A *triple* live gonzo, no less, and a movie. And if I refer to my 2002 four-CD box set, then its twice the length of the triple-album original. I’ve been thinking hard about what version to work from, and I’ve decided not to do a song-by-song rundown since I’m much more familiar with the expanded edition, and that’s just too long. Instead, I’ll shoot from the hip. Bang it out.
Robbie Robertson had long been comfortable with the idea that he and The Band were a big deal. When he decided that The Band should call it a day (and the jury’s out on whether he had decided they should split or simply stop touring; it does seem as though his assertions that it was the latter were just a fig leaf to cover the former), the idea of a farewell concert seemed obvious. And if you’re going to go to the trouble of booking Winterland, why not invite your all celebrity musician buddies and influences along? And why not get the world’s premier film-maker to come as well, and shoot it on 35mm for posterity? And why not let Bill Graham add a Thanksgiving dinner to the evening, and charge fans over $110 in today’s money to be there?
Don’t get me wrong. I love The Band, and Robertson’s songs, and I’m glad Scorsese was there to capture it all. But yeesh, plenty of bands of comparable stature have settled for smaller gestures when deciding not to go on tour again.
But for all the whiff of self-regard it gave off, The Last Waltz is still a legendary moment in rock ‘n’ roll history. Not because of how well The Band played, but because they were able to put together a mini Woodstock in their own honour for one night only: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Dr John and, um, Neil Diamond. The Band were always a group beloved by musicians; plenty were happy to come along and pay their respects.
The Last Waltz, as well as being a concert and a live album documenting that concert, is also a film by Martin Scorsese made in the 1970s, which makes it worth seeing by definition. It is beautifully shot, and edited (by Yeu-Bun Lee and Jan Roblee) with a real eye for the interaction between musicians. Bil Graham felt that the movie failed because it didn’t include the audience. Graham was no film critic. It’s precisely because it’s laser- focused on the musicians that it works so well. If you’re not a musician, watching it will show you a lot about how players on stage function as part of an ensemble. If you are a musician, you’ll see people who do what you do routinely, but raised to an art form.
Now for the inevitable “but”, though. At The Last Waltz, the music wasn’t always that good. “These are not musicians at the top of their art, but laborers on the last day of the job,” said Roger Ebert perceptively, reviewing the movie The Last Waltz in 2002, and he was bang on. By 1976, every member of the band looked older than his years (Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Robertson were only 33 at the time of the concert; Levon Helm was 36; Garth Hudson was 39), and there was a weariness about some of the performances, even on their final day of labouring.
I don’t want to dwell too long on the negatives, so here they are in a big glut to get them out the way:
- Up On Cripple Creek, which opens the album, had to be sped up to a workable tempo for the film. The version on the album, not sped up, is sluggish and a chore
- Danko’s voice on It Makes No Difference is thin and wispy, while Manuel’s falsetto on I Shall Be Released is excruciating
- The guys take a full minute or more to hit the groove when playing Caldonia with Muddy Waters; before that moment, it’s a joke
- Garth Hudson’s synth sounds are regrettable throughout
- No one in the audience cared about Bobby Charles, or that he wrote See Ya Later Alligator
- No one on the stage told Clapton that All Our Past Times is a godawful dirge he couldn’t sing in tune
- Joni Mitchell’s Furry Sings the Blues is not a rollicking good tune for a celebratory concert
- Tura Lura Lural?
- Neil Diamond??
So it’s very far from flawless. But much of it is incandescently good. So let’s talk about those bits.
The movie, in the canniest move the Scorsese made when assembling the film, begins with an abridged version of the encore, The Band’s cover of Marvin Gaye’s Don’t You Do It, sung by Levon and Rick. It’s smoking.
Richard Manuel’s voice was a sadly diminished instrument by the time of The Last Waltz (that’s Robertson singing the top harmony on Cripple Creek, not Manuel; in the movie, there’s a shot of Robertson and Danko singing the chorus; Manuel is in the background, playing piano with his mouth firmly shut), but in his lower range he still possessed an exciting, powerful growl. And he seldom sounded more believably desperate singing The Shape I’m In than he did here. The studio cut on Stage Fright sounds mighty tame in comparison.
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down is almost unbearably poignant, particularly in the movie. Watching Levon Helm once more assuming the identity of Virgil Caine, with the addition of Allen Toussaint’s gorgeous horn arrangement, is the most moving moment of the whole concert.
WS Walcott Medicine Show and, even more so, Ophelia both absolutely cook. Levon was definitely the group’s MVP that night – unlike Danko and Manuel, his voice was strong and rich as ever, and his mixture of grace and power behind the kit on these tunes a marvel.
Halfway through Caldonia (presumably the moment the group realises it’s embarassing itself), the players raise their game and the second half of the song and all of Mannish Boy are dispatched with everyone they have. No one would listen to The Band and mistake them for a great true blues band, but they do a far better job with Mannish Boy than any all-white, 80% Canadian group has any right to.
Coyote and Shadows and Light with Joni Mitchell are both excellent, and highlight the band’s adaptability (Helm’s and Robertson’s particularly). Coyote is an incredibly demanding song compared to, say, Who Do You Love (played with old boss Ronnie Hawkins) but the ensemble play it pretty much flawlessly. Ditto Shadows and Light, which on The Hissing of Summer Lawns is arranged for multi-tracked voices and Moog synth. The Band’s ensemble arrangement, which Barney Hoskyns has said was conceived by/with John Simon, was true to their own spirit and that of Joni’s Hejira-era songs.
