This spring marks the 35th anniversary of the release of “The Last Waltz.”
The film of The Band’s farewell performance remains the best concert movie of all time. No disrespect intended to The Rolling Stones, Talking Heads and the other groups that put out terrific documents of their stage work over the years. But this show from Winterland in San Francisco is the king of the hill.
Thirty-five! How much time has passed. Remember that Robbie Robertson, The Band’s leader and guitarist, was not yet even 35 years old on the night of the big gig, Thanksgiving of 1976!
“The Last Waltz” holds up magnificently on many crucial levels.
First, the music still sounds vibrant. The five accomplished musicians in The Band gave the concert their all and held nothing back. They must have known that this was going to be their swan song — none of David Bowie’s comebacks would take place after this evening.
They put their stamp on those songs that had defined their mastery and appeal: “Up on Cripple Creek” (the opening song in both the actual show and the movie), “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Stage Fright,” “The Shape I’m In” and “It Makes No Difference” (my favorite performance of all in the movie). The performance of “Ophelia” remains a marvel.
And the beautiful in-studio rendition of “The Weight,” featuring The Staples Singers!
I continue to marvel at Robertson’s guitar work — why he isn’t ALWAYS ranked at or near the top of those “Greatest Guitarist” polls is beyond me. Plus, you had the terrific singing of Levon Helm (while never missing a beat on the drums), Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. Meanwhile, Garth Hudson holds the sound together on his keyboards.
The film makers’ strategy also proved to have a timeless quality. The interviewers with the group’s members, conducted by Martin Scorsese, the film’s brilliant director, continue to make me laugh and think. These never get stale.
What’s most amazing is that the performances sound so remarkable, considering that The Band had one crack at the on-stage collaborations with the likes of Bob Dylan, Van Morrison (who stole the movie with his high-stepping as he sang “Caravan”), Dr. John, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young.
The group got it right on the first take, every time.
It’s poignant to remember, too, that Helm, Danko and Manuel are gone. The voices that gave The Band much of its unique sound have been silenced. At least we can honor them today in this movie.
I was fortunate enough to see The Band six times in concert during the 1970s. Every performance stands out as a personal highlight in my love of great rock and roll music. It’s entirely possible that The Band saved its best show for last. That would be fitting.
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