Rock of Ages
Northern Lights-Southern Cross
I'm a sucker for well-done CD re-issues. Give me bonus tracks, extensive liner notes, 20-bit remastering (whatever that is) and I'll hand over my credit card every time. In fact, even as I write this, I'm accruing interest on my Discover Card with the recent purchase of four new re-issues from The Band. If my math is right, buying these Band CDs will not only give me hours of listening pleasure, but with my .05 percent Discover CashBack Bonus Award I receive every August, I will also earn 30 cents in cash or merchandise. I'd say that's good listening and being smart with money too.
Of course buying the most recent Band re-issues (Rock of Ages, Moondog Matinee, Northern Lights-Southern Cross and Islands) is arguably not as smart as buying The Band's first four albums re-issued last year. The first two, Music From Big Pink and The Band, are absolutely essential, and their third album, Stage Fright, is still top-notch, if not quite up to the standards of its predecessors. Only Cahoots from the first batch is less than stellar. And even it has a few high points: "Life Is a Carnival," "When I Paint My Masterpiece" and "5% Pantomime" with Van Morrison. Pretty good stuff overall. However, the second set of re-issues, just out from Capitol Records, consists of a much less exalted group of recordings.
It is widely held that The Band were in a long slow decline from their second album on.
Of the recent set of re-issue CDs, none is more enjoyable than Rock of Ages, The Band's double live album from 1971. Without a doubt, Rock of Ages is one of the best live albums ever recorded, and the re-issued version makes it even better. In a stunning act of generosity, Capitol has given the remastered version a lower price tag than the old, crappy sounding edition. Plus the set features the addition of 10 bonus tracks, four of which find The Band joined onstage by their old mentor, Bob Dylan.
But the best thing about the album is the original set itself. All of The Band's biggest hits are included -- "The Weight," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "The Shape I'm In" -- and there are terrific covers of Marvin Gaye's "Don't Do It" and Chuck Willis' "Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes." There are fine performances all around, but in particular, Levon Helm's relaxed vocals and loose but dead-solid drumming are consistent highlights of the set. Throughout, arrangements by Alan Toussaint flavor the songs with interesting but never obtrusive New Orleans style horns. Rock of Ages is an absolute pleasure from start to finish. Buy five copies for your mother.
Released in 1973, Moondog Matinee found The Band looking back to their cover band roots in the '50s and '60s when they were known as the Hawks. Although Moondog Matinee was seen as something of a disappointment upon its release, -- primarily because the album contained no new original material -- in retrospect the album holds up pretty well. Not every cover version is inspired: The 50s-style material sounds too tame, making The Band sound like a talented lounge act. But tunes with a more modern sensibility, like "Share Your Love With Me" and "Holy Cow," fare much better. All in all, Moondog Matinee has much to recommend it, but ultimately its appeal is to hardcore fans only.
The group's follow-up released in 1975, Northern Lights-Southern Cross was widely heralded as a return to form. For the album's sessions, The Band left Woodstock, New York for Malibu, Cal. The California atmosphere pervaded the new album, making it the slickest, most laid back record of The Band's career. The move to Malibu obviously had enabled The Band to relax and recharge their creativity, which after the mediocre Cahoots and Moondog Matinee, the group clearly needed to do. The downside was that Northern Lights-Southern Cross is perhaps a little too relaxed. The tension seems to have gone out of much of the writing and performances. Still, there are moments on the album that stand with The Band's best work. "Arcadian Driftwood" is one of Robbie Robertson's most beautiful and ambitious songs, and bassist Rick Danko's heartfelt vocal on "It Makes No Difference" bolsters the argument that Danko was underused as a singer in the group. Overall, Northern Lights-Southern Cross is The Band's last major studio effort.
Thankfully, The Band ended their career with The Last Waltz concert film and album, because Islands released in 1977, and the last album they recorded for Capitol, was by no means the way to say goodbye. As Robbie Robertson admits of Islands in Rob Bowman's liner notes, "We were just trying to fulfill our contract. It wasn't an album." Islands included a hodge-podge of material: some new, some old. It even included a cover of "Georgia on My Mind," which was intended as a show of support for Jimmy Carter's presidential bid. There a few good moments on the album, but no great ones. The album was simply far inferior to anything The Band had ever released.
Overall, Capitol has done an outstanding job with the Band Remastered series. Loaded with bonus tracks and excellent liner notes, The Band's catalogue is being presented in editions worthy of the group's finest moments.