The Last Waltz
Warner Bros. 3146
Released: April 1978
Chart Peak: #16
Weeks Charted: 20
Almost two years ago, the Band called it quits. They also called in a cast of friends and movie director Martin Scorsese to film a farewell concert. On hand were Ronnie Hawkins, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, Dr. John, Paul Butterfield, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Bobby Charles, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan, among others. The Band went out the same way they had come in: with ambition and style. And now, anyone who missed the concert on Thanksgiving Day 1976 cannot only see the movie but own the album, a deluxe, slipcased three-record affair.
The Band's best work promises to outlive its era. At the end of a decade that had seen rock explode into the rococo enthusiasms of psychedelia, the Band rehabilitated basics and championed values like economy, simplicity and conviction. Their second LP, The Band (1969), was the right record at the right time. Looking back to earlier forms of blues, soul and country, and forward to the polished intimacy of the singer/songwriters of the early Seventies, the album accomplished that rarest of feats for a piece of popular art: by conscientiously defining a moment in time, it enabled its audience to articulate a new range of feelings.
But other aspects of the concert were troubling. For a group that ostensibly embodied the virtue of rough-hewn integrity, the Band displayed an awesome slickness that evening: even the raw edges seemed planned. These bar-band auteurs were only too ready to embalm their own best work beneath a veneer of professionalism, as if to exhibit it behind a glass case in some museum. Their Rock of Ages could sound pretty solid.
In the Seventies, the Band added little to their "classic" repertoire. Recording only fitfully, they released five studio LPs and one live set. They also undertook a highly publicized tour with Bob Dylan. Altogether, that doesn't add up to much in terms of quantity. In terms of quality, it's arguable that such American bands as Steely Dan and even Little Feat have done more work of substance in this decade. Rarely has a group gone so far with so little.
In a sense, The Last Waltz is a somewhat self-serving elegy to that moment and its passing. As an album it attempts to do for rock in the Sixties generally and the Band specifically what The Band did for the American ethos: to fix a place for the past by showing its importance to the present. Perhaps the Sixties are still too near, but the effects of The Last Waltz are not always gratifying. Like scrupulous caretakers making merry at a wake, the Band brings on the best of the survivors -- an impressive cast of stars not unlike the Hollywood has-beens who often take cameo roles in airport disaster films.
There is little here that demands a second hearing. Most of it we have heard before, done better. On this score, some of the guests are at fault: Dr. John and Neil Diamond turn in mediocre performances, Muddy Waters sounds muddy and Eric Clapton stumbles through "Further on Up the Road." But the Band isn't entirely blameless. In their role as accompanists, they lumber through what should be limber, making heavy weather of Joni Mitchell's "Coyote" and Van Morrison's "Caravan." They provide lumpy harmonies for Neil Young's "Helpless." Throughout, there's an earnest and turgid air about the proceedings -- and that air, one fears, may just by the Band's special signature.
Still, several of the finest tracks belong to the Band. "It Makes No Difference," with a new horn arrangement by Howard Johnson, stands out among the ballads and is a distinct improvement over the rather passionless version of Northern Lights -- Southern Cross, "Ophelia," as well as old chestnuts like "Up on Cripple Creek," exhibits an attractive authority. And Levon Helm and Paul Butterfield have fun with "Mystery Train."
The sixth side of The Last Waltz is devoted to a new studio work, Robbie Robertson's "The Last Waltz Suite." It opens with a fanfare for horns that belongs on the Johnny Carson Show and closes with an orchestrated instrumental that could pass for the "Third Man Theme." In between is a pastiche of echoed synthesizers and rural echoes. Emmylou Harris is enlisted for a taste of country, while the Staples add a dollop of soul. On "Out of the Blue," Robertson proves himself a wobbly singer, but the worst is yet to come: a remake of "The Weight," taken at a jaunty clip and drained of the brooding presence that possessed the original version. This time out, even an emblematic chorus by Mavis Staples doesn't really help.
