The Last Waltz, held in San Fran on Thanksgiving day of 1976 was obviously something truly special. What I would give to be able to of been alive in that era. Advertised as the farewell concert of the group, "The Band", the concert was filmed by Martin Scorsese and later turned in to a documentary, and man is it awesome.
Helm on drums, Robertson on guitar, Danko on bass, Manuel on piano.
For those of you reading this who have no clue who the Band was, they were a Canadian-American rock group that was formerly know as "The Hawks" as they came together while backing rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins from 1958-1963. After separating from The Hawk, they were hired by Bob Dylan for his 66 World Tour. Members included Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson. Helm went on say that because they were always known as "The Band" to different front men they worked with, the name just kind of stuck. Dylan continued to collaborate with "The Band" throughout his career. The group was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 89 and The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked them among the 100 greatest artists of all time, and in 2008 they received the Grammy's lifetime achievement award. The song "The Weight" was also listed in Rolling Stone as the 41st best song of all time. So, there ya go. They were kind of a big deal.
Now, that brings us to 1976. The Last Waltz was an elaborate ball room concert held right the middle of the epicenter of rock and roll culture. Scorsese immortalized the performance in this self titled documentary. More than a dozen celebrity guests performed with the group, including Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Emmylou Harris, Eric Clapton and of course, Neil Young.
Van Morrison, Dylan, and Robertson
The film begins with The Band covering a version of Marvin Gaye's "Dont you do it" as an encore performance, and they kill it. They also perform hits including "Up on Cripple Creek" and "The Night They Drove Ole Dixie Down". Scorsese focuses primarily on Robertson, a move that was largely critisized at the time, but I like it. Robbie Robertson is my favorite, or at least, a close tie with Levon Helm. Even though I will say, when Levon Helm does vocals on "The Night they drove ole Dixie Down" I always get chill bumps, and I've heard the song at least a couple thousand times. One of the main themes of the documentary is the fact they the band has been touring together for 16 years, and they all feel it's time for a change. Scorsese chronicles their start, from playing in dive bars, their times on the road, and even (In Robertson's account) playing in a club in Texas where a unlikely bar brawl erupted, only to find out later that it was owned by Jack Ruby. (Go ahead and google Jack Ruby. I know you probably are.)
My favorite performance in the documentary is Neil Young, singing Helpless with backup vocals by Joni Mitchell. I may be a little biased considering the fact by the age of 10, my dad had me singing "The Needle and The Damage Done", and "Cowgirl in the Sand." The Harvest album is one the favorites in my vinyl collection, and half of the reason Kyle and I are married today was because of our mutual agreement that Neil Young's talent is unprecedented. The segment was later edited due to the fact the Young has a giant glob of cocaine hanging from his nose. Scorsese later admitted that drugs were available in large quantities during the concert. You can obviously tell from watching, a lot of them were heavily influenced, but they are incredibly on point. Nevertheless, I guess you expect that from a bunch of music legends all glommed together in one banquet hall.
Muddy Waters singing "Mannish Boy."
I love Van Morrison too, and of course, come on, Muddy Waters? Seeing them all mesh and play together is special. Musicians today, are in my opinion, lacking in a lot of what this group had. Mainly, talent, I suppose. This was a time were auto-tune was non existent, and to be famous you had to actually be an artist. You wrote your own songs, played an instrument and, possibly, could sing. This era was definitive of rock and roll, and there is a reason that people in my generation STILL listen to it and regard it as unparalleled. That's because, in large part, it was. I feel like that it was an era in music that is never coming back. I am not a music critic, and I write solely based on my own opinion, but I would 10-1 rather listen to albums from this genre, and this time. You can just feel every note oozing right out your pores. Man, these guys had it going on. You can't tell me you receive the same feeling from the majority of today's popular music as the way you feel when you listen to Van Morrison's "Caravan" or Rick Danko on vocals on "It Makes No Difference." Maybe I am romanticizing as usual, but damn, even cynics have to admit that the opening of "Helpless" can reduce you to tears. "They've got it now, Robbie."
The film has been hailed critically for generations. The Chicago Tribune called it "the best rock concert film ever made....and maybe the best rock movie period." Many praised the performance by Muddy Waters and the "blistering if not messy" guitar duet by Robertson and Eric Clapton. For me, I've always equated this film with rock and roll legend. Could you even fathom being at a single concert and witnessing the likes of Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan and Neil Young? And THOSE WERE THE GUESTS! I think I would probably just fall over dead from all of the fan-girling that would have been going on. Even watching the film today, I can't imagine how amazing it would have been to have been there, in that corner of the world in 1976. The stuff of pure magic.
If you haven't seen this film. Go here, buy it, and watch it. If you think you like good music, you'll thank me. If you don't like it, send it back and pick up a hobby you can truly understand.