Van Morrison blasts his way through Caravan, and it’s glorious.
Dylan’s set, though,while obviously the most keenly anticipated moment of the night, is something of a headscratcher.
Dylan let Scorsese film only two songs, worrying that his presence in the movie would take attention away from Renaldo and Clara, his hybrid concert movie/drama filmed during his Rolling Thunder Revue tour (hmm, good call, Bob). Watching the songs in question does improve on merely listening to the man and his one-time backing group stumble though them, but still, no one’s finest moment.
My friend Yo Zushi said of The Last Waltz generally, and Dylan’s performance particularly, that “this wasn’t any kind of last waltz, not in some end-of-an-era sense. […] The stark reality is that this was actually just Robbie Robertson’s leaving do. […] Dylan’s (and Young’s) attitudes made it clear that this was an occasion to mark with a good-luck card and some drunken acts people regret the next day.”
Yo’s a little more down on the gig than I am, but I do think he’s hit on what explains Dylan’s sloppy, seemingly drunken, set – much the least together run of songs in the whole concert. Compared to everyone else, even Young (who chose a pair of sombre, Canada-themed songs to perform), Dylan sounds relaxed, goofy, out for a good time. Nothing, Dylan seemed to recognise, could match what these men did in 1965-66 (Planet Waves and Tour ’74 had proven that), so why not just have a little fun?
So that about covers the concert. But there’s the not inconsiderable matter of the Last Waltz Suite – of which two moments rank up with the very finest things The Band ever did. Scorsese filmed two performances by the group on a soundstage, inserting them into the movie in appropriate places: a lovely performance of a new song called Evangeline with Emmylou Harris and a version of The Weight with the Staples.
Assembled because Robertson felt that country and gospel were both under-represented on the set list at the Winterland and the group wanted to pay proper respect to its influences, the two songs are, as I say, masterpieces. Evangeline shows that even at this late stage in The Band’s career, Robertson could still write songs that seemed somehow timeless. At his best, he had a way of connecting with the very essence of America’s folk music forms and placing them in the context of his extraordinarily adaptable rock band (note that pianist Richard Manuel drums, bassist Rick Danko plays fiddle, drummer Levon plays mandolin and organist Garth Hudson plays accordian). Evangeline is his final success with The Band, and all the more poignant because of it.
The Weight is, if anything, even better. It replaces the down-home bar-room piano and acoustic guitar for a smoother, uptown arrangement with organ, grand piano and electric guitar (two in fact), and brings in the Staples, with Mavis taking verse two and Pops verse three. With the Staples on board, The Weight became emblematic of all that was best about The Band, and not just in musical terms. As Greil Marcus and Barney Hoskyns have noted, this performance emphasises the “community” and “plurality” of The Band’s music: “when the group took the stage with the Staple Singers, they brought together men and women, black and white, young and old, north and south”.
Whether these thoughts occured consciously to those taking part, who can say (though Robertson has always appeared to be aware of his music’s place in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, so I daresay the thought has crossed his mind). But the point is, while the moment may have been premeditated, the power of the effect makes that entirely irrelevant. Hearing – and even more impressively, seeing – Mavis Staples completely lose herself in the song towards its end, ad libbing, clapping and whispering “beautiful” as the echoes of last harmonised “aah” fade away, who could disagree with her?
Ultimately, The Last Waltz is better watched as a movie than listened to as an album. As a document of what became of those Woodstock-era stars, it’s invaluable, and as a way to understand the dynamics and interplay of live performance, there’s nothing that touches it. It looks and sounds great, too. But there’s no denying that The Band were on the downslope by this time, that Richard Manuel’s voice was getting haggard and that his drinking was doing visible damage to his body**, and that, simply, the world of music had moved on and The Band were yesterday’s men.
All-star singalong finale: l-r Dr John, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson (organ), Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Ronnie Hudson, Ringo Starr (drums)
*Of course, I do know why Diamond was there: Robbie Robertson produced his Beautiful Noise album, and presumably Robertson, Bill Graham or both felt Diamond would be good box office. But he’s so out of place. It kills me that George Harrison (who championed The Band in the press endlessly) or the Grateful Dead (who played with them at Watkins Glen, Woodstock and the Festival Express tour, and who were back in SF having finished a tour the previous month) weren’t there, while Neil Diamond was.
**Robertson’s rationalisation for ending The Band as a touring unit was that “the road” was so demanding as a way of life that it can kill you. He talks in the film about the “great ones taken by the road” (I may be paraphrasing and that might not be an exact quote, but it’s very much the gist).
Unfortunately, that doesn’t accord with his stance a few years earlier when he had to magic the Moondog Matinee project out of thin air to stop his bandmates killing themselves through drink and drugs in their downtime. What did he think Manuel and Danko would do if no longer part of an active, touring rock group? He must have known that they’d form little pickup bands and go straight back out. Which is what they did. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Robertson, a), just didn’t want to be in The Band any more and, b), if something bad did happen with Richard or Rick, he didn’t want it to happen on his watch.