Stage Fright: The Band’s Rock of Ages Turns 50
Reflecting on a half century of one of the most essential concert albums of the 1970s
Rock of Ages came at a critical time in The Band’s trajectory.
It was sandwiched between two relatively undistinguished albums — the less than ceremoniously received Moondog Matinee and Cahoots, a collection of covers — the live album offered an opportunity for the group to recap their earlier achievements and revisit their landmark songs.
At the same time, the double LP effectively demonstrated the fact that they could make their material come alive onstage while ensuring that the instrumental acumen demonstrated early on remained intact.
It was a deliberate decision at the outset. The band secured a residency during the final week of 1971 at New York’s distinguished Academy of Music, where they opted to record the final four days of their stay. Allen Toussaint, with whom they had worked earlier, was commissioned to compose horn charts for a four-piece brass section that accompanied the group, adding a new element to their decidedly down-home sound that also elevated their approach in the process.
In a sense, Rock of Ages functioned as an ideal anthology, given that it included such standards as “This Wheel’s On Fire,” “Stage Fright,” “The Weight,” “The Shape I’m In,” “Across the Great Divide,” “Chest Fever,” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and that was simply for starters. Not surprisingly, the group paid heed to the original renditions while decidedly demonstrating that even at the dawn of a new decade, a certain ‘60s sensibility remained intact even despite some changing times. The Band was clearly looking back, and the fact that only one new original song, “Get Up Jake,” was included in their repertoire seemed to prove that point. Likewise, the addition of some R&B oldies — Marvin Gaye’s “Don’t Do It,” the Four Tops chestnut “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever” and the Chuck Willis B-side “(I Don’t Want To) Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes” — further reinforced that decided sense of nostalgia.
That said, a surprise appearance by their former employer, Bob Dylan, on four songs recorded on the final night of their week-long stand — “Down in the Flood,” “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” “Don’t Ya Tell Henry,” and “Like a Rolling Stone” served as a further affirmation that they were returning to their roots. It more or less served as a preview for the Dylan/Band opus Before the Flood that would be released two years later, following their formal reunion on the Planet Waves album that same year.
Notably then, in the years since its original release on August 15, 1972, Rock of Ages has undergone a number of revisions and rereleases. The most significant reissue took place in 2001 when the original album was expanded as a double CD set that included the four songs performed with Dylan among the ten new offerings. The 2005 box set, A Musical History, included nine remixed tracks and an additional unreleased offering, “Smoke Signal.”
Then, in 2013, a more complete compendium titled Live at the Academy of Music 1971: The Rock of Ages Concerts expanded the offering even further, adding a take on “Strawberry Wine” and the entirety of the New Year’s Eve portion of the proceedings as well.
Some might argue that the original album should suffice, but for those that want to have a decent representation of what transpired, the Capitol 2CD expanded version ought to accomplish that aim.
Whatever the choice, Rock of Ages provides a rocking refrain.
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