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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Band: The Last Waltz


1) Theme From The Last Waltz; 2) Up On Cripple Creek; 3) The Shape I'm In; 4) It Makes No Difference; 5) Who Do You Love; 6) Life Is A Carnival; 7) Such A Night; 8) The Weight; 9) Down South In New Orleans; 10) This Wheel's On Fire; 11) Mystery Train; 12) Caldonia; 13) Mannish Boy; 14) Stage Fright; 15) Rag Mama Rag; 16) All Our Past Times; 17) Further On Up The Road; 18) Ophelia; 19) Helpless; 20) Four Strong Winds; 21) Coyote; 22) Shadows And Light; 23) Furry Sings The Blues; 24) Acadian Driftwood; 25) Dry Your Eyes; 26) The W. S. Walcott Medicine Show; 27) Tura Lura Lural; 28) Caravan; 29) The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down; 30) The Genetic Method / Chest Fever; 31) Baby, Let Me Follow You Down; 32) Hazel; 33) I Don't Believe You; 34) Forever Young; 35) Baby, Let Me Follow You Down (reprise); 36) I Shall Be Released; 37) Jam #1; 38) Jam #2; 39) Don't Do It; 40) Greensleeves; 41) The Well; 42) Evangeline; 43) Out Of The Blue; 44) The Weight; 45) The Last Waltz Refrain; 46) The Last Waltz Theme; 47*) King Harvest (Has Surely Come); 48*) Tura Lura Lural; 49*) Caravan; 50*) Such A Night; 51*) Rag Mama Rag; 52*) Mad Waltz; 53*) The Last Waltz Refrain; 54*) The Last Waltz Theme.

Unless you are a complete novice in this whole «rock» business, there is probably no need to in­troduce The Last Waltz — one of the most well-known and successful, image-wise, publicity projects in the history of rock'n'roll show business. With Martin Scorsese and Robbie Robertson, two of the most ambitious procreators in their respective spheres of business, at the helm of the project, it quickly became much more than a «farewell concert»: more likely, the «farewell con­cert to end all other farewell concerts», The Greatest Goodbye & Thanks For All The Good Times Ever Bidden In The History Of Mankind.

In fact, as far as the legend goes, everybody else in The Band was pretty much taken aback at the proposition — nobody except for Robbie really had it in mind to quit the touring circuit, and many thought (correctly) that the man's super-ego finally got to his brain core, and there he was, eager to kill off the hen with the golden eggs for the sake of a bet-it-all gesture of grandiosity. The only reason they all had to go along with the plan was that they didn't have much choice at the time: without Robbie as chief songwriter, primary organizer, and activity center, The Band would not be able to exist anyway (or, at least, that is what they thought back then: the future would prove them partially — but only partially — wrong). So everybody had to bring along their own hemp rope and their own bar of soap, and then Scorsese filmed them all committing group suicide on November 25, 1976, at the Winterland Ballroom.

The ultimate irony of it all, of course, is that, for the most part, Robbie was absolutely right in his decision. Yes, it could be that The Band still had one or two good, even borderline great, albums left in them, but as good as Northern Lights was, it did not add much new substance to their legacy, and the upcoming era of punk, new wave and synth-pop would have inevitably swallowed them up anyway, as it did with every other roots-rock band in existence. In fact, the decision to pull the plug on The Band was almost prophetic — The Last Waltz was held the same year that The Ramones was released. In 1976, there was still some space under the sun left for The Band; in 1977, there already wouldn't be anything but a small dark corner.

The real depth of Robbie's cunning, however, lies not in the very fact, but in the scope of the con­cert. On the surface, an innocent, friendly idea to invite a few guest star colleagues for The Band's last concert might seem just like that — just an innocent, friendly idea. In reality, what Robertson and Scorsese cooked up was nothing less than a grand eulogy for the whole vast field. The very name — The Last Waltz — is telling enough, but if it were allowed to drag on for a little longer, chances are we'd see something like: The Last Waltz — The Day That Music Died, And The Greatest Band In The World Became The Gravedigger.

Clearly, the guest selection was far from randomized. Early rock'n'roll heroes, including The Band's own original mentor (Ronnie Hawkins). Even earlier blues patriarchs (Muddy Waters). The world of light jazz and New Orleans happiness, represented by Dr. John. The world of elec­tric blues rock, represented by Eric Clapton. Blue-eyed soul in the guise of Van Morrison. Neil Young and Joni Mitchell — the male and female emissaries, respectively, of the deep folk tradi­tion. Mainstream glitzy pop, represented by Neil Diamond (who, despite all the problems people sometimes have with his apparition, really does belong in this context). And, of course, Bob Dy­lan himself stepping out to close the show with ʽI Shall Be Releasedʼ, a song about imminent death and sweet redemption. And in and out and in and out of it all, The Band, The Band, and once again The Band, acting as that one particular glue pack to hold it all in place — «One Band to rule them all, One Band to find them, One Band to bring them all and on that stage to bind them, in the Land of Winter where seven 35 mm cameras have been installed».

