Friday, October 11, 2013

A Rock Band For The Ages

Nineteen seventy-two was a great year for live albums by three of the most musical rock bands of the time.

The Allman Brothers Band released Eat A Peach, a double album that contained guitarist Duane Allman's two best live performances: "Mountain Jam" and "One Way Out."

The Grateful Dead put out a tiny sampling of the music it recorded during an important European tour.

And The Band topped both with a two-LP set called Rock Of Ages. Recorded at New York City's
Academy Of Music over four nights at the end of December 1971, the set caught The Band at their peak, with a deep catalogue of distinctive songs and horn charts written for the occasion by Allen Toussaint. Now, 42 years after the fact, guitarist Robbie Robertson—one of just two surviving members—has revisited the event, expanding the original package to include other material and presenting a new vision of the performances by commissioning two new sound mixes, along with a couple of tantalizing filmed glimpses of the proceedings.

Robertson has been in a reflective mood recently, producing a highly personal new solo recording and beginning work on an autobiography, and his reflections on this time in The Band's career are characteristically picaresque. In his telling, The Band is always on the brink of disaster, until the fates intervene.

In the case of the Academy of Music performances, the potential disaster loomed in the form of a gravely ill Toussaint who had lost a suitcase holding all the horn arrangements he had written for the occasion. Much like an earlier story of threatened calamity—in which Robertson was laid low with a bizarre malady on the eve of a big show and had to be resurrected through hypnotism—Toussaint comes through at the last minute: A doctor arrives at a snowbound Woodstock cottage and administers a miracle cure, and the stricken New Orleans pianist re-creates his lost work. The story is at odds with an earlier one Robertson told author Barney Hoskyns for his book Across The Great Divide, which has Toussaint working at a somewhat more leisurely pace during December 1971 at The Band's headquarters in Woodstock.

Whether or not Robertson is laying it on a bit thick as time passes (he didn't travel with Bob Dylan during the height of Dylan's Mystery Tramp period without learning a trick or two) is beside the point; Toussaint's horn charts reveal new depths and colours in The Band's songs.

Horn bands were hugely popular in 1971, with Chicago Transit Authority riding high on the pop charts and Blood, Sweat & Tears well into its decade of high-level creativity. Even the guitar-based Allman Brothers Band had toyed with adding horns when they recorded their epic At Fillmore East double album. But the dominant style of arrangement was hard and aggressive—a popping, metallic, masculine sound that owed a lot to the jazz bands of Buddy Rich and Thad Jones-Mel Lewis. Toussaint brought a very different approach to his charts: Redolent of his Southern heritage, with accents that fell slightly behind the beat, and full of space. His New Orleans groove was an ideal match for Levon Helm's drumming style, and his use of syncopation and rich harmony added rigour to a rhythm section that—Helm aside—was uniquely loose and spare. That he was the ideal person to add narrative colour to stories like Robertson's tale of the defeated and disgusted Virgil Caine in "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" was a bonus.

If Toussaint's arrangements were successful because they struck an ideal balance with the way Robertson, Helm and the other members of The Band had constructed their catalogue of material, there was another, even more critical balance at play in these performances. Part of the charm of The Band was the fact that they always seemed on the verge of tearing apart. Richard Manuel was always emotionally and mentally fragile, a condition that worsened until his eventual suicide in 1986. Rick Danko was a scrappy drinker. Helm was so ornery that he had left the group rather than participate in the drugged-out circus that was Dylan's 1966 tour. Garth Hudson was, and remains, an eccentric—at once aloof from the others in the group and yet an essential part of their unique sound. Robertson, of course, is renowned for the size of his ego and the boundless nature of his ambition.

Beginning in 1972, those divergent personalities would begin to pull apart, part of a "collective depression" Robertson said fell over his bandmates. According to some, as Hoskyns details in his book, Manuel was drinking himself to death, while Danko narrowly escaped serious injury from a car accident or two. Helm was also deep into drug use.

But, at the end of 1971, those elements were in perfect balance, and both Manuel and Danko were, if not in good health, at least in great voice—an essential state, considering how important they were to The Band's unique three-lead signature sound.

The disintegration of the group's unity and sense of purpose in 1972 left Robertson alone to mix the tapes that would form Rock Of Ages, and the adventure proved to be beyond his capabilities. The original vinyl LPs lacked depth and clarity, and it was a measure of how strong the music was that even the poor mix couldn't totally obscure what had gone on at The Academy of Music.

Now, Robertson has set out to put things right, beginning with a remix of the Rock Of Ages tracks—along with six other songs and Dylan's four performances—by Bob Clearmountain, who made his reputation through years of work with Bruce Springsteen. Clearmountain also created a surround sound mix, which accompanies the two filmed performances on a DVD in the deluxe package.

In addition, Robertson had his son Sebastian (along with Jon Castelli) re-create the soundboard mix of the complete New Year's Eve show, which adds 16 new performances to what previously existed.

The result is outstanding, crystal clear and full of character. One can now concentrate solely on Howard Johnson's baritone sax and tuba, a revelation in themselves, hear the crisp sonority of Robertson's distinctive Telecaster tone, and appreciate the diverse vocal timbres of Helm, Manuel and Danko. But, even with mixes this clear, it's impossible—as Toussaint and Robertson both say—to plumb the mysteries of Danko's bass playing. As Toussaint notes, it's impossible to find a dominant predecessor to his sound, and Robertson points out that, even after 16 years of playing together, he couldn't figure out how Danko could nail his parts on a fretless bass while singing with his eyes closed. He is nothing less than a marvel.

A year after these three seminal live recordings were released, the three bands came together in Watkin's Glen, New York, for what remains one of the largest festivals in history, but so much had changed. Duane Allman, of course, had died before Eat A Peach was released. Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, a founding member of the Dead, succumbed to alcoholism in March 1973, and the band's sound began to morph away from the blues that McKernan loved. The Band's members were rebounding from the depths of their 1972 debauchery, but the writing was on the wall: Robertson and his wife had left Woodstock for Montreal, his deep well of songwriting inspiration had dried up, and The Band had resorted to recording an album of old rock & roll standards. The successful 1974 reunion tour with Dylan was still ahead of them; however, in retrospect, the group had begun the spiral that would end at Thanksgiving in 1976, when Robertson retired from the road, split up with his wife and moved to Hollywood to party hard with film director Martin Scorsese.

Many people know The Band's onstage persona best from Scorsese's concert film The Last Waltz, but these performances at The Academy of Music represent the group's zenith as a performing act.

No comments: