The Band – The Last Waltz review

‘The Perfect Collaboration’

Secret Meeting score: 100

by Phil Scarisbrick

It seems to be par for the course these days that acts are joined on stage by guests. All it takes is for one large scale unit shifter to come out, wave and sing a bit with another large scale unit shifter, and social media go in to meltdown. It often reminds me of that option on a well-known online shopping page, where they push products disguised as ‘people who bought this also purchased’.

A level below that though you get collaborations that feel more wholesome and exciting. Seeing Justin Vernon join fellow Eaux Claire curators, The National, adds to their audience’s experience in the same way seeing Drake flap about and shout ‘What’s up San Francisco?’ would at a Taylor Swift concert. The difference is that somebody like Justin Vernon also adds to the music and becomes integral at that moment.

On-stage collaborations have happened for as long as music has been played on them. Many bands during the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s met their band-mates during jam sessions or by ‘sitting in’ at club shows. Johnny Cash would bring out future wife June Carter to sit in and sing duets with him. You’d often see a myriad of artists such as Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, various Beatles, Eric Clapton, The Faces and many more taking this template and transferring it to the biggest stages in the world. More often than not though, their guest appearances were about enhancing the music.

On Thanksgiving night in 1976, both forms of collaboration collided for final show of The Band. By 1976, Robbie Robertson had become weary of the road. He wanted The Band to become a studio-only project like The Beatles had a decade earlier. Before that though, they would put on one final show at the venue where The Band had played their first show in that guise, Bill Graham’s Winter Ballroom in San Francisco. And they would be joined by more than a few friends.

The show would also be filmed by an up and coming director called Martin Scorcese, who would face the challenge of filming the four-hour show using cameras that were never built to be used for so long. The film was released 40 years ago in 1978 under the guise, ‘The Last Waltz’.

Tickets for the concert were a whopping $25 (normally entrance fetched $4-$7 at that time) but this was more than just a gig. People arrived dressed in their finest garments, were seated at long tables and ate a full Thanksgiving dinner, while dancers performed a waltz in the middle of the theatre. The feast included:

·         6,000 pounds of turkey

·         300 pounds of Nova Scotia salmon

·         1,000 pounds of potatoes

·         90 gallons of gravy

·         500 pounds of cranberry sauce

·         400 gallons of cider

·         400 pounds of pumpkin pie

Then it was time for the main event. It was simply billed as ‘Bill Graham presents: The Band and Friends’. Nobody knew the abundance of musical royalty they were about to see so had to completely trust that they would get their money’s worth.

The Band entered the stage at 9pm and ripped straight in to their rip-roaring Americana with ‘Up on Cripple Creek’. Backed by a horn section they tore through their catalogue with ‘The Shape I’m In’, ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’ and ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’. Then came the mysterious ‘and Friends’.

First up was Ronnie Hawkins for whom The Band (under the moniker of The Hawks) had been the backing band for in the early 1960’s. Then followed a whirlwind of guests including Dr John, Bobby Charles, Paul Butterfield, Muddy Waters, pianist Pinetop Perkins and Eric Clapton. During a rendition of ‘Further On Up the Road’, Clapton’s guitar strap came loose during his first solo. You can clearly hear a Southern English voice shout ”Rob!” and without missing a beat, Robbie Robertson picked up the solo on his Fender Stratocaster, dipped in resplendent bronze especially for the occasion.

The guests were coming thick and fast, with a nod to The Band’s Canadian roots with first Neil Young (complete with cocaine stuck to his nostril) and then Joni Mitchell (who sang backing vocals with Young from the side of the stage, so as not to diminish the impact of her entrance later on).

The legends kept on coming with Neil Diamond and Van Morrison taking to the stage before the entrance of the artist The Band are probably most synonymous with, Bob Dylan. His appearance had been fraught with legal issues. He was very reluctant to be filmed as he had his own project in development. In fact, he didn’t agree to perform until during the intermission of the concert itself.

He entered the stage with a crisp white fedora hat, leather jacket and red and white polka dot shirt on. Backed also by Ringo Starr on a second drum kit and Ronnie Wood, the collective launched in to Baby Let Me Follow You Down. If ever there needed to be evidence that these musicians were meant to play together, it was on display here. They followed up with an emotionally-charged ‘Forever Young’ and finally closed with the Dylan-penned, Music From The Big Pink track ‘I Shall Be Released’. Two loose jams with their night’s guests followed and then the house lights went up and it was all over. The Band never played again apart from some concerts, initially without Robbie Robertson and then losing Richard Manuel also, who committed suicide in 1986. 

Some set-piece tracks were filmed separately for the film in a studio. One of these is in my opinion the definitive version of The Band’s seminal hit ‘The Weight’ with the Staples Singers. This song is flawless in its own right but this version took it to new heights. From Levon Helm’s opening verse, through Mavis Staples’ gospel bombast, Pops Staples’ soulful and understated tone, Rick Danko’s ragged yet beautiful drawl and the full collective’s final verse, this felt like how this song should always have sounded. An absolute shoe-in for my Desert Island Discs whenever the BBC see fit to have me on! 

I first experienced the film when I was drunk. I was at the home of an enthusiastic friend whose opinion I usually trusted and he extolled its greatness to me. We watched the whole thing and I was in awe. Since then it has become what I consider to be the definitive concert film. One of the main reasons for that is how effortlessly the guests worked and enhanced both the music through their abilities, and the audience’s experience through their music.  When you have a room with that many bona fide musical icons in, the danger of clashing egos is very real. These were put to one side though for a glorious concert, where everybody put their extraordinary collective talents together and gave us a piece of history.

And not a ‘What’s up San Francisco?’ anywhere.

The Last Waltz saw a myriad of artists perform with The Band at their final concert in San Francisco in 1976. This playlist features songs by the artists that performed that night:


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