But here is the last and ultimate moment of irony — even once you understand the setup and how they were all framed, there is no way, really, that you can stop watching The Last Waltz or lis­te­ning to the respective LPs. Because on a pure, simple, song-by-song basis, this was a damn fine concert, and one that all the members of The Band enjoyed giving, even despite being dragged into this by force; whatever their feelings towards Robertson might that been, on that particular evening, November 25, 1976, deep inside their hearts, they must have been pleased to be «The One Band», and took to the task with all due responsibility. Maybe even with extra responsibility — most of the songs are played so close to the originals that it makes the results a little less fun than on Rock Of Ages — but there is no questioning the effectiveness of the locked-in-a-groove thing, and that is what makes a live Band show really count.

Like Woodstock or other such «legendary» events, The Last Waltz, in audio form, has gone through a large number of incarnations over the years — beginning as a 3-LP set, then issued as a 2-CD set with a few bonus tracks, finally, as part of Rhino Records' extensive reissue program, appearing as a huge 4-CD boxset with 24 previously unreleased tracks. I definitely suggest going along with the latest and largest version: half of the last CD, featuring alternate versions from re­hearsal takes, might be expendable, but the rest conveys the real scope and sequencing of the show much better than the early truncated set. I mean, given that the idea was to make it BIG, one might as well go along with it — even including the two instrumental jams at the end of the show. Plus, it is always nice to get three Joni Mitchell songs instead of one, and a fun rendition of Louis Jordan's ʽCaldoniaʼ out of the mouth of Muddy Waters.

Discussing The Last Waltz in terms of high- and lowlights is useless: there is so much material here that the discussion can take forever, and none of it matters anyway. The Band end up perfor­ming 99% of their hits, including three blistering performances of songs from Northern Lights (ʽOpheliaʼ, in particular, is so tight-bolted that it ends up rocking real hard, despite having no trademarks of a hard rocker whatsoever), and none of their misses (although, strange enough, the ʽGenetic Method / Chest Feverʼ section is grossly abridged on all versions of the album, with just a few little bits of the former and a brief instrumental run through the latter — probably that usual trick where an audio equivalent of a video release has to have one or two songs missing or gross­ly abridged, and vice versa, pressing the audiophile into joining the videophile, and vice ver­sa).

The guest stars are all of the highest order (well, maybe bar «The Hawk», who merely adds a bit of barking and growling to the tight jam The Band got going on ʽWho Do You Loveʼ, and Neil Diamond, whose ʽDry Your Eyesʼ is really a generic folk anthem and not too diagnostic... maybe ʽKentucky Womanʼ would have been a more telling choice) — particular kudos goes to Clapton, whose sparring match with Robbie on ʽFurther On Up The Roadʼ prompted Eric into launching in one of his fiercest, flashiest solo passages at the end; and to Joni Mitchell for the gorgeous back­ing vocals, sung offstage to Neil Young's ʽHelplessʼ while Neil himself, according to reports, was floating in coke heaven (not that it impeded the performance in any way). As for the rest — just go see it and hear it for yourself. One might love The Last Waltz, or one might despise The Last Waltz — Robbie and Martin ensured that The Last Waltz itself cares about your feelings little more than the Tower of Pisa or the theory of evolution.

One special note must be made about «The Last Waltz Suite» — a little special extra that The Band made specifically for the audio variant of the experience. This is a rather strangely sequen­ced concoction of mostly newly written numbers that supposedly run the gamut from blues-rock (ʽThe Wellʼ) to country-folk (ʽEvangelineʼ, with Emmylou Harris as guest vocalist) to pop balladry (ʽOut Of The Blueʼ) to gospel (a re-recording of ʽThe Weightʼ with The Staple Singers adding «authenticity») to classical-lite (ʽThe Last Waltz Themeʼ itself, sort of a «Johann Strauss Jr. meets The Third Man Theme» thing). The new numbers are not particularly memorable, and overall, the effort seems so slight in comparison to the powerful live show that this «studio epi­log» feels like a misfire — even if it does offer the fan a few last minute new compositions, and even if the resulting addition of Emmylou Harris to the roster is a good thing in itself.

But a quibble is but a quibble, and it does not in the least dim the general effect. The Last Waltz is a grand experience, and it does close the book not only on The Band, but on the heyday of tasteful, intelligently crafted roots-rock as well — blame it on Robbie to have collected 70% inte­rest for the task of assisting in the closure, but in a way, he only stated and logged the inevitable. And that is just the philosophical underbelly of it — and then there are the gut feelings, which simply state that The Last Waltz is a lot of fun for all those who like The Band and the guests of The Band, and that there is no way the album could be deprived of a thumbs up, be it the 3-LP, the 2-CD, or the 4-CD incarnation. One Neil Diamond don't spoil no show, anyway.

Check "The Last Waltz (4CD edition)" on Amazon
Check "The Last Waltz (MP3)" on Amazon


  1. 'I Shall Be Released' even features a Beatle and a Rolling Stone joining in. How cool is that ?

    1. Yes, except it makes no difference - and, come to think of it, that's a good thing: imagine Ringo or Ronnie Wood taking lead vocals on one of the verses!

  2. George, I think you place just a bit too much emphasis on the supposed "punk" revolution of the later 70's. The truth of the matter is, 1976 -in America- was the year of "Frampton Comes Alive". 1977 was the year of "Hotel California", "Saturday Night Fever", and "Rumours". Groups like Led Zeppelin, Yes, and Black Sabbath were celebrating their 10th anniversaries around this time and going strong well into the early 80's. It was certainly not punk rock that shut down the momentum of the "dinosaurs" in the 80's. It was the simple change of generations and a move toward the "new wave" (goth, New Romantics, Devo, etc.), rap, and post-disco dance music (whatever genre Madonna and her ilk fit into). The Band could easily have survived all of this, just as assuredly as Neil Young. Critical reception was always on their side, no matter the periodic rise and fall of their sales figures. Robbie Robertson made his decision to end the Band to suit his own agenda. We've yet to see a shred of evidence that points to the contrary.

    1. Did I say "punk"? I said "punk, new wave, and synth-pop", meaning exactly what you mean: a general shift of values and styles that ended the heyday of the "dinosaurs". Neil Young is a bad example - he was one of the few critical/commercial survivors, but only due to his exceptional chameleonic skills that 99% of the other "roots-rockers" completely lacked. Even if The Band had survived into the early Eighties, it would not have been the same Band anyway, and it is not highly likely that it could have been a better Band.

    2. If I remember correctly, Robbie Robertson had some MTV airings and had a decent late eighties - early nineties career. Not like Neil Young, but he was quite present.

  3. What an amazingly grandiose to bow out... until they sort of came back!

    I'm not so sure about Neil Diamond or Joni Mitchell. Canadian icon of musical icons, Gordon Lightfoot, was in attendance too but wouldn't go on. That would have made it even more grandiose, and Stills was there too doing nothing!

  4. "no way, really, that you can stop ..."
    As a teenager - I was 14 when The Last Waltz was released - I had no problem with this. So I tried again; after the stupid 3+ minutes of the introductory theme song I had trouble not clicking away Up on Cripple Creek within two minutes. I thought I could at least wait for the instrumental section, which did not come. At the 7th minute of the album I gave up. What a borefest.
    Back in 1978 I listened to Dutch radio all day. I can't remember The Last Waltz making much impact; I clearly remember Gloria Gaynor, KC and the Sunshine Band and Donna Summer to name a few I'd rather forget. We teenagers had other troubles back then: punk, ABBA, would hardrock and progrock survive and the likes.
    Yeah, never cared more about The Last Waltz than The Last Waltz cared about me. And if my memory serves me well most of the rest of The Netherlands did neither.
    The Overrated Band.

    1. The Band were never for teenage audiences, nor really for audiences outside of North America. They encapsulated a heavily idealized nostalgia (the century between the American Civil War and World War II), and did it exceedingly well. In a sense, they were the very first post-rock band that ever existed. For all of their pompous and arrogant grandeur, they still managed to exude a certain natural charm and majesty - that is, to audiences who understood the cultural context in which they operated. Put simply, the reason the Band never made it in continental Europe is the same reason groups like Focus or Golden Earring achieved only limited success in America - the cultural connection was lacking, and there was no deeper bond of understanding possible once the initial "novelty" appeal wore off.

  5. IIRC, the songs Joni Mitchell performs are from her superb album "Hejira"; at least Furry Sings the Blues is. And IIRC, Neil Young played harp in the studio version of Furry. Would have been great if she could have brought Jaco Pastorius along.