Live and Kicking

The Band’s ‘Rock of Ages’ Is the Greatest Live Album Ever

What’s the greatest live album of all time? Andrew Romano makes the case for ‘Rock of Ages,’ the 1972 set by The Band, now re-issued with even more terrific material.

GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty,GAB Archive

When you’re young, and you’re obsessed with rock music, and you have friends (particularly male friends) who are equally obsessed with rock music, and none of you have anything better to do, which is usually the case with teenage boys, you tend to ask each other questions like “What’s the best live album of all time?” And because you yourself are a teenage boy, you know your answer is the right answer, the one true answer, and you proceed to argue on its behalf for the next two hours, repeating again and again, as others advocate for Neil Young’s Live Rust or The Rolling Stones’ Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out, that actually the best live album of all time is Live at Leeds by The Who. Or at least you did if you were me.

But now that I'm no longer a teenager, I have come to a realization: the best live album of all time is not, in fact, Live at Leeds. It is another album entirely. Teenage boys rarely mention it because it’s not the type of record that teenage boys tend to notice. Its allure is less hormonal, its testosterone levels lower. It never appears on those incessant best-ever lists in Rolling Stone or SPIN, either. Even rock critics overlook it.

And yet every time I listen to it I’m more convinced that the best live album of all time is Rock of Ages by The Band. Not The Last Waltz . Not Before the Flood with Bob Dylan. Rock of Ages. The earlier one. The better one.

I mention this now because I’ve been listening to Rock of Ages a lot lately: Capitol has just (sort of) rereleased the album as part of a deluxe box set called Live at the Academy of Music 1971. The original album was a compilation: the 17 sharpest, shapeliest tracks recorded during the Band’s four-night New Year’s stand at New York’s Academy of Music in December 1971. The new set rearranges, remixes, and augments the original. The first two discs are basically the Rock of Ages recordings resequenced and presented in crystalline new stereo mixes by master engineer Bob Clearmountain. The third and fourth discs feature a single concert—the New Year’s Eve show, with Dylan as special guest—and a less polished “soundboard” mix. There’s also a 5.1 surround mix of the first two discs on a separate audio DVD and a 48-page full-color booklet, if you’re into that sort of thing.

You needn’t be. The Rock of Ages recordings are the essential element here, however they’re sequenced or engineered. (I prefer Clearmountain’s version, but that’s just me.) If Live at the Academy of Music 1971 makes new fans of virgin listeners—or inspires old fans to revisit their antique Rock of Ages LPs—then it has more than justified its existence. As I said before, this stuff is as good as it gets.

Some background on The Band for any newbies. Four Canadians—Robbie Robertson (guitar), Garth Hudson (keyboards), Rick Danko (bass, vocals), Richard Manuel (piano, vocals)—and one Arkansan named Levon Helm (drums, vocals). Originally assembled to back a white Southern blues singer named Ronnie Hawkins. Called the Hawks. Hired away by Dylan shortly after he went electric. Retreated to Woodstock in 1967 after Dylan’s famous motorcycle accident. Recorded a bunch of demos (later released as The Basement Tapes). Refined their sound. Debuted as The Band in 1968 with Music from the Big Pink, a distinctive amalgam of mysterious Americana and psychedelic surrealism; The Band, released a year later, was more rustic—a love letter to the old, weird America and a corrective to the increasingly baroque indulgences of the era. Critics swooned. Other artists—Dylan, The Beatles, The Byrds—began to look to roots music for inspiration. By the time The Band assembled at the Academy of Music in late 1971, they were the most influential and acclaimed rock group in the world.

Every great live album excels at a few fundamental things, and Rock of Ages is no exception. Like Leeds or Ya-Ya’s, it captures the performers at the peak of their prowess. The Band only started gigging as headliners after releasing their self-titled sophomore effort in 1969; by 1972, the group’s bond had begun to fray. Before the Flood (1974) and The Last Waltz (recorded 1976) have their partisans. They certainly rank higher with the listmakers. But if Levon Helm, The Band’s only Southerner, was the heart of the enterprise, then Richard Manuel, who sang like a cracker Ray Charles, was its soul, and he barely sings on Before the Flood or The Last Waltz. By that point, alcoholism had taken its toll. Rock of Ages, on the other hand, was recorded at the perfect moment: after the trial-and-error period, before the decline. The tracklisting reads like a greatest hits, and the playing and singing—especially Manuel’s—are both passionate and pristine at the same time.

The sound of the record, meanwhile, is ideal: not too smooth, not too abrasive. The finest live albums—Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 comes to mind—can trick you into believing, for a few brief moments at least, that you’re suddenly in the room on the night in question. The audience chatters and cheers; the music reverberates off the rafters. Many contemporary live albums muffle the crowd and the space and wind up feeling lifeless as a result; most bootlegs bury the music, out of necessity, in echo and applause. But Rock of Ages strikes the right balance: the roar of recognition after the first line of “Rag Mama Rag,” the cathedral-like resonance of the piano riff at the start of “I Shall Be Released.” The sonics themselves are transporting.

