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Extended Analysis

The Band: Rock of Ages

By Published: April 20, 2012
The Band

Rock of Ages



The Band—even its name is an enigma. A collection of four Canadians and one Arkansan, born to back up another Arkansan, Ronnie Hawkins, then Bob Dylan, then to exist as the entity—The Band. Five disparate and different individuals who united for a decade, helping define it musically by producing music so much part of the North American collective unconscious as to sound like it had been here all along. The Band—an arrogantly iconoclastic pronouncement on the surface, a bold assumption made with certainty. But, then again, accurate.

The Band, at its peak and beyond, was like a musical Norman Rockwell, bad on the whiskey. They effectively painted American Gothic miniatures in their songs, all stories of fertile soil and dry loss. An agrarian vision from the 19th Century on, full of toil and tears, laughter and pain. This is music that is as humid and earthy as peat, the real roots music, not that anemic brand played today, purloining the same name. Greil Marcus, in his landmark piece of rock criticism, Mystery Train , describes the group's work on Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes as, ..."a landmark in American Vernacular music, in any genre, in anytime, The Band built a room and furnished it in intimacy." Indeed.

The Band made hay while the sun was shining in late 1968 after touring with Ronnie Hawkins from 1960 through 1964 and then, on the most dangerous tour ever, when Bob Dylan went electric in 1966 and '67. Then, in 1968, "Music from the Big Pink" was released, proving that when one sows the wind, they reap a whirlwind. The Band made the cover of Newsweek with the byline "Country Rock." I don't know about you, gentle reader, but when I think of Country Rock, I think of Poco and the Flying Burrito Brothers, not The Band. No, The Band was purely organic and subatomic- basic American music, basic American themes. "Pink" was followed by the eponymous second recording, the Brown Album that every teenager in 1969 had with "Rag Mama Rag" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" on it. For kids growing up in my Arkansas home, Levon Helm's voice was at once familiar and scary. A hometown boy makes it big singing about small town things. Amen.

Stage Fright and Cahoots followed, but creative differences and personal problems took their toll and the band began to fragment. But before the rote playing of Southern Cross and the brilliant coda of the Last Waltz , The Band managed to click perfectly live. On New Year's Eve 1971 at the New York Academy of Music, The Band performed with a determined, if resigned, conviction, documenting what they had been trying to define all along—what great American music was. "The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down" is about as far from the majority of American music before and since as can be. And that is a damn good thing.

There are several live testaments of The Band. Aside from Rock of Ages , there is the revelatory Before the Flood (with Bob Dylan), the most excellent The Last Waltz and Live At Watkins Glen. All testify to the power of The Band live in concert. But, I have chosen Rock of Ages to include here (with a later surprise) because it is a totally integrated and balanced statement of what The Band was all about. It may be the most perfect live recording in this list.

Rock of Ages addresses several different American archetypes. There is the subject of hard work, with promise ("King Harvest Will Surely Come") and avoidance ("Get Up Jake"). There is toil and loss (The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down") and fear ("Stage Fright"). Celebration and good times are represented in "The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show," "Across the Great Divide," and "Life Is A Carnival." Even the Biblical is dealt with, perhaps better than any other place in popular music: "The Weight," "Unfaithful Servant." But these songs are just a snapshot. The Band's play list is really a document, a history, intelligently and sensitively rendered through music.

In popular music, the vehicles are often as important as the music delivered. The Band possessed three of the most original and recognizable voices in all of popular music. Richard Manuel's voice is as fragile and desperate as a dying man's prayer. Levon Helm's voice is full of Arkansas Delta grit. Robbie Robertson's aching guitar makes a noise that only a Fender Stratocaster can make. His solo that closes what could have been St. Peter's lament at the cross ("Unfaithful Servant"—pleadingly sung by that third great voice, Rick Danko) is a study in remorseful introspection. It is greater than perfect, it is transcendent.

For the Rock of Ages sessions, The Band employed a full horn section with charts conceived by New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint. These horns work for the most part, giving the music a ("Life's Just a...") carnival feel, making it more authentically American. The horns are most effective closer to the end of the recital. On "Dixie," the horns play a mournful introductory lament before the ascending arpeggio to the first verse. Helm's voice, perfectly suited with Southern elegance, delivers Virgil Caine's story with a resigned grace. "Chest Fever" is where everything gels completely. Levon Helm is his most impassioned and the horn section, for the first time in the show, drives The Band. This is followed by the most perfect musical expression of the evening "I Don't Want to Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes." Again, Helm demonstrates why he is one of the most dominant and memorable voices in Rock music.

Disintegrating under its own weight, The Band was to fade away to nothing. But, during the late '60s and early '70s, this group of individuals painted 19th Century American life in song better than any that came before. It is almost as if they have been here all along, like an ancient part of us in an old black and white photograph going up in flames. Rock of Ages is not the most precise representation of The Band, but it is the most honest.

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