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The Band: The Last Waltz

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The Band

It’s funny how time flies even when your not having as much fun as you’d like. My wife brought me home a present last night, a copy of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz. I flipped over the DVD cover to check out the rest of the package and saw the date: 1978, 27 years ago.

I guess somewhere in my mind I knew that it had to be that long ago, but it was still shocking to do the math. I still think of “The Band” as one of my favourite groups and to realize that they had stopped officially playing that long ago sort of took me by surprise.

You see that was the premise of The Last Waltz. The guys were burning out from being on the road for close to twenty years and this was going to be their final hurrah. They had started playing back in the late fifties with Ronnie Hawkins at the old Nickelodeon bar on Yonge St. in Toronto. Four Canadian kids, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel plus one Arkansas ex patriot Levon Helm.

They had been promised not much money but “more pussy than Frank Sinatra” by Romping Ronnie as enticement for playing in the juke joints of Ontario and New York. Initially they were called the Hawks as have been all bands ever since that play with Ronnie, but that was changed to “The Band” when they began playing with Bob Dylan in 1965.

They called themselves that because that’s what they were, the band that played behind the front man. They went from being Ronnie’s band to Dylan’s band. Robbie was the lead guitar player, Rick bassist, Garth was on organ, Richard Manuel piano, and Levon Helm drums.

They were the band on Bob Dylan’s infamous 1965 tour where he was booed off stages across England and North America for plugging in a electric guitar. (a person I know who was at that Newport Folk Festival in 65, says the problem wasn’t that the people didn’t like the music, but the sound system was so bad that those not sitting in the first two rows only heard a garbled mess of noise) Here they were on their first big break playing for more than drunks in bars and they were getting booed at every show.

It’s funny how we now think of albums like Highway 61 Revisited as classic, but it was the material from that album that was the cause of all the fuss. People wouldn’t even listen they were so irate. It seems the only good that came out of that British tour, if rumours are to be believed, was Dylan smoking up with The Beetles.

It was on their return to the States that The Band first began recording their own material. Part of the reason being that after Dylan nearly killed himself in a motorcycle accident he went into seclusion and they were at loose ends. It has been suggested that perhaps the accident was not nearly as severe as has been thought but he played it up to get away from the madness that had been spawned by him going electric.

No matter what the reason they were without a front man for the first time since they began playing together. As accomplished musicians they must have always felt some desire to “do their own thing” but the opportunity had never been there until now.

So they rented this funny pink house up in Woodstock New York and the rest, as they say, is history. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, “The Weight”, “Crippled Creek” and other classic rock tunes were written in that house. Dylan joined them and the resulting tapes were bootlegged for a while, than they edited them up and released them as the great Bob Dylan and The Band double album The Basement Tapes.

Interestingly enough that was one of only two albums ever officially released as Bob Dylan and The Band, the other being a double live album featuring one disc of The Band and one of them backing up Dylan. They wouldn’t appear in public together again until The Last Waltz.

That’s what the concert and the movie were about after all. A chance for them to get together with people they played with and some of the friends they had made over the years. Sing a few songs, and be “The Band” for some famous front people one last time before packing it in and going their separate ways.

From their very beginnings there was Ronnie Hawkins clutching his heart and bouncing around the stage. Joni Mitchell elegant and cool, singing on her own, and than sitting backstage harmonizing with Neil Young on “Helpless”. The sound of his eerie falsetto and her soprano mingling as they sing about Northern Ontario still sends shivers up my spine.

There are moments of absurdity: Neil Diamond looking like some lounge lizard who got lost on his way to Las Vegas, and moments of awe: Muddy Watters singing “Mannish Boy”, Eric Clapton’s famously starting a guitar solo and his strap breaks and Robbie Robertson picks up the solo without missing a note. But no matter who’s playing in front of them “The Band” relentlessly proves they were the best at what they did.

On occasion Scorsese takes the cameras away from the live concert and onto a sound stage. Emmylou Harris joins the boys to sing “Evangeline”, her sweet voice providing a delicate counterpoint to Rick Danko’s gravel. “The Weight” becomes the gospel tune it was always meant to be when The Staple Singers bring their soulful presence to bear and let their voices soar.

