Recording of July 2002: The Last Waltz
Warner Bros./Rhino Entertainment R2 78278 (4 CDs). 1978/2002. Robbie Robertson, prod.; Rob Fraboni, John Simon, co-prods.; Larry Samuels, exec. prod.; Terry Becker, Tim Kramer, Elliot Mazer, Wayne Neuendorf, Ed Anderson, Neil Brody, engs. AAD? TT: 4:10:16
Thanksgiving, 1976, and there they were: Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Levon Helm, the eponymous band that had lasted through rock's most turbulent years, added much Americana to its lexicon in the process, and then had calmly deciding to celebrate and film its own elaborate swan song.
Hardest of all to believe, in retrospect, is that rock music still had life back then, still had energy and something—if not intelligent, then at least sincere—to say. This emotional weight was carried by the now increasingly lost art of songwriting. Despite the visual element provided by the film, it was and is the music of The Last Waltz, the greatest rock concert film of them all, that takes your breath away.
"Over the years, the Band has become identified with a set of songs in a manner that distinguishes them, for good or ill, from all other rock groups," wrote Greil Marcus in a post-concert review in Rolling Stone; "they are less their mystique, or their faces, than they are 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' and other tunes from Music from Big Pink and The Band."
And what a collection of tunes it was. The original Last Waltz album's first side (reproduced with additions on disc 1 here) was classic, stuffed full of the kind of Band tunes Marcus refers to above: "Up On Cripple Creek," "The Weight," and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," as well as performances by guests like Mac Rebennack doing his "Such a Night."
Deeper into the album, as the guest stars' connections to The Band became more tenuous, the quality of the performances fortunately stayed high: Joni Mitchell nailed "Coyote," Neil Young crowed "Helpless," and the film's most incongruous element, Neil Diamond (in a baby-blue suit), slid through his collaboration with Robertson, "Dry Your Eyes."
The film, directed by Martin Scorsese and released two years after the concert, was the first concert film to be shot in 35mm. At the time of its release it was clear that it and the accompanying three-LP soundtrack album represented only part of what had gone on that night. Both were mishmashes of the original event, mixing songs from the evening's first and second sets. (Neither the new DVD-Video nor this boxed set of CDs makes any attempt to correct this problem.)
To the original LP set's 30 tracks the reissue of The Last Waltz adds 24 more, previously unreleased—what the press materials call "nearly all the original concert elements." While Scorsese and the group made most of the right choices when it came to choosing among the two or three tunes each guest performed, a number of salient performances are added here, including: Muddy Waters, "Caledonia"; Bob Dylan, "Hazel"; Neil Young, "Four Strong Winds";" and Joni Mitchell, "Shadows and Light" and "Furry Sings the Blues." The rehearsals on disc 4 are also priceless, with Van Morrison running through "Caravan" and Dr. John tinkering with "Such a Night."
Unlike a lot of reissues that promise better sound thanks to "new" remastering, The Last Waltz—whose original sound never sparkled—is much improved thanks to a fresh remastering supervised by Robertson. An A/B session with the original LPs and the first CD version revealed that the soundstage has been infinitely widened and given extra depth. The bass response is deeper, and the high end, muddy in previous incarnations, is now resolved and unwavering. The DVD-V of the concert features a 5.1-channel surround mix that, judging from the screening I attended, is also an improvement.
According to Rhino Entertainment, there is also a single DVD-Audio disc available of the tracks from the original three-LP set, but using the new 5.1 mixes. (The 24 new tracks would have required a second disc, which MGM and Rhino did not want to do.) Even more confusing, although the DVD-V includes the original film intact, plus extra footage of performances, rehearsals, and Robertson and Scorsese discussing the film, the CD reissue contains music not on the DVD-V.
If you're a serious fan, you'll have to buy the DVD-V, the DVD-A, and these four CDs to get it all—but of course, it will be worth it.
And The Band thought they were saying goodbye...—Robert Baird