The Last Waltz
The Last Waltz was a concert by the rock group The Band, held on American Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1976, at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. The Last Waltz was advertised as The Band's "farewell concert appearance", and the concert saw The Band joined by more than a dozen special guests, including Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan,Emmylou Harris, Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters, Ronnie Wood, Bobby Charles, Neil Young, Neil Diamond and The Staple Singers. The musical director for the concert was The Band's original record producer, John Simon.
The event was filmed by director Martin Scorsese and made into a documentary of the same name, released in 1978. Jonathan Taplin, who was The Band's tour manager from 1969-1972 and later produced Scorsese's film Mean Streets, suggested that Scorsese would be the ideal director for the project and introduced Robbie Robertson and Scorsese. Taplin was the Executive Producer of The Last Waltz. The film features concert performances, scenes shot on a studio soundstage and interviews by Scorsese with members of The Band. A triple-LP soundtrack recording, produced by Simon and Rob Fraboni, was issued in 1978. The film was released on DVD in 2002 as was a four-CD box set of the concert and related studio recordings.
The Last Waltz is hailed as one of the greatest concert films ever made, although it has been criticized for its focus on Robertson.
Beginning with a title card saying "This film should be played loud!" the concert documentary covers The Band's influences and career. The group—Rick Danko on bass, violin and vocals;Levon Helm on drums, mandolin and vocals; Garth Hudson on keyboards and saxophone; songwriter Richard Manuel on keyboards, percussion and vocals; and guitarist, songwriter and occasional vocalist Robbie Robertson—started out in the late 1950s as a rock and roll band led by Ronnie Hawkins, and Hawkins himself appears as the first guest. The group backed Bob Dylan in the 1960s, and Dylan performs with The Band towards the end of the concert.
Various other artists perform with The Band: Muddy Waters, Paul Butterfield, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Dr. John, Neil Diamond and Eric Clapton. Genres covered includeblues, rock and roll, New Orleans R&B, Tin Pan Alley pop, folk and rock. Further genres are explored in segments filmed later on a sound stage with Emmylou Harris (country) and The Staple Singers (soul and gospel).
The film begins with The Band performing the last song of the evening, their cover version of the Marvin Gaye hit "Don't Do It", as an encore. The film then flashes back to the beginning of the concert, and follows it more or less chronologically. The Band is backed by a large horn section and performs many of its hit songs, including "Up on Cripple Creek", "Stage Fright" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down".
The live songs are interspersed with studio segments and interviews with director Martin Scorsese, in which The Band's members reminisce about the group's history. Robertson talks about Hudson joining the band on the condition that the other members pay him $10 a week each for music lessons. The classically trained Hudson could then tell his parents that he was a music teacher instead of merely a rock and roll musician. Robertson also describes the surrealexperience of playing in a burnt-out nightclub owned by Jack Ruby.
Manuel recalls that some of the early names for The Band included "The Honkies" and "The Crackers". Because they were simply referred to as "The Band" by Dylan and their friends and neighbors in Woodstock, New York, they figured that was just what they would call themselves.
Danko is seen giving Scorsese a tour of The Band's Shangri-La studio, and he plays the director of a recording of "Sip the Wine", a track from his then-forthcoming 1977 solo album Rick Danko.
A recurring theme brought up in the interviews with Robertson is that the concert marks an end of an era for The Band, that after 16 years on the road, it is time for a change. "That's what The Last Waltz is: 16 years on the road. The numbers start to scare you," Robertson tells Scorsese. "I mean, I couldn't live with 20 years on the road. I don't think I could even discuss it."
Promoted and organized by Bill Graham, whose home turf was Winterland and who had a long association with The Band, the concert was an elaborate affair. Starting at 5:00 p.m., the audience of 5,000 was served turkey dinners. There was ballroom dancing with music by the Berkeley Promenade Orchestra. Poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Michael McClure gave readings.
The Band started its concert at around 9:00 p.m., opening with "Up on Cripple Creek," during the wind-down of which vocalist/drummer Levon Helm called out a humorous "I sure wish I could yodel!" This was followed by 11 more of The Band's most popular songs, including "The Shape I'm In," "This Wheel's on Fire" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." They were backed by a large horn section with charts arranged by Allen Toussaint and other musicians.
They were then joined by a succession of guest artists, starting with Ronnie Hawkins. As The Hawks, The Band served as Hawkins' backing band in the early 1960s. Dr. John took a seat at the piano for his signature song, "Such a Night." He then switched to guitar and joined Bobby Charles on "Down South in New Orleans."
A blues set was next with harmonica player Paul Butterfield, Muddy Waters, pianist Pinetop Perkins and Eric Clapton. As Clapton was taking his first solo on "Further on Up the Road," his guitar strap came loose. Clapton said "Rob!" and Robertson picked up the solo without missing a beat.
Neil Young followed, singing "Helpless" with backing vocals by Joni Mitchell who remained off stage. According to Robertson's commentary on The Last Waltz DVD, this was so her later appearance in the show would have more of an impact. Mitchell came on after Young and sang three songs, two with the backing of Dr. John on congas.
Neil Diamond was next, introducing his "Dry Your Eyes" by saying, "I'm only gonna do one song, but I'm gonna do it good." Robertson had also produced Diamond's album Beautiful Noise the same year and co-wrote "Dry Your Eyes," which during the concert he hailed as a "great song." In his autobiography, Levon Helm was critical of the inclusion of Diamond, not discerning any musical connection to The Band. Reportedly, when Diamond came off stage he remarked to Dylan, "Follow that," to which Dylan responded, "What do I have to do, go on stage and fall asleep?"
Canadians Young and Mitchell were then invited back out to help The Band perform "Acadian Driftwood," an ode to the Acadians of Canadian history. The Band then performed a short set of some more of its songs before Bob Dylancame on stage to lead his former backing band through four songs.
The Band and all its guests, with the addition of Ringo Starr on drums and Ronnie Wood on guitar, then sang "I Shall Be Released" as a closing number. Dylan, who wrote the song, and Manuel, whose falsetto rendition had made the song famous on Music from Big Pink, shared lead vocals, although Manuel cannot be clearly seen in the film and switched between his normal and falsetto voices between verses.
Two loose jam sessions then formed. "Jam #1" featured The Band minus Richard Manuel playing with Neil Young, Ronnie Wood and Eric Clapton on guitar, Dr. John on piano, Paul Butterfield on harmonica and Ringo Starr on drums. It was followed by "Jam #2" with the same personnel minus Robertson and Danko. Stephen Stills, who showed up late, took a guitar solo and Carl Radle joined on bass.
The Band then came out at around 2:15 a.m. to perform an encore, "Don't Do It". It was the last time the group performed under the name "The Band" with its classic lineup. The five joined stage at a Rick Danko concert in 1978. The Band reformed without Robertson in 1980 and headlined at The Roxy in Los Angeles with Scottish group Blue supporting, guests were Dr John and Joe Cocker. Rick Danko later performed at various LA venues along with Blue and it was at his invitation they recorded their 'LA Sessions' album at Shangri-La Studios.