Which leaves the performance of Bob Dylan, who, apart from the Band, is one artist who dominates this record. Can there be any doubt that the Band's best playing has come behind Dylan? On the bootleg LP of Dylan's 1966 British tour, Robbie Robertson solos like a man pressed to his limits; there is nothing quite like it on any of the Band's albums. Perhaps Dylan's volubility cuts against the stylistic conventions the Band refined to the point of stodginess; perhaps Dylan is simply a galvanic artist. Whatever the reasons, Bob Dylan makes the Band come alive, if only because Dylan himself is sounpredictable (even in the mundane sense of changing chords impulsively, thus forcing his accompanists to save a song rather than merely play it).
On The Last Waltz, Dylan resurrects a couple of songs from the 1966 tour, "Baby Let Me Follow You Down" and "I Don't Believe You (She Acts like We Never Have Met)." Both are sung in the kind of talk-song the singer used on Hard Rain, and the Band's playing is full-blooded, eloquent and forceful. In its hoarse fierceness, "I Don't Believe You" even evokes the spooky intensity of Dylan's voice in 1966. But the most surprising performance comes on "Forever Young," the flaky lyric first heard on Planet Waves. Wielding works like a careless man with a knife, Dylan infuses the song with an acid irrelevance, while Robertson responds in kind with two sputtering, choked solos. This version of "Forever Young" could almost pass for an ironic commentary on the whole concert. It would not, however, end matters on a suitably edifying note. For that, we need Bob Dylan to close with "I Shall Be Released," on which Ronnie Wood and Ringo Starr join the Band and friends for a choral sing-along.
Of all the coffee-table albums to date, The Last Waltz is in many respects to most impressive. The production and pacing are crisp, the performances generally competent, if rarely much more. Yet, like Woodstock and The Concert for Bangla Desh, the Band's farewell seems destined merely to quench a momentary craving for nostalgia, only to be stuffed away on a shelf, unlistened to and forgotten. A classic recording of a classic pseudoevent, The Last Waltz poses as a document of rock history in the making. But no new standards are set, few old standards are met, and future challenges are never raised. What he have here is a glittering but empty rite of passage.
- Jim Miller, Rolling Stone, 6/1/78.
The Last Waltz is the Band's last hurrah, an end-of-an-era, goodbye to all that, live three-disc extravaganza that studded with guest stars including the once hard-to-get Bob Dylan. It's one of those rock "event" albums, but unlike the recording of the Bangla Desh concert or that of the Woodstock Festival, it comes out at a time when people are not very excited about the prospect of finding art in progressive rock, a time when people no longer keep track of every individual musician's evolution through various groups -- not to mention all sorts of information about his or her personal life. The times are now much more ho-hum about hype. We're somewhat inured to events of all kinds (we can always catch the TV replay of what we missed), and so you're going to like this album, I think, but without the kind of flipping out about it that would have gone on in 1969. You're going to be able to see, thanks the objectivity that goes with being inured, that this milestone set to music is life-size.
On the one hand, some things are most impressive, starting with the quality and diversity of the guest stars who showed up to pay tribute. There are some powerful individual performances, such as those by the Band with Paul Butterfield, with Van Morrison, with Dylan, and with a veritable entourage in "I Shall Be Released." Much of the music that doesn't involve guest stars is first-rate, too, being a retrospective of some choice Band tunes over the years, edited by the boys themselves. It's heartening that they've obviously remained fond of such stuff as "The Weight" (done here with help), "Cripple Creek," "Ophelia," and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," despite how many times they must have had to play these tunes.
But the thing is human, as I said. Neil Young is slightly off-key, Muddy Waters is boring because he chose to sing an extremely dull and silly song, and Eric Clapton and Dr. John hardly seem inspired. Dylan does a little cycle of snarling rockers, using "Baby Let Me Follow You Down" like bookends in an interesting example of Dylan distorting one aspect of himself, but it isn't until he's joined by Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood, and others for "I Shall Be Released" that he seems for a moment to get outside himself. Human too is the slight quality of harshness or brittleness the sound has. It's a good job of recording live under what were probably difficult conditions, but you can sense a thin zone of equipment between yourself and the music.
But not between yourself and the sound of an era shutting down. Rock won't die, but it will go on changing form. New bands will come and old ones will go. Some of the new ones will be good. Given time, they'll become Band fanciers too, a good percentage of them. This is one last waltz I expect will go on a long time, for the Band is preserved on records (and on film with Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz). Regardless of what rock fad is cycling in from behind, I expect the world will rediscover the Band from time to time and marvel at the style with which some of us did things back in the Sixties and Seventies.
