Album review: The Band, Live at the Academy of Music 1971 (Capitol) and The Band/Various Artists, The Last Waltz (Warner Music/Rhino)

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Albums of the Week: Americana beauty from a group at the peak of their powers

Widely regarded as the greatest live album ever released, the Band's Rock of Ages was recorded in the last days of December 1971, climaxing with a New Year's Eve show at which their former boss and mentor, Bob Dylan, made a (then) rare guest appearance.

Prosaically retitled Live at the Academy of Music 1971, it's now available in an expanded, remastered 4CD edition that includes versions of every song performed in the four-night residency, a new 5.1 mix and a complete, unedited run through the final show, from the funky opener "Up on Cripple Creek" to the closing "Like a Rolling Stone". It's simply marvellous, an unalloyed joy from first to last, with Robbie Robertson's finely wrought storytelling songs augmented by a few well-chosen covers, notably the revamped Motown numbers "Don't Do It" and "Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever".

The songs are further embellished here with Allen Toussaint's bespoke-tailored horn arrangements, which add a spicy New Orleans flavour to the event. But despite the sophistication of their design, the performances have a muscular bite that speaks of long years spent on the road, while the three Band vocalists' individual leads and their distinctive harmonies ensure that every ounce of emotion is wrung from material which, in its stew of rock, folk, country, blues and soul, effectively invented the notion of "Americana".

Those onerous years of roadwork led to The Band calling it quits a few years later, but doing so in style, at a San Francisco show filmed by Martin Scorsese, and sprinkled with an extraordinary cast of guests, including Dr John, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Neil Young and, of course, Dylan again. The Last Waltz offers an unrivalled one-stop account of a broader cultural moment, before music ebbed back to being simply entertainment.

Download (from Live at the Academy): Rag Mama Rag; King Harvest (Has Surely Come); Don't Do It; Life Is a Carnival; The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down; Unfaithful Servant

Download (from The Last Waltz): Up on Cripple Creek; It Makes No Difference; Caravan; Mannish Boy; Acadian Driftwood

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