Caught In The Spotlight

The Last Waltz – The Band’s Decadent And Heartbreaking Farewell Concert

It was Thanksgiving 1976. Five thousand people reunited at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco were served a traditional dinner with turkey and pumpkin pie. Meanwhile, the five musicians of The Band waited backstage with Bill Graham, the producer and promoter of the show called The Last Waltz. It was The Band’s farewell concert. A farewell concert with prestigious guests, so different from the one they had performed at the same place in 1969. Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson had played their first concert as The Band at the Winterland Ballroom. But now, seven years and a half later, they were used to this, and perhaps even disillusioned. And contrary to 1969, Robbie wasn’t suffering from a mysterious illness, possibly due to stage fright, that a hypnotist had tried without success to cure before the show. Now, gleaming chandeliers hung from the ceiling, a horn section accompanied The Band, and Martin Scorsese captured the event on film. 

The Band’s first album, Music From Big Pink, was released in 1968, The musicians lived for several years in the quaint town of Woodstock, and people believed the album was actually recorded in the Big Pink basement rather than in studios in New York and Los Angeles. Perhaps a sign of the times, The Last Waltz is far away from the old-fashioned charm of The Band as pictured by Elliott Landy at the end of the 1960s. It was another decade, and the hippie movement had given place to something edgier. The Band didn’t escape that tendency. The decadence of the concert is surprising. Yet, despite this grandiloquence, their talent shines throughout the movie. It’s obvious as soon as in the first scene, Don’t Do It, which is in fact the last song The Band played at the concert. “We’re gonna do one more song, and that’s it,” Robbie warned the audience when the group came back on stage. Bill Graham had pleaded with them to get back for one last time, saying, “Do it for me. If this is The Band’s final concert, for god’s sake, give us one more. The final concert of The Band. Man, that’s heartbreaking.”

The public wasn’t ready to let them go. They had started together sixteen years before as The Hawks of Ronnie Hawkins, and on November 25, 1976, it was the end. In an interview for the movie, Robbie said to Martin Scorsese, “I couldn’t live with twenty years on the road. I don’t think I could even discuss it.” Levon Helm, who disapproved of Robbie’s decision to break up the group, remembered he told Robbie, “I’m not in it for my health.” Those two irreconcilable visions set the tone for the interviews interspersed through the movie. 

The concert itself, however, is a celebration. Not the celebration of the end of The Band, but the celebration of those chaotic years spent together. Their alchemy is apparent throughout the show, and it culminates when Bob Dylan joins them on stage at the end of the night. They gave the performance of their lives, and for those few hours, nothing else existed than music and friends. It makes sense that the first guest was Ronnie Hawkins, the man without whom The Band wouldn’t have existed. He saw the exceptional talent of Rick, Richard, Levon, Garth and Robbie, and brought all of them together.

It also makes sense that fellows Canadians Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, immortalized in the movie performing the song Helpless with The Band, were invited. Joni is the only feminine musician who performed at the live concert. Emmylou Harris and The Staple Singers were added as an afterthought and were filmed on an MGM soundstage. Joni played an irresistible version of Coyote accompanied by The Band. In Testimony, Robbie admitted: “Joni’s songs might have been the most challenging of the night with their syncopation and chord structures that kept you on your toes, but we sailed through that one like a cool breeze.” 

Some friends of Woodstock also joined The Band. Van Morrison gave a thrilling — and acrobatic — rendition of his song, Caravan. Paul Butterfield appeared for Mystery Train, with the contagious energy of Levon Helm and Richard Manuel both on drums. Regrettably, however, Richard is barely visible in that scene of the movie — in fact, he’s barely visible in the entire movie at all, like Garth Hudson. 

During the evening, guests came on stage one after another: Dr. John offered a delightful moment with his song Such A Night. The legendary Muddy Waters, who Levon insisted on having on the show, performed while the musicians of The Band looked at him with admiration. An anecdotic moment occurred when Eric Clapton’s guitar strap broke during Further On Up The Road. Robbie, without missing a beat, played a solo as masterfully as Eric, if not more. Neil Diamond was present as well. He was invited because Robbie had produced his last album. When Levon heard he would play at the concert, his reaction was, “What the hell does Neil Diamond have to do with us?” 

And of course, there were The Band songs. The version of It Makes No Difference they played that night has become a classic. Rick sang his heart out, and Garth appeared beside him at the end of the song to play his sax solo. It’s one of those glorious moments of the concert, one that we wish could last forever. Luckily, cameramen were there to immortalize it. The Band also performed some of their staples: Up On Cripple Creek, Stage Fright, Ophelia, The Shape I’m In, always with an obvious pleasure.

The members of The Band played skillfully, as always, but it was the end. Their end. Even when I watched the movie for the first time, when I hadn’t heard The Band before, the inherent sorrow of The Last Waltz struck me. The most wistful scene is probably the one where Rick played his song Sip The Wine for Martin Scorsese, but it’s also apparent when Levon sang The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down with all his might — the most powerful rendition he ever gave of this song. He incarnated Virgil Caine for the last time and offered to the audience at the Winterland Ballroom, as well to generations of viewers of The Last Waltz, a performance that is the essence of music. And this is the essence of The Band, who throughout their career, had played those haunting songs reminiscent of an old America. 

The Last Waltz is the only thorough visual testament of The Band. (They didn’t appear in Woodstock, although they were featured in the documentary Festival Express.) And this visual testament is their last moments as a band. They had lived so much together until that Thanksgiving night at the Winterland. When they played I Shall Be Released with all the guests at the end of the concert, it didn’t evoke Big Pink, but something bigger than them. 

Even after all those decades, The Last Waltz continues to introduce new fans to The Band, which is peculiar. After all, it’s the conclusion of The Band, and it’s sometimes painful to watch those last moments. Even though we know Rick, Richard, Levon and Garth would reunite, years later, we also know the tragedies that await them. After the release of their first album, they became iconic and got caught up in a whirlwind. With The Last Waltz, those tumultuous years ended, but it was a bitter end — except for Robbie, maybe. The movie offers two versions of the story, and it goes beyond the traditional Robbie/Levon rivalry. The disparity between the exuberance of the concert and the melancholy of the interviews is obvious. And heartbreaking. 

Sources:

Levon Helm with Stephen Davis – This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band

Robbie Robertson – Testimony

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