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The Band | Rock of Ages / Moondog Matinee / Northern Lights - Southern Cross / Islands (Capitol)
This is the second and final half of the EMI Band reissues.  It couldn't live up to the standards of the first four albums (as we're frequently told) but much of it is an underrated delight.  The live Rock of Ages has been expanded to a double CD of the entire concert (28 tracks in all). Despite the great Allen Toussaint being invited to write brass arrangements for the best players in the business (for 11songs) my heart sank at the thought of brass overwhelming The Band's delicate interplay. Yet only on the free-for-all, Rag Mama Rag, do they enter the fray with all guns blazing. Elsewhere, on the Van Morrison-ish Caledonia Mission for example, the brass creates a clever surround of background colour.  Furthermore songs once impossibly subtle in their original form - King Harvest, I Shall be Released etc - are still delivered with unbelievable delicacy. A 'planned surprise' was Bob Dylan's appearance for the four final numbers. This, I learn, has long been a sought-after set and been bootlegged heavily since it occurred at a period of virtually no live work by the Zimmerman. Well lucky us, it is stirring stuff.  Indeed if you turn the whole thing up the concert hall sound has a lovely warm resonance and great atmosphere If anyone ever deserved to put out a covers album it is surely the Band. 1973's Moondog Matinee is the sound of the band returning to their 'roots' of their Hawks incarnation. The record mostly emphasises their 'black' influences, be they rock and roll, soul, pop, rhythm'n'blues or whatever. The standard is set with the euphoric opener Clarence Henry's Ain't Got No Home (you'll know it when you hear it) which sounds like Fats Domino in his prime. Next up is the Lee Dorsey classic Holy Cow, which again matches the original in every way. Indeed Robbie Robertson himself immodestly state in the liner notes that this is the only album of covers to ever match the originals. By track 4, Elvis' Mystery Train, I was prepared to believe it. This rock classic has the energy of a runaway train and finds its way into a long coda where the guitars and the keyboard dig ever deeper into the essence of the song. A stranger but equally inventive track is the re-working of the Third Man Theme.  A hoot. Just a gas from start to finish. The third CD, Northern Lights, presented me with a few problems - even if Band fans consider it a bona fide goody (there's no way this is one of their classics). What was once the final track on the original album, Rags and Bones, has a touch of the original magic but other cherished tracks - Ophelia, Acadian Driftwood and It Makes No Difference sound like the Band-by-numbers, tired and plodding or, in the case of Jupiter Hollow and Forbidden Fruit, like competent Canadian bar room country rockers with lots of soul but few tunes. You might want to leave a bar where this stuff was played.  The variety of styles evident in their early 1960s albums - Appalachian, Classical Music, 'Dylania,'  European influences, even nature itself - in fact all the elements of so called Americana - seem to have been mostly forgotten. This unfortunate trend is evident yet further on their last Capitol album, Islands, which seems generally dismissed as a lightweight contractual-filler before their big move to Warners for the Last Waltz. Many folk consider this to be b-side standard, off-the-cuff songwriting and I have to say that after a couple of listens I couldn't hum a single tune. Despite a quite happy, breezy feel created by the light and easy mainstream rock and even, by Band standards, easy-listening style of it all (listen to the title track!) it is a comedown from the first six albums. So spend some well-earned wonga on those first six classics and buy these last two only when you're rich.

Stephen Ridley
June-July 2001

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