Back on stage things are starting to draw to a close with Bob Dylan making his long awaited appearance. Looking relaxed and at ease he runs through “Forever Young’ smiling and nodding at people in the audience who he knows. Then suddenly it’s over. Everyone comes on stage, with Ringo and Ron Wood putting in appearances to help out, they join together to sing Dylan’s anthem “I Shall Be Released.”
I Shall Be Released
“The Band” was definitely a group that was the sum of all it’s parts. Of all of them only Robbie Robertson has enjoyed the kind of success as an individual performer that he did as a member of the group. Richard Manuel ended up committing suicide because of depression, assumed to have been brought on by the dissolution of his career. Every so often some of the survivors attempt to reform for a gig or two, but usually it’s without Robbie Robertson.

This has to be one of the best concert movies I have ever seen. One thing that was of interest for me was that the last time I saw the movie Woodstock I happened to notice the name of the 1st assistant director; Martin Scorcese. He seems to have a history of being involved with notable concert films.

In September of this year on P.B.S. his three hour plus documentary on Bob Dylan will be airing. Interestingly enough it focuses on the years 1961- 1965. So we will get to see footage of “The Band” at hard at work doing what they became famous for. Making others look good

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • BandFan

    First off let me say this. The Last Waltz enhanced version DVD is everything a Band DVD probably should be, high quality, a bunch of features, and is a snap shot of a time long ago in many minds and unknown to many more. We (the consumer) are indebted to the producers of the enhanced product. The DVD is well worth the price, is a historical document, and again is top-shelf. Thank you…. Now on to my review…

    To have been a part of that era, films like this certainly document the fact that the 60’s really didn’t end until 1974 or 1975, perhaps 1976. The Sunset Strip scene had moved on, Haight-Ashbury was over, but as a whole there was quite a bit of the 60’s left. The inertia of the period spilled over into the 70’s. When the pivotal recording groups started breaking up and icon’s started dying, people began to realize that there was a change occurring. In the halcyon days of the ‘60s, perhaps we didn’t recognize what change really was (we were young), but after the death of the big-3 (Joplin, Morrison, Hendrix) and the Beatles’ breakup, what else could happen? Dylan was hiding out, Duane Allman was gone, and Barry Oakley by this point had also passed. CSN&Y couldn’t get along anymore. Musically all the heroes of the counter-culture were fading, or had broken up and moved along. The Stone’s and Led Zeppelin (recognized as a 70’s band) were still touring (they ALWAYS did). People who migrated to the happening spots on the map were returning to their homes throughout America to live out their lives in mediocrity. It’s weird to think of those times in retrospect, Scorsese may have captured the last chapter of the 60’s in The Last Waltz. In the movie “Woodstock” the Hendrix scene looks like a prophetic means to the end. While “Woodstock” in general, and the Star Spangled Banner scene in particular; showed America ‘s flower people at the beginning of the end, Robertson, alludes to a like similarity in reference to Band’s Last Performance or as he put it “The Last Waltz.” Scorsese beautifully captures the capitulation of just one of the remaining symbols of the 60’s music scene. Looking back at a musical who’s-who list, the Band in all probability didn’t hold a pinnacle position, but they were very prominent and influential among musicians and listeners alike.

    Martin Scorsese’s upgraded and enhanced Version of The Last Waltz, showed several things that stuck out, and subsequently started questions rolling in my mind. First (and these might not be important to some), how much bass did Rick Danko actually play? He is obviously not playing on the Clapton section; there is no way his notes correspond with what is actually being heard. In fact the bass lines being played are so similar to Carl Radle’s style that, hark, Carl Radle must have been back stage playing the Fender Electric Bass. Okay – so I start watching Danko’s fingering, slip-sliding around on the fretboard, he’s not playing! Slip sliding hand movements don’t sound like articulated notes. I think he’s faking it! Quite a bit, in a number of places. There must have been a double, backstage. Why? Danko was certainly a proficient bassist! Another point is that Danko is playing a Gibson Ripper Bass, which doesn’t sound like a Fender Jazz Bass, yet I’m hearing a Fender Bass, I could be wrong, but the Clapton segment I would bet money that Danko is NOT playing the bass part. Hmmm Scorsese may have taken some liberties with the editing. Or, Danko is not playing all of the bass all of the time. I find it odd, as an inconsistency within the event. Even more so, I was actually surprised that the Band would allow or stoop to such shenanigans. But perhaps it was conditional to Clapton’s appearance that Radle would handle the bass chores and not Danko. Was Radle on stage, or back stage? Scorsese doesn’t pan the cameras and reveal an answer.

