to buying either of those, your procrastination has paid off: Live at the Academy of Music boasts improved sound and more goodies, and the decision to buy it should be a no-brainer.
if you never got around to buying 1972’s excellent Rock of Ages, your procrastination has paid off.
If you already own Rock of Ages, on the other hand, the purchase decision will be a little tougher. Eighteen of the songs on the first two discs here—which contain one version of every tune performed during the Academy gig—originally appeared on the 1972 release. Another 10 showed up on the 2001 reissue.
There are differences, though: the tracks have been re-sequenced for Live at the Academy 1971 and have been supplemented with a previously unavailable reading of “Strawberry Wine” (though you can find another live recording of that on 2005’s Musical History box set). More importantly, the songs have been winningly remixed for Academy by Bob Clearmountain.
This package’s DVD will also sound familiar, as it contains the same performances as the first two discs, albeit in beautifully mixed 5.1 surround sound. Alas, while the presence of a DVD made me anticipate a concert film, what we mostly have here for visuals are stills from the concert. There are, however, newly discovered film versions, from the December 30 show, of “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” and “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show.” The sound on these is just stereo and the video quality doesn’t approach today’s standards, but the performances offer a tantalizing hint of how great it would have been to see a video of the whole concert.
The last two discs deliver the freshest meat: the entire final Academy show, from New Year’s Eve 1971, just as it happened: uncut, unedited, and taken from the original soundboard recording. Even here there’s some duplication—11 of the 27 tracks, including a fiery four-song finale with surprise guest Bob Dylan, also appear on disc one or two, where you’ll additionally find versions of all the other songs, albeit from different nights at the Academy. Still, it’s a magnificent and historically important concert, and the soundboard recordings—which include onstage banter and guitar tunings—differ significantly from the versions on the first two discs. They’re rougher but convey a sense of immediacy better than the remixes. You really feel as if you’re hearing the event as it happened.
And what an event it was, with the Band nailing classic after classic—“The Shape I’m In,” “This Wheel’s on Fire,” “The Weight,” “Rag Mama Rag,” “Stage Fright” and many more. Forty-two years later, with only two of the Band’s five members surviving, it’s wonderful to see this music presented so well and to hear how vital and powerful it still sounds.