Pete's Blog

Rock of Ages

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Steve Simels' Powerpop blog runs weekend talk-among-yourselves exercises devoted to a topic chosen by Steve. This week it's Best Live Albums, and I found myself posting a (fairly) long and (fairly) reasonable item about my choice: The Band's "Rock of Ages." Now, the way some people are about Wagner or the Grateful Dead is the way I am about the Band. I think of their music as one of the mythic underpinnings of our culture. I've talked about them several times in this forum and won't repeat the story now. But for those who wonder what the fuss is really all about "Rock of Ages" is the one album to have. The point is that the five guys who became the Band started out as wild young rock and rollers in the DA-haircut days, turned into a razor-sharp R&B band, and were more or less forcibly impressed into the musical/cultural vanguard when Bob Dylan hired them to be his backing group in 1965. This enabled them, when they started recording on their own, to simulanteously make the most potent post-Dylan rock of their time and stand for all the traditions of experience, craft, and professionalism lost in the hippie blitz. It also destroyed them, via the rampant drug use that was the lingua franca of the time. "Rock of Ages" captures them on the cusp of that destruction. Recorded at the Academy of Music on 14th Street in New York City on New Year's Eve, 1971, it finds them coming to the end of a magical four years where they had revolutionised rock music (effectively ending the British Invasion), played the Ed Sullivan show, and landed on the cover of Time magazine. They loaded out that night and didn't play together for another 18 months. In 1973 they played the biggest one-day rock festival in history at Watkins Glen, NY with the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band. In 1974 they toured with Bob Dylan in the biggest tour off its kind to date. In 1976 and 7 they made a feature film with director Martin Scorcese. But it was never the same. And on New Year's Eve, 1971 they knew it would never be the same. They went for the definitive readings of their songs because they knew this was their one chance before the rot set in. And that's what they achieved. Scorcese's "The Last Waltz" shows them puffy and febrile, using high-powered guest stars like Neil Young and Joni Mtichell to cover up the fact that only Levon and Garth could still really play anymore. The real Last Waltz had happened five years earlier. Since 1976 they've released (or Robbie Robertson has released) three boxed-set collections, each more expensive than the last. Save your money. Get the two-disc reissue of "Rock of Ages" and listen to Richard sing "I Shall be Released." Then you'll know.

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