Recording of February 2017: The Last Waltz 40th

The Band: The Last Waltz 40th
Rhino RR 273925 (2 CDs). 1978/2016. Robbie Robertson, prod.; Ron Fraboni, John Simon, co-prods.; Terry Becker, Tim Kramer, Elliot Mazer, Wayne Neuendorf, Ed Anderson, Neil Brody, engs. ADD? TT: 2:09:11
Performance *****
Sonics ****

To clear the air, if not the sinuses, let's dispose right now of the traveling-booger-matte controversy. If Robbie Robertson and the late Levon Helm are to be believed, in The Last Waltz, Neil Young performed "Helpless" with a very suspicious chunk of something hanging out of one nostril. When Young and his management became aware of the problem, the offending object had to be excised from the film stock using a matte laboriously inserted into every frame. At least, that's how the juiciest legend from one of rock's most legendary performances is usually told.

It's no secret that on Thanksgiving 1976, the final performance of the Band, titled The Last Waltz and held at Winterland, in San Francisco, and filmed by Martin Scorsese for what may be the finest rock documentary of all, was a party for crowd and performers alike. The audience of 5000 was served a traditional Thanksgiving dinner (with a special menu for vegetarians), and before the Band took the stage, the Berkeley Promenade Orchestra played music for ballroom dancing. A number of poets, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Freewheelin' Frank, gave readings before the show, which began around 9pm. After the Band played a greatest-hits set of 12 original songs, including "Up on Cripple Creek" and "The Shape I'm In," a parade of guests came out to play a song or two with the group. A pair of jam sessions followed, and after the Band's final encore, "Don't Do It," the entire event closed at 2:15am. As can be clearly seen in the film, a good time was had by all. The interviews in the film are mostly nonsense, many of them marred by the interviewer and interviewee both being in altered states. Nor does it take a trained eye to sense that something is joyously amiss with Van Morrison's high kicks in his spirited run-through of "Caravan."

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the releases of film and album, Rhino Records has, as is the current wont with reissues, rereleased both in a number of different configurations. Happily, this lowly two-CD set ($16.99) is the only one that contains the new remastering of the sound, which accentuates the midrange frequencies and perhaps lessens the bass response just a touch. It also seems a tad louder than previous editions. The Last Waltz was originally released on three LPs, and the original master tapes—or whatever were used for the album as we now know it—have since then been remastered twice, by Warner Bros. (2003) and Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (2014). Rhino's other 40th-anniversary editions are boxed sets of four CDs and one Blu-ray ($64.95), six LPs ($119.98)—and the inevitable four-CD, two-BR Collector's Edition ($259.98), limited to 2500 copies and containing a replica of Scorsese's 300-page shooting script "bound in red faux-leather." As of this writing, the plans for MP3 and high-resolution downloads had yet to be announced.

For those new to its many charms, The Last Waltz is a fabulous experience in terms of both images and sound. One gander at the guest list tells the story: Besides Young and Morrison, it includes Muddy Waters, Dr. John, Eric Clapton, Ronnie Wood, Neil Diamond, Bobby Charles, Ringo Starr, Paul Butterfield, Ronnie Hawkins, Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris, the Staples—and, of course, Bob Dylan, whom the eponymous foursome backed on and off from 1965 practically until they broke up following The Last Waltz. Recordings made by the Band and Dylan in 1967, and released as The Basement Tapes in 1975 (and in a Complete edition in 2014), still stand as one of Dylan's finest albums, and one of the seminal documents of Americana music.

As wonderful as the 117-minute film is (a cogent argument can be made that it's actually too long), the film and the music are not without controversy—some believe that just listening to the recordings is a far superior experience to watching and listening to the film. Both film and recordings can clearly stand alone without the other.

Then there's the Robertson factor. Over the years, through the autobiographies of the Band members and statements made by all, one gets the feeling if not fact that The Last Waltz was primarily driven by a bromance between Robertson and Scorsese. Robertson, who produced the album, went on to help score a number of Scorsese films, including Raging Bull and The King of Comedy. There have been claims, by Helm and other members of the Band (all of whom but Robertson and Hudson are now deceased) that no one but Robertson ever saw any money from the film, which was a success. The overload of shots of Robertson in the film—he's got a hundred close-ups—added to pervasive accusations by other Band members, particularly Helm, that Robertson unfairly took credit for too many of the group's original compositions, give weight to the widespread belief that it was Robertson whose actions forced the Band to disband following The Last Waltz.

Other weirdnesses to be savored by longtime fans include the incongruous appearance, in light-blue polyester suit and Aviator shades, by Neil Diamond—who, to say the least, had never been part of the Band's zeitgeist. It was later revealed that, at the time, Robertson happened to be producing Diamond's album Beautiful Noise. The appearance in the film of performances with Emmylou Harris ("Evangeline") and the Staples ("The Weight"), previously filmed on a soundstage, are jarring additions, particularly considering that the Band's Winterland performance of "The Weight," the tune they're best known for, doesn't appear in the film. (It can now be heard on the four-CD set, the six-LP set, and the Collector's Edition.)

The eternal model for all rock docs, The Last Waltz, with its combination of Scorsese—a brash, exuberant, hugely talented director of feature films, with a rare talent for using and, in this instance, capturing music in film—and a celebratory, high-energy concert in which everyone gave exceptional, eulogic performances, has only gained power in the 40 years since its release. These new sets add welcome new dimensions to its incredible legacy.—Robert Baird

brenro's picture

Watching the film I always had the feeling there was tension between Helm and Robertson. I also noticed the majority of the guest musicians made a beeline to Helm for a hug or handshake and ignored Robertson. On another note I see Tidal is offering this in a MQA encoded stream.

jim davis's picture

The only guest I cared for on Last Waltz other than Dylan was Morrison. Caravan is a favorite, but I have live versions of it on two other CDs. For a live The Band and The Band with Bob Dylan CD, I find the (2009 remastered) Before the Flood to be the best for tunes, sonics, performances.

DanGB's picture

I have the 2002 reissue, on 4 CDs, and there are some excellent performances that didn't make it into the film. Muddy Waters' version of 'Caldonia' (the Louis Jordