THE BAND: THE LAST WALTZ (1978)
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.
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