- Noel Coppage, Stereo Review, 7/78.
The energy and excitement of the Band's final concert at San Francisco's Winterland, Thanksgiving 1976, is captured on three disks. The result exceeds live concert packages and becomes more of an event, a celebration of the Band's 16 years as a collective force. Making this a memorable package were friends of the group whose participation made this an all-star get together. Contributing to the soundtrack are Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Paul Butterfield, Emmylou Harris, Joni Mitchell, Ringo Starr, Neil Young, Ron Wood, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Dr. John, Ronnie Hawkins and the Staples.
- Billboard, 1978.
The movie improves when you can't see it -- Robbie Robertson and friends don't play anywhere near as smug as they look (or talk). And for an olio featuring eleven guest vocalists and a studio "suite," the soundtrack is remarkably coherent. The four new Band tunes are nothing special, but everybody lays into the oldies. The blues sequence -- beefed up by Toussaint's horns, Butterfield's harp, Muddy's pipes, and a blistering if messy Robertson-Clapton duet -- is a small landmark, Morrison and Young are worth going back to, and Dylan's "Baby Let Me Follow You Down" is spunky enough to make up for "Forever Young." Not only that, Joni Mitchell and Neil Diamond are on the same side. Bet this ages a lot better than Woodstock -- in a way, it already has. B+
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
The lavish triple album was an eloquent farewell. Alas, most of the group, Robbie Robertson excepted, joined together for another tour in 1986. After one of these shows Richard Manuel hanged himself.
In 1987, The Last Waltz was chosen by a panel of rock critics and music broadcasters as the #95 rock album of all time.
- Paul Gambaccini, The Top 100 Rock 'n' Roll Albums of All Time, Harmony Books, 1987.
On Thanksgiving night in 1976 at San Francisco's famed Winterland -- where The Band had given its first concert nine years earlier -- The Band invited Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Dr. John, Muddy Waters, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Paul Butterfield, the Staple Singers, Bobby Charles, Emmylou Harris, Ron Wood, Ronnie Hawkins and Neil Diamond, and a fine horn section arranged by Allen Toussaint, to memorialize the end of their performance career. Martin Scorsese filmed the concert, and a couple of years later this soundtrack was released. It contains thirty songs, including many of their classics, generally performed with fire and enthusiasm. The fascinating guest artists provide highlights (Young, Clapton, Dylan and Morrison) and low-lights (Diamond). Given the numbers and magnitude of the assembled talent, it was inevitable that reality would fall short of expectation, but on the whole, this was a major concert recording, and on its own terms is generally successful. It contains some new material from The Band, but nothing that makes you question their decision to call it quits. For the most part the studio renditions of the group's classics remain definitive -- still, you'll wish you'd been there. Given the time that obviously went into this production, the sound quality, particularly of the live concert portion, is far from ideal, with a boxiness and unpleasant vocal edges to most of the performances. The seven studio tracks completing the package have much better sonic quality, but even they are a bit edgy in the vocals. A-
- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.
The Band's farewell gig was held at Winterland in San Francisco on Thanksgiving 1976. Guests from all periods of their career were invited to participate. The luminaries included Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, and Paul Butterfield. The four-hour concert was one of the most spectacular in rock history. Two hours of it were released on this three-LP (now two-CD) set. Utilizing horns one more time, this was the gig of the Band's life and one of the greatest in rock history. We are privileged that it exists in a form where we can hear it as often as we want. * * * *
- Rob Bowman, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
The Band ended it all in 1976 by throwing and filming and recording a huge farewell party dubbed "The Last Waltz" which, as it turns out, hid the serious acrimony that had developed among the members especially between Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson. It would be the last time the five of them would appear on stage together. * * * 1/2
- Leland Rucker, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.
Quibblers complain about the subpar Dylan performance and the tacked-on, studio-recorded "Last Waltz Suite," but this all-star tribute concert, marking the 1976 disbanding of The Band, is packed with sublime moments, from Neil Young's plaintive "Helpless" and Van Morrison's Irish-gospel lullaby "Tura-Lura-Lural" to The Band's own "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."
- Entertainment Weekly, 2001.
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