Mention The Band and the first thing people will mention is The Last Waltz, the now-legendary live performance involving not just The Band but a host of guests – and, evidently, no end of cocaine, with Neil Young’s infamous ‘white booger’ debacle now being as famous as the music itself.
Here’s the thing though: to me, The Last Waltz is nowhere near as good as most claim, and indeed over the years I think its become something of a case study in one member of a group (in this case Robbie Robertson) meddling with a release and attempting to rewrite history. Robertson allegedly insisted that he get preferential treatment in the edit of the film, leading one site to call it “The Robbie Robertson show, starring Robbie Robertson with music by Robbie Robertson”. Bottom line? It felt like the whole thing was fake; fixed and tweaked here and there to suit the frontman and no one else. To me its not the sound of a band locked in and playing their hearts out; its all a bit… staged.
So, where The Band are concerned my favourite album – live or otherwise – is without a doubt Rock of Ages. Sporting arguably the worst cover in the history of music, this record may just be the finest live album ever released. This was The Band in their prime: full of swagger and groove. Hell you only have to listen to their opening gambit of Don’t Do It to hear a perfect example.
One thing transforms Rock of Ages from a great Band performance into unquestionably their finest hour: the presence of Allen Toussaint, who put together a horn section comprising various players from the jazz scene, but crucially also arranged all their parts to complement the songs. With arguably music’s finest brass session players in place (sporting experience with Miles Davis, Ray Charles, Chick Corea, Taj Mahal among others), the group’s performance transforms from quintessential Americana into a loose, funky sound loaded with sass and soul. If you didn’t already know of Toussaint’s New Orleans background, it wouldn’t take long to guess it from the sound of the brass on tracks like Rag Mama Rag. Aurally it adds a third dimension that’s equivalent to hearing a previous black-and-white band in roaring, glorious technicolour.
Nowhere is the transformational contribution more evident than on The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. Being honest I’ve never been a massive fan of a token horn section addition (Oasis, I’m looking your way), but on this song in particular the case for their brilliance is writ large. Levon Helm also delivers one of his finest vocal performances, sounding ragged, worn and utterly brilliant.
As great as The Band’s albums are, Rock of Ages stands head and shoulders above the rest. If there’s a downside to this album, its that Toussaint’s horns make this band something else entirely – and something that was never repeated again across The Band’s catalogue. Its the only album of theirs I still play relentlessly. Check it out below and see what you think.