Waiting For The Punchline
by Dave MarshFrom Creem, November 1972.
The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.
ROCK OF AGES
On a great night, the Band grab and mesmerize, so that neither your eyes nor your thoughts can be on anything else. It helps that they look like a society of Viennese doctors, of course, but their magic is mostly in the music -- what they are playing and how it is played. On a great night, the Band's competition just doesn't exist.
But on a good night, which they have sometimes, too, a night when the Band is just competent, maybe, or when Robbie is only strangling his guitar every third or fourth song, attention wavers, as it does with anyone. Unless you count the few minutes where the Organ plays its garth hudson solo, there ins't any show to lean on. If you sit and wait for the punch line a few times, and when it somes, it doesn't overpower you, the edge of your attention gets dispersed.
Rock of Ages was recorded on a good night, and it is not always engrossing. It is good, but spotty, and in one way that is enough. You can't recover from a disaster like Cahoots with a miracle, after all. Or you can, but most people don't.
Besides, after the over-reaching of Cahoots, the mid-level excitement of Rock of Ages rehumanizes the Band. It's not one of the classic live rock records, and there are noe earthshaking new songs -- no attempt at any, even.
There's more to it than sublimated entropy, though. The Band are probably the biggest group in rock'n'roll who never had a hit single. They'll still cast the proverbial long shadow, of course, but a little AM play would flesh out the image nicely.
The latest attempt is "Baby Don't Do It," which is right out of the Band's Motown heritage (dig the rhythm section). It's not as good as the practice-tape bootleg that's been floating around for a year or so, but it might be good enough to hit.
We've waited long enough. Here's Greil Marcus in the May. 1971 CREEM on "Don't Do It": "The Band play the best hard rock in the world when they want to. Now, why don't they release this and give us a chance to believe it."
As everywhere else, "Don't Do It's" horns are a throw-away. They don't exactly suffer from lassitude, but from flabbiness. It's an interesting experiment, but one which never comes oss, except on "Life Is A Carnival," and occasional flashes here and there.
The high-points have to be sought. Some are more obvious than the others, but not one is arresting. "Get Up Jake" is the only "new" Robertson song, and it has been recorded before -- notably by Roger Tillison last year on his remarkable Atco album. "Jake" also features what must be Robbie's best guitar wotk on the record. "Life Is A Carnival" really comes off here. It's another place where the horns work well. Hudson's humorous organ solo leads into "Chest Fever," in a version which does nothing to clarify that eternal question: "What's it about?" (Chests, maybe?) Still, "Chest Fever" is the most powerful of all Band hard-rock. "Hang Up My Rock'n'Roll Shoes" is the other "new" song (they've never recorded it before); it might be the Band's epitaph in another couple decades.
The rest is down to moments. Hudson has good ones all over. Richard Manuel has beautiful piano licks on "The Weight." Levons bursts out now and again while Rick Danko's bass is always there, steady as a rock. He's the paragon of Motown-session-man as Canadian-rock-and-roll-hero. Robbie's Robbie, primal energy force, quiet, but always forceful.
Like any snotty punk, my solution to the ennui of Ages would be to edit it. As one record, the album might have the kind of sustaining power and drive the set it was recorded from probably possessed. Rock of Ages might then be just that, compelling rather than interesting and a little bit curious (the horns).
On the other hand, there are advantages to a Band album that is less than crushing, but still good. Everybody has to have some entertainment betwixt the heaviness, and all of this record is entertaining. The Band isn't wasting any time trying to find new things to worry about; they're waiting for the old ones to sink in. Meanwhile, they're doing new things (the horns) but not over-reaching in superfluous attempts at profundity (Cahoots).
Of course, it's also nice to know that unlike the Grateful Dead, the Band are still listenable when they operate at less than perfection. It's even reassuring to know they still see themselves in some sense as a live group; they haven't toured in so long you might begin to wonder.
Most importantly, Robbie Robertson does not dominate this album. Robertson is great, sometimes awesome, but the show is not his alone, as it might have been. The Band are still, after all, a band, and they know it and reinforce it. Only Creedence, among mainstream bands, has the guts to say the same thing.
Indeed, there probably isn't a group with more raw courage in all of rock'n'roll. They're still here, the Band, playing the Music. Longer than almost anyone and better, too.