The Last Waltz was originally released as an epic three record set in 1978. Five of the six sides were taken from what would be The Band's farewell concert recorded at Bill Grahams Winterland Ballroom on Thanksgiving night of 1976. The final side was studio tracks.
Robbie Robertson was tired of touring and convinced the other members of to become a studio only group, similar to the late career Beatles. They gathered together a cornucopia of their friends to assist them in their final concert. Martin Scorsese filmed it for release as a theatrical documentary film.
Robertson’s plan did not work out as planned for The Band. The album Islands was released in 1977. It was a hastily thrown together affair and fulfilled their obligation to the Capital Label. The Last Waltz was then released a year later. Robertson would never record or play with them again. Robertson may have planned The Band’s demise but the other members were not as enthused as several years later they would reform without Robertson and continue the group’s career.
The Last Waltz, the album and the film, are two of the best chronicles of a rock concert ever recorded. While they vary in content, both are recommended as essential viewing and listening. The only downside to the album is that they are so good, it was tragic that they disbanded at the height of their powers.
Old mentor Ronnie Hawkins makes an appearance on “Who Do You Love.” The Band falls into their role as a back-up group and they roar through a primitive rendition of this old classic. Neil Young is on board with a performance of “Helpless.” I have always been a tad disappointed with Young’s performance as it lacks much of the fire of his solo concerts. I have come to the conclusion that he is better dominating a stage than sharing it. Neil Diamond was an odd choice and he provides an average and out of place “Dry Your Eyes.” Paul Butterfield gives scintillating backing on “Mystery Train.” Van Morrison is a good match for The Band and he shines on “Tura Lura Lural” and “Caravan.” Joni Mitchell, Dr. John, Muddy Waters, Bobby Charles and Eric Clapton all keep the revolving door of guest appearances spinning.
The highlight of the concert at the time was a set by Bob Dylan. The Band and Dylan quickly fall into a groove that can only be accomplished after years of playing together. The Band would always bring out the best in Dylan and this was no exception. “Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” “I Don’t Believe You,” “Forever Young” and “I Shall Be Released” have never sounded better.
The album version of The Last Waltz just does not contain enough of The Band themselves. The movie restores a number of the missing performances that were recorded at the concert. What is included finds them in top form. “Up On Cripple Creek” is the definitive version of this song. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” takes on new life and makes one forget about the Joan Baez hit version. “The Shape I’m In” and “Ophelia” show the rocking and soft sides of the group.
The Last Waltz is a wonderful document of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame band and of the rock genre in general. The Band would continue but never reach these heights again.