The final ingredient that all great live albums share is novelty: a sense that the songs have been reshaped and rediscovered on stage rather than simply regurgitated in order to make some extra cash between studio releases. MTV Unplugged in New York by Nirvana is probably the most striking example. You can’t really understand Kurt Cobain and his music until you hear him sing “Dumb” over a pair of acoustic guitars and a cello, and that kind of revelatory power makes the album absolutely essential.

Rock of Ages is similar. Before The Band’s residency at the Academy of Music, Robbie Robertson hired legendary New Orleans songwriter and arranger Allen Toussaint (“Lipstick Traces,” “Fortune Teller,” “Pain in My Heart”) to write five-part horn charts for 11 of the songs Robertson was planning to include in the setlist. But when Toussaint lost his luggage, and his charts, on the flight up to New York, he had to sequester himself in a cabin near Robertson’s house in Woodstock and hammer out new arrangements overnight. The results are stunning: looser and less perfect than the originals, I imagine, but all the more vivid because of it. Up until Rock of Ages, The Band was in some sense paying tribute to early Southern blues, folk, and rock—admiring that rural sound from a distance both chronological and geographical. But on Rock of Ages they’re right inside it somehow, and Toussaint’s horns deserve much of the credit. His lonesome prelude to “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” for instance, tells the entire story of the song—a lament about the last days of the Civil War from the perspective of a young Virginian named Virgil Caine—in 17 seconds flat. It sounds like loss, somehow, but also pride. It’s one of the loveliest and saddest pieces of music I know.

And yet if I’m making the bold claim that Rock of Ages is the best live album of all time, it can’t just hit the same marks as every other great live album. It has to do something more—something no other live album has ever done quite so convincingly. For me, the secret of Rock of Ages—the thing that ultimately makes it transcendent—is its abundance. Not of tracks, although the new box set version does feature a whopping 93 of them; not of virtuosity, either, although every member of The Band was a virtuoso in his own way. What I mean is the abundance of music—great music, pure music, irreducible music—that is coming through your speakers at any given moment when Rock of Ages is on.

I adore at least a dozen other live albums: James Brown’s Live at the Apollo; Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1966; Bob Dylan’s Live, 1966: The Royal Albert Hall Concert; Neil Young’s Live at Massey Hall 1971; David Bowie’s Live Santa Monica ’72; Donny Hathaway’s These Songs for You; The Grateful Dead’s Europe ’72; Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band’s Live 1975-1985; Nirvana’s Unplugged in New York. The list goes on; they’re all brilliant performances by blinding musical geniuses. But for one reason or another—the limitations of the solo-artist format, the dominance of one member’s vision—none of them is quite as full of sublime, collective, constant musicmaking as Rock of Ages.

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There was always something generous about The Band. The vocals, for starters: few other acts have ever had three lead singers. The Beatles had three, and so did the Beach Boys; they harmonized damn well, too. But what made The Beatles and The Beach Boys so spectacular vocally was that they could vanish into each other with their voices. They blended because they were consonant.

The Band was different. Levon Helm’s voice was a throaty Delta burr. Richard Manuel’s was a black-coffee moan. Rick Danko’s was a high, clear sob. They didn’t sound anything alike. When they sang, they stumbled in and out and over and under each other, Appalachian-style, making no attempt to neatly align every note. And yet the effect was at least as potent as Lennon-McCartney-Harrison or the Wilson-Love clan. Usually with harmony, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. But with The Band you can hear always hear the parts and the whole at the same time, and the force and beauty of each is undiminished. A seamless blend is breathtaking, but you get more music for your money with The Band—more lines and phrasings and shadings per second, more to discover and delight in and return to. No other group is like that.

Instrumentally, the story was the same. The Band wasn’t a single unified sound so much as it was several separate but equal sounds that managed to unite themselves, night after night, through some kind of tenuous alchemy. Helm could play drums, mandolin, banjo, and harmonica. Manuel could play piano, drums, and lap slide guitar. Danko could play bass, fiddle, accordion, and trombone. Garth Hudson could play everything. (On Rock of Ages, he soloed on saxophone with Toussaint’s jazzmen and astounded them all.) But even when Helm & Co. weren’t exchanging instruments, this kind of effortless, egoless musicality pervaded their performances. Just listen to Rock of Ages: the way Helm lightly rolls onto his snare after singing the word “Mexico” in the first verse of “Up on Cripple Creek”; the way Hudson’s piano rises into the chorus of “The Weight”; the way Danko scoops into the bridge of “The Shape I’m In” on his fretless bass; the way Robertson’s guitar links every line of “Life is a Carnival” like a tendon. Later—especially on The Last Waltz—Robbie became a bit of a showboat. On Rock of Ages he was still serving the song.

This abundance is what made The Band The Band, and it is more evident on Rock of Ages than anywhere else. So my argument for Rock of Ages being the best live album of all time is simple. If you want electricity and volume and danger—all the things I wanted when I was a teenager—then stick with Live at Leeds and its ilk. But for me live albums are no longer about marveling at an impressive experience from the past—recording it, preserving it, admiring it. That gets old. Instead, they’re about experiencing something new in real time. More than any other live album, Rock of Ages allows me to do that again and again—to step inside the spacious music of The Band; to explore elements of it that I’ve never explored before; and to grasp, however briefly, what the high-wire act of creating it live on stage must have felt like, way back when.