Ringing in the new year with the Band
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
New Year’s Day was rough.
The first half of it — after waking up, making sure I still had everything and checking to make sure I hadn’t documented too much of the end of 2013 — was mostly spent on the couch, curled under a blanket and watching hockey. The volume on the TV was low. It had to be.
Energies picked up after that. I finally got myself together around 4 or 5 p.m., went out to watch a movie, got a fancy pizza dinner with the lady, and then settled back into the living room, this time with the Band spinning and singing about how their biggest mistake was loving you too much.
The Band’s Rock of Ages was mostly recorded on New Year’s Eve, 1971, and has gone on to become a slightly under-heralded piece in a nearly spotless catalog. Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz has served as the final word on the Band and their default live document. But there’s an energy to the performances on Rock of Ages that eclipses even that. Without all the famous guests of Scorsese’s film, the Band are alone to carry on the tradition of great bands welcoming the new year in front of the frenzied masses. And when that goes particularly well, we get a live album out of it.
The gold standard is still Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys, which became the artistic high-water mark of his career while he was living. He confronted his audience with mostly unfamiliar material and devastated not just those in attendance, but everyone else listening years later on vinyl and on later releases like Live at the Fillmore East, which collected more of those New Year’s recordings.
Band of Gypsys doesn’t merely feel like a holiday record, though. It’s simply a fantastic one that will never stop being played. In that line of thinking, Rock of Ages doesn’t simply belong to New Year’s Eve, it serves as a commemoration of the night and an era that was unofficially closing. If Band of Gypsys pulled the curtain on the ’60s and unveiled the ’70s, Rock of Ages left the last of the freewheeling expressionism of that decade behind for good. Robbie Robertson hired Allen Toussaint to create horn charts for the night, giving “Don’t Do It” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” a celebratory vibe that also served as a majestic cap to the period.
This was the halfway point in the Band’s furious eight-year run after they left Bob Dylan, and it unintentionally recaps their most productive span of work. Northern Lights-Southern Cross is a beautiful record and The Last Waltz is the majestic cap to their career, but the four-album run from Music From Big Pink through Cahoots was on genius level, and it’s on the heels of this that the Band took up residency at the Brooklyn Academy of Music to usher in 1972.
The contrasts to the psychedelia-heavy music of the previous era and the arena-ready stuff on the way are obvious and have been discussed several times over in the annals of rock criticism. And the reason for that is how out of place, still, the music of the Band seems. There really isn’t a time or place for the kind of music they were making, save for maybe the Civil War era, except that many of the rock and roll, blues and country influences permeating their songs didn’t yet exist. The Band was at once timeless and out of time, existing on a separate plain from the rest of the industry.
So here they were, at the sunset of a furious period of creativity, ringing in the new year in the biggest city in the country and documenting the experience for a double album. The music being played, whether it was “King Harvest” or “Rag Mama Rag,” was brazenly against any sort of trend, an individualistic stab at the music world that, for a little while was made as a collective in the truest sense. Levon Helm moves from drums to mandolin and back, singing in harmony with Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. Robbie Robertson serves as the anchor on guitar. Garth Hudson fills in the gaps on every keyboard available. Simply, working together this well was so contrary to most of rock and roll at the time.
And all these people were in on it, both in the audience in Brooklyn or years later, spinning the records in their living rooms. The ultimate accreditation of what the Band was doing was the fact that so many people took their homespun, ego-free songs to heart. The music was made to last and never belonged to time, so why not ring in a new year with it.
Like Band of Gypsys, Rock of Ages turned into a supreme artistic statement that refuses to go stale. So as we get into 2014, it’s probably completely unfashionable to turn to an album from 1972 for the energy necessary to start a new year. And as it is, it’s completely fitting, too.
Jan. 4, 2014
Email Nick Tavares at email@example.com