Rating: 4.5/5On the surface, the Band’s release of Live at the Academy of Music 1971 seems unwarranted. After all, it’s really just an extension of their classic Rock of Ages, which was already given the deluxe treatment back in 2001. That set, originally promoted as containing highlights from the New Year’s Eve performance, actually drew selections from all four shows from the New York run at the end of 1971, shows with setlists that didn’t vary all that much. So packaging together the full series of concerts, complete with multiple repeats, seems like an exercise destined only for the most diehard of fans. That couldn’t be further from reality.
While the shows from the 28th, 29th and 30th are stellar and demonstrate a band at its live peak, it’s the unedited soundboard mix of the New Year’s Eve set that makes Academy worth its price. The sound is beyond crisp; you can hear every one of Rick Danko’s bass lines and Garth Hudson’s fills. Both Levon Helm and Richard Manuel never sounded better, and their vocals are so strong and clear (the blending of Helm, Danko and Manuel on “The Rumor” is definitely a standout). The majority of these tunes were played throughout the run, but plugged in like this, it’s as if you’re on the stage with them, listening to a band that four albums in clearly knew they were on top of their game. And were still willing to take risks.
Kicking off the final set of the New Year’s show, Robbie Robertson announces to the crowd, “We’re gonna do something different this second half.” The band then proceeds to launch into “Life Is a Carnival,” a track originally featuring horns charted by Allen Toussaint. With the Band on stage for that song was a crack team of horn players who’d played with everyone from Miles Davis to Charles Mingus, and they stayed there for the rest of the show. As on the original recording, it was Toussaint who authored the charts, but this time he was up against significant odds. On top of having his suitcase with the charts stolen, he temporarily lost his hearing thanks to a bad infection. Toussaint somehow managed to rewrite the pieces, and the results are spectacular.
On Rock of Ages there are samples of the Band accompanied by the Toussaint’s horns, but to hear the full set with this mix really makes Academy distinct. The Band were known for their versatility, and on this night they became a swampy Dixieland group. “Across the Great Divide” sounds like it’s dancing down Bourbon Street while “Caledonia Mission” comes off like a soul-gospel song with the added horns. The horn section turns the intro of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” into a funeral march before coming in triumphantly for the chorus, adding fireworks as the song closes. The Band gets raw and funky with “Don’t Do It,” but it’s “The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show” that brings it all together, as the Band spits Highway 61 fire with a whole lot of Cajun in its breath.
While Academy probably could have benefited from being released just as the New Year’s Eve show, it’s not as if anyone will complain from having two versions of “Rockin’ Chair.” For those that missed the boat on Rock of Ages, this is definitely a new and better way to access this material and realize just how good these guys were. Even Bob Dylan, who the Band brought out of hiding to wing through a four song encore set, sounds inspired to be on this stage. And now, we’re right there, too.