Robbie Robertson spent the last days of 1971 onstage with the four other members of The Band. Coming off a string of albums that had expanded the possibilities of American roots music, The Band played a run of shows at the Academy of Music in New York City which culminated in a climactic New Year’s Eve performance with Bob Dylan.
In 1972, those concerts were commemorated on Rock of Ages, The Band’s fifth album and its first-ever live release. It was hailed as a landmark in their catalog, with critics citing the horn charts by Allen Toussaint, the fiery versions of “Like a Rolling Stone” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and The Band’s rustic grooves on “Up on Cripple Creek” and “Rag Mama Rag.”
Four decades later, Robertson (one of only two surviving Band members) reorganized and remastered those recordings for the new CD/DVD box set, Live at the Academy of Music 1971: The Rock of Ages Concerts, which features new mixes of all four shows. He spoke to CMT Edge about his memories of his bandmates, his quest for the perfect mix and his new children’s book, Legends, Icons & Rebels.
CMT Edge: What do you remember most about these shows? What memory stands out for you?
Robertson: What I really come back to is being in this musical circle and playing for one another. We would go onstage and Richard [Manuel] would just blow my mind. His voice was just extraordinary. And then Garth [Hudson] would play something that no other human being has ever played before in the world.
And then Levon [Helm] would sing a song and knock it out of the park. Obviously, it would be a song that I wrote, and I would feel so proud that I could write something that he made sound so truthful. And then Rick [Danko] sings so much around everybody else in the harmonies. It’s all ad-libbing. And at the same time, he’s play a fretless bass. You have no idea what it is to play fretless bass and sing like he was singing. It was a feat. That’s what I remember about this.
Listening to Rock of Ages, I always thought it sounded like a band with something to prove after the disappointing reception of your third album, Cahoots.
I don’t think anybody really felt like we had to prove something. We just needed to be really on our game. We needed to do what we were meant to do — all of this music we had gathered up over the years and all of our woodshedding. It was our first live album. We had done some live stuff with Bob Dylan, but this was the first live thing The Band had done.
When it came out, it was received like it was one of the great live albums, but I wasn’t happy with it. And it was my fault. I did the best I could under the circumstances when I mixed it, but I didn’t get it the way I wanted it. Now, to be able to do that finally, I can say I finally aced it. I think I lived up to the way all the guys were playing at the time and everything Toussaint did, so I can sleep at night.
What did you not like about that original mix?
After we recorded the album, Phil Ramone and I went off and mixed it in Miami at Criteria Studio. When we came back to New York, I listened to it and said to Phil, “This is no good.” He listened and said he’d never had that experience before. It just wasn’t right. I played it for the other guys, and they didn’t think it had the life.
So I mixed it again in Bearsville Studio. It had just opened, so it wasn’t broken in. It hadn’t been figured out yet. I did the best I could under the circumstances, but those circumstances have weighed heavy on me over the years. By that point, we had used up our budget, so we had no other choice.
But now we’ve got this board mix, which is fantastic and has a whole new flavor to it, and we have the mix I did with Bob Clearmountain, who is just a crackerjack at mixing live material. I appreciate that people have accepted and enjoyed the album over the years, but I also apologize for what we all settled for. And now I can say that we’re not settling anymore.
Did you hear anything new in the material this time around that you might have missed the first time around? Were there any surprises for you in this process?
I heard a hundred things I’d never heard before. A lot of it was just subtleties. I would hear things that Levon was doing with his kick drum and the way it was rubbing against the bass. I’d hear things that Garth was doing in the background that were too muddy to hear before. Now they just speak beautifully. I can get a new balance on the harmonies, and they just ring in the air. There are all kinds of elements that got lost before.
It’s interesting that this reissue is coming out right as you’ve got a book out. The two projects seem to map out generations of influence: the people who inspired The Band as well as the people The Band has inspired.
I do feel like all of these flavors that were in The Band’s music are coming through on both the record and the book at the same time. We’d been together for several years before we made our first album, and we’d been woodshedding. We’d been doing our homework. We were not a group that got guitars for Christmas and thought we should start a band. We really cared about having some depth to our musicality and being able to draw upon all these influences. And now, being able to do this book and include so many of those influences, it’s just an extraordinary coincidence.
You co-wrote the book with three other authors and artists, including your son Sebastian Robertson. What was it like working with him?
This whole idea came from him. Years ago, he was working part-time with a friend of his who ran a place called Bright Child. Part of his job was playing music for the kids while they were playing. Most of the time, he would play kids’ music, and every once in a while, he would throw in some Curtis Mayfield or Buddy Holly. The room would just light up. These kids would subconsciously react to this music, and I realized they were getting a lot more out of James Brown than they were getting from this little kiddie music.
It took several years to put this together and get it right. We wanted to put together some music for kids that’s really cool but doesn’t look down on them. They can listen to great stuff, and it’s good for them. They can know who Louis Armstrong was. He’s one of the great fathers of jazz. They can know who Billie Holiday was. She could break your heart. It’s laying a foundation that kids can carry with them for the rest of their lives.
Oh, yeah. All kinds of groups. It’s a long, long list. It’s a great feeling to think you made a contribution, and this many years later, people are still really inspired by what you’ve done. That’s everything that I ever hoped that our music would be.