The Band – Live at the Academy of Music 1971 (2013)

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The Band’s initial live release found them off-handedly overhauling their catalog, rather than attempting to simply replicate it. 1972’s Rock of Ages would become a showcase for a group pushing itself musically and creatively.

It started when Robbie Robertson, having previously collaborated with Allen Toussaint on “Life is a Carnival” from the year before, asked the New Orleans soul Svengali back in to work up horn charts for a multi-night run between December 28-31, 1971 at the Academy of Music in New York City — forming the basis for that celebrated double album. A little over four decades later, however, Robertson has returned in the hopes of reframing this fizzy exercise.

The new Live at the Academy of Music 1971, due September 17, 2013 from Capitol Records, does just that — as the Band plays a largely improvised set, fashioned in a whole new way, relying upon nothing more than a still-startling musical chemistry. Put frankly, nobody does things like this anymore. And they’d likely fail miserably if they tried.

The 4 CD/1 DVD box includes both stereo and 5.1 mixes of the best of those performances, plus a complete look at the now-legendary New Year’s Eve show — most of which has gone previously unreleased. Also included are a 48-page book featuring an essay from Robertson, the original album review by Rolling Stone magazine’s Ralph J. Gleason, rare photographs and additional notes. That only bolsters this set’s sense of fresh discovery, beginning with a previously unheard version of Levon Helm’s 1970 collaboration with Robertson, “Strawberry Wine.”

Rock of Ages, if the contemporary ads and album jacket were to be believed, featured highlights from the December 31 concert. Actually, however, the original release included tracks from throughout the four-night run — and was, as this new set illustrates, sequenced in a different order. In fact, save for a few minor switch ups (and, of course, the completely improvised New Year’s Eve encore with Bob Dylan), the song lineup remained largely unchanged over each evening.

Along the way, a number of these songs — the Dixieland reworking of “W.S. Walcott Medicine Show,” the rumbling “Caledonia Mission,” the lonesome “Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” — are so profoundly altered by the addition of horn charts that they stand apart completely from the studio versions. Not that any of it came easy. By the time Toussaint arrived in New York to work with the Band, his entire satchel of charts had been stolen. Couple that with a nasty head cold, and Toussaint barely had time to reassemble new arrangements for what turned out to be a crack group of backing musicians from the Count Basie, Charles Mingus and Miles Davis bands.

Nothing, however, could stop the magic here. These newly restored offerings, in particular the two discs devoted to a soundboard mix of the December 31 show, underscore the gutsy, in-the-moment quality of this experiment — and how the Band bulls right through it by sheer force of musical will. The horns might play with a ragged emotion at times, and the raucous closing moments with their old pal Dylan might threaten to skid off the rails — but who can forget Garth Hudson’s canny aside during the introductory segment on “Chest Fever,” when he spontaneously slipped in a reference to “Auld Lang Syne”?

In the end, all of that works in the favor of Live at the Academy of Music 1971, after so much mythos has billowed up around the Band. The results — nervy and off the cuff; unsurprisingly, really, when you consider that the Band had famously begun this run of shows without bothering to draw up a set list — serve to humanize these often towering figures, even as they bring you in as close as you can possibly get to the stirring elixirs being conjured out of thin air on that stage.

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