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Classic Album Reviews: The Band | Rock of Ages | Moondog Matinee | Northern Lights- Southern Cross | Islands

The roots-rock icons’ final four Capitol albums return in expertly expanded form.

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This came out in 2001 – or at least that’s when I got it. Here’s what I said about it back then (with some minor editing):

 


It has been more than two decades since The Band played their Last Waltz — but their influential sound reverberates to this day.

In every roots-rock and alt-country combo from Tucson to Tucumcari, you can hear echoes of Robbie Robertson’s majestic guitar and stirring songcraft, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel’s beautifully sad keyboards, Levon Helm’s swamp-groove drumming or Rick Danko’s steady bass. No wonder they still have one of the most devoted fan bases on the planet. And no wonder Capitol decided to reissue the quintet’s catalog: Seven studio discs and one live set, all remastered and supplemented with historical essays and extra tracks. The first half — Music From Big Pink, The Band, Stage Fright and Cahoots — came out in 2000. Now they’re joined by the group’s final Capitol albums — Rock of Ages, Moondog Matinee, Northern Lights-Southern Cross and Islands (The Last Waltz was on another label). Some may not be the most beloved entries in The Band canon, but if you’re a fan (and if you aren’t, stop reading now), there are more than enough magic moments here to make replacing your scratchy old LPs worthwhile.

The best disc, both in musical and historic terms, has to be the live album Rock of Ages. Along with the flawless gig from 1971 (featuring The Band augmented by a funky horn section arranged by none other than Allen Toussaint), this reissue comes with an entire disc (!) of leftovers. There are decent live versions of I Shall Be Released, Rockin’ Chair, Loving You is Sweeter Than Ever and The Rumor, along with the grooviest version of Up on Cripple Creek you’ve ever heard — and, best of all, four tracks featuring Bob Dylan, who came out of seclusion to join the boys for loose but mesmerising versions of When I Paint My Masterpiece, Don’t Ya Tell Henry, Down in the Flood and (yes!) Like A Rolling Stone. What else could you want?

Moondog Matinee from 1973 continues on that nostalgic, celebratory path. A set of covers designed to ease The Band back into the working groove after a couple of years off, it’s a suitably relaxed and easygoing affair, with the boys barrelling through rough ’n’ ready juke-joint classics from Chuck Berry (Promised Land), Elvis Presley (Mystery Train) and Clarence (Frogman) Henry (Ain’t Got No Home). Six outtakes are added here, including the bouncy gospel number Didn’t It Rain, the gritty, groovy Shakin’ and, to close things off, one original cut — Robertson’s chuggingly uptempo country-rocker Endless Highway.

More studio originals can be found on The Band’s last true album, Northern Lights-Southern Cross. Although the cracks were beginning to show by this point, Robertson rallied the troops and they returned to form for this 1975 disc, their finest studio effort since their second album. Robertson’s increasingly sophisticated and evocative narrative songs like Acadian Driftwood and It Makes No Difference, not to mention funky cuts like Forbidden Fruit, make this one of The Band’s most woefully overlooked albums. You only get two extras here — an early version of a sentimental single called Twilight and an alternate take of the holiday-themed Christmas Must Be Tonight — but the quality of the original cuts more than compensates.

Sadly, the same cannot be said of Islands, which was hastily assembled from B-sides and leftovers to fulfil contractual obligations as the band was breaking up. It does have its moments — the barrelhouse romp Street Walker, a wistful Georgia on My Mind, the raucous Cajun boogie Knockin’ Lost John — but next to the grandeur and depth of their earlier works, it falls short. This one is for the devoted Band fan only. Then again, is there any other kind of Band fan?