    Alas, Claptons bassist Carl Radle shows up at the end playing Bass on an extended jam. Tulsa born Carl Radle was a bassist in a class by himself, enjoyed a long association with the rock genre and was a seasoned veteran of stage and studio. Carl Radle played on many pivotal recordings of the period, George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, and Bangaladesh. Many of Leon Russell’s releases, early J.J. Cale and of course Clapton; the Layla album being one of the best examples of Radle’s talent. I underscore the importance of Radle at the event, and wonder if he played a more significant role than would generally be supposed?

    Additionally (concerning the Clapton segment) Robertson hacks out a lame solo in response to Clapton’s wizardry. Robertson’s guitar “formula” certainly worked in the context of the Band, but “a man’s gots-ta know his limitations!” If anything, Robertson’s response to Clapton’s call showcased Robertson’s narrow guitar vocabulary. Which really should bring out the fact that Hudson and Helm were the backbone, and the heart of the Band, although were never given the full acknowledgment of their rightful place in annals of rock history. Musicologist would agree, but the press places (as does Scorsese) the import on Robertson. Perhaps Robertson had that effect on people.

    The cocaine booger hanging on to Neil Young’s nose hair is particularly impressive, as is the illegal smile, which couldn’t have been wiped of his face with a belt sander.

    If Clapton’s piece wasn’t trampled on by Robertson’s attempts at matching guitar solos, it would have been a high point, however, since Robertson felt the need to interfere with mastery, I would have to point towards Dr. John’s “What a Night” as dynamite. Watching Dr. John play the piano was observing virtuosity. Smooth, precise, the maestro!

    Joni Mitchell was deeply into the jazzy side of things at this point in her illustrious career and whips out a number that totally out of context with the associated R & B of the evening, while she was into pouring her little ‘ol heart out and exposing here inner most being, it’s obvious that she was boring the Band (Robertson was politely smiling), it is amusing to watch Danko checking out Mitchell’s hindquarters during the number. Garth Hudson is working some magic on the synthesizer waveforms accompanying Mitchell, and she giggles at the ability of Hudson to add very interesting keyboard lines and textures. Garth Hudson saves the number.

    The guests are great; why Neil Diamond was there I can only wonder, but his demeanor and look in that Robins-egg-blue polyester outfit came across like an Elvis; it’s oh so demi-gawd-awful.

    Van Morrison is charged-up and looking svelte, it also obvious that Neil Diamond and Van Morrison shop off the same clothes rack.

    The Staples were absolutely fantastic; their segment was produced in the studio and edited into the production, as was Emmy Lou Harris.

    The Dylan sighting produced a lot of hype, three songs, none recorded with the Band. The old man could have at least belted out “Maggie’s Farm” or “Like a Rolling Stone,” or some number that showed association and was something that the Band had actually recorded with him. While Dylan, it may be argued was instrumental in bringing the Band out to the public, the Band also kept Dylan’s career moving through sheer musicianship during the Woodstock years. Dylan was much better in Harrison’s Bangladesh. The advent of the Dylan segment precludes the bummer of the extended jam. Ugh! But it’s not Scorsese’s fault, it was what happened, and he just documented it.

    The extended jam begins, with a number of folks on stage trying to make something happen. Hudson is deeply into whatever he was into and squiggles around with sonic texture and a deeply convicted fugue; one only he could understand. Clapton whispers something in Ron Wood’s ear then heads backstage enduring only a couple of minutes with Garth Hudson’s predominance on the stage. Leaving Ron Wood hanging, Clapton probably needed to “re-energize” if you know what I mean. Oh and look, Carl Radle is holding down the bass line on Danko’s bass! The camera’s are running but overheating by this point and are shut down. The jam continues (audio only), for the duration of the documentary.

