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#50GreatestConcerts: The Band, 1971

The group injected New Orleans R&B swagger into their harmonious folk rock during the four-night stand at New York’s Academy of Music

David Browne Jul 18, 2017
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Levon Helm in the Seventies. Photo: (c)United Artists / Courtesy: Everett Collection

The band’s 1978 farewell movie, The Last Waltz, is the greatest concert film of all time. But even that performance didn’t reach the heights of the Band’s at the end of 1971. The shows, which were released as a box set in 2013, captured the Band at their tightest and funkiest, injecting New Orleans R&B swagger into their harmonious folk rock. It was a period of high morale and expert musicianship for the sometimes volatile group, the result of a decade of hard touring, with Ronnie Hawkins, Bob Dylan and finally on their own. “There was a spell that everybody was doing really, really good,” the Band’s Robbie Robertson told Rolling Stone in 2013. “It was a roll of the dice after that. You just didn’t know what condition somebody was going to show up in.”

It was a moment the Band needed. Three years on from their groundbreaking debut, Music From Big Pink, their two most recent studio albums, Stage Fright and Cahoots, had been greeted with lukewarm reviews. Aiming for some fresh energy, Robertson recruited veteran New Orleans bandleader Allen Toussaint to put together a horn section for their holiday gigs at the Academy of Music. It almost didn’t work out. To everyone’s horror, Toussaint’s briefcase full of horn arrangements was stolen on his way from New Orleans to the band’s Woodstock headquarters, where he was forced to rewrite the charts from memory. He wrote them in the wrong keys, and the Band had to relearn their songs in entirely new keys. Robertson recalled thinking, “We’re doomed.

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That anxiety lifted when they took the stage. “A chill ran through me,” Robertson said. “I thought, ‘OK, I’m feeling some magic in the air here. . . .’ As soon as we kicked off the first song,” he added, “we weren’t even touching the ground.”

The group set the tone with a taut, funky cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Don’t Do It,” and gracefully moved through its canon. The Band played with intensified warmth on “Unfaithful Servant” and “Get Up Jake” and jittery energy on deep album cuts like “Smoke Signal.” “We only did it once or twice,” said Robertson. “Levon [Helm] did an amazing job on it.” They turned “Chest Fever” and “Rag Mama Rag” into the stuff of a Crescent City street party, and returned to their roadhouse roots on Chuck Willis’ 1958 deep cut “(I Don’t Want to) Hang Up My Rock & Roll Shoes.”

The Band saved their biggest surprise for last. During their New Year’s Eve encore, they invited out their old friend Dylan, who had been out of the spotlight for years. Looking like his mid-Sixties self with aviators and a Telecaster, Dylan howled fiery takes of “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Don’t Ya Tell Henry,” pausing only to talk through the arrangements. “We were being a little bit bold,” said Robertson. (The horns didn’t accompany Dylan, though: “He looked over and saw us, jumped back from the microphone and glared over his shades,” says tuba player Howard Johnson. “I told everyone, ‘OK, let’s just get offstage.’ ”)

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Months later, highlights of those shows comprised the dazzling live double LP Rock of Ages, which critics immediately called one of the best live albums of the Seventies. For drummer Helm, it was simply “the most fun I ever had making a Band record.”

Click here to check out the entire story in the digital edition of Rolling Stone India. 

Watch The Band perform live at the Academy of Music on December 30, 1971:

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