    It’s a melancholy look back, in the history of popular music; the Band was great, think back on the catalog and anyone would agree. Sadly this film comes across like a “Let It Be,” the music is over, there is contempt among the members, they put a good face on it, but it was finished. The Band’s individuals will never match the Band as a whole. In some respects documentaries like this only display the withering death of a once infused, synergized effort.

    Summarizing I would call this Great stuff, but it is apparent that some liberties were taken in regards to what actually transpired and what the viewer is presented with, both visually and aurally.

    Interestingly, the interviews were shot after the event. So the lads are still together for a while, but apart. It’s over.

    Later Levon Helm later would write that he harbors (still) quite a bit of resentment concerning the documentary in general and Robertson in particular, and yes Robertson is the cute media darling who enjoys the attention and plays up to it. I guess I’ll have to get a read on what this production meant to Helm. I walked away from this film torn, what was in my minds eye a great band had been put into an ugly context. These guys were great, yet they came across like trash. I don’t know if the attitudes they displayed were part of what made me feel that way or the production pointed me into that direction. The documentary did make me realize that the 70’s really were ugly and thus the documentary made me glad the 70’s are over.

  • http://www.pippensqueak.blogspot.com gypsyman

    Rick Danko plays a Rickenboker Base throughout the concert.

  • SFC Ski

    I’d have to see the film again; Danko was known for playing Ampegs and Gibsons, not Rickenbackers. In any case, he is one of the great bass players of rock.

  • http://www.pippensqueak.blogspot.com gypsyman

    Just watched it last night. Identical to the ricky(avoiding spelling) in case under my bed…in for the weight plays fretless, Last Waltz stand up, and can’t remember what he plays on Evaginline.

    But’s it’s no wonder it didn’t sound like a fender.

  • Joey

    I checked out the Clapton segment. It doesn’t look like he’s playing, just squiggling around. Take a look, his hand positions, and plucking doesn’t begin to match what is being heard coming from the lower spectrum. Hmmm.

    But Danko is definately checking out Joni’s ass.

  • Joey

    A little googlin’

    “The Band’s albums were defined by each member- Robertson’s lyrics and guitar work, Helm’s “bayou folk” drumming and Southern voice, Manuel’s Ray Charlesesque vocals and rhythmic piano and Hudson’s arranging and his genius behind whatever he fancied playing. However, the best selling point it was Danko’s bass style that set the group apart from others. Jazzy, funky, countrified… trading in his Fender Jazz Bass for a Ampeg fretless model (and later a Gibson G-3), his bottom end was like no other.”

    The Clapton segment really looks like a G-3 (Grabber)… didn’t Gibson also make a Ripper?

  • http://blogcritics.org/archives/2004/08/03/232849.php Rodney Welch

    gypsyman — One correction. You state that The Basement Tapes was “one of only two albums ever officially released as Bob Dylan and The Band,” the other being Before the Flood. Actually, there was also the studio disc Planet Waves. Yes, the disc just says “Bob Dylan,” but his band is clearly listed as The Band.

  • WTF

    Alrighty then… Gypsyman.

    I just checked, zoomed the DVD, paused, zoomed, did all the stuff I could to verify the thread.

    Danko is playing a Gibson on the most of the live shots during the concert on the Last Waltz DVD. No question, the headstock is a Gibson, the body shape is a Gibson, and in fact… the headstock even displays the Gibson logo.

    At least on the segments I was able to watch.. (time constraint today)

    Definately a Gibson on the Clapton segment… and guess what… he really doesn’t look like he’s playing to me either… ohmygawd it’s a precursor to MillieVanillie…..

    No question.

    As for the studio stuff… it varies.

    Danko is using a standup on one tune, which I think is an Ampeg, but the body may have been modified. Could be a Univox, I’m not the expert on stand up electrics.

    There is a scroll headed electric bass he’s using on one number, which is an Ampeg, no doubt, but you knew that.

    Sorry to disappoint… If you have a Rick that looks like a Gibson G-3 it’s news to me, unless it’s a basement hybrid.

  • wheatln2

    “The Dylan sighting produced a lot of hype, three songs, none recorded with the Band. The old man could have at least belted out �Maggie�s Farm� or �Like a Rolling Stone,� or some number that showed association and was something that the Band had actually recorded with him.”

    Just an a correction to this, on the night Bob Dylan played with the Band (November 25th 1976):

    1. Baby Let Me Follow You Down (Eric von Schmidt)
    2. Hazel
    3. I Don’t Believe You
    4. Forever Young
    5. Baby Let Me Follow You Down (Eric von Schmidt)
    6. I Shall Be Released

    All of these have a lot of relevance to Dylan and the Band. Baby let me follow you down is a song that they transformed from the acoustic take on Bob’s debut album into a electric number for their infamous tour of of 65 and 66.

    Hazel was on an album they made together in 1974 called Planet Waves. This was its only performace until 1994 when it was taped but not released for MTV Unplugged.

    I don’t believe you, She acts like we never have met was another early acoustic song transformed for the full band for the 65 and 66 tours.

    Forever Young (the first song thats actually on the DVD of their performance) was on Planet Waves aswell.

    And finally, I shall be released is probably the most heavily linked song between the two, with it stemming from the Basement tapes, and featuring initially on the Band’s debut album with vocals by Richard Manuel.

  • JIM

    I WAS AT THE SHOW WHICH WAS THANKSGIVING 1976,NOT 1978..DANKO WAS PLAYING THE BASS ON THE BAND’S MATERIAL..ALOT OF IT WAS RE-RECORDED IN THE STUDIO AFTER THE ACTUAL SHOW DUE TO TECHNICAL PROBLEMS..THE SHOW WAS 3 TIMES AS LONG AS THE DVD.

  • http://freewayjam.blogspot.com uao

    God bless the Band.

    I was 14 or so when I saw The Last Waltz (a year late in ’79). I remember thinking at the time how old those guys seemed, world weary, worn, yet they were all in their 30’s.

    I caught Richard Manuel and Rick Danko together in June 1985 at Folk City in the village. Manuel looked haunted, but they played well, in time-honed precision. At that time, I remember thinking there was something eerie about them, like they weren’t quite there; they were an apparition from a different dimension– a timeless one, where “The Weight” really is 1000 years old.

    Manuel was dead the following month by suicide. Danko has also since departed.

    The 14 year old that saw the Scorcese movie had something instilled into him that day, though. Their music will live to be 1000 years old, if it isn’t already.

    However, for those who thought they didn’t quite sound as good as they should or that they didn’t come across as especially articulate, I have to concur. I guess years on the road really does take the life out of men.

  • Nom De Plume

    No great mystery regarding Danko’s bass: according to Steve Maslow, who mixed the sound for the film, “I remember one of the problems we had to deal with was that Rick Danko had all-new bass tracks, and he overdubbed them without regard to the sync fingering onscreen.”

    Also, I’ve always heard various people expressing confusion about what Neil Diamond was doing among the guests; Robbie Robertson produced Diamond’s 1976 album “Beautiful Noise”, so Diamond was actually the guest musician with which The Band had one of the most recent collaborative connections at the time of the concert.

  • Tom

    I have a copy of the last waltz soundtrack from before it was overdubbed by anyone… It was a bootleg titled The Complete Last Waltz and there are actually songs on it that are not included on the newer released box set. IE a live version of Evangeline, 2 Jam and more.

    Actually Rick wasn’t the only one who did overdubs (his reason was his bass being out of tune during the concert). Richard did some retakes on backing vocal mostly on Helpless (he sang it like the version on CSNY Deja Vue). Robbie did a lot of solo dubs. Levon did absolutely none.

    But it is a Gibson Ripper Rick is playing. I have never seen him with a Rickenbacker… only a Fender Precision, Fender Jazz, Ampeg Amub-1, a Norwegian custom built and maybe a couple of others.

  • J

    The Last Waltz has to be the best rock movie of all time!

    I’m excited about a new compilation coming out in a few months that features some awesome artists doing covers of some of the greatest hits of THE BAND. 429 Records is putting it out and after hearing it, it’s really good!

    You can stream it at:

    http://www.429records.com/endlesshighway

  • Tangerine

    Hey! I went to the link for that new Band tribute CD and was super impressed! Not what I expected…and such a diverse group of artists. I can’t wait til the album comes out…any friend of The Band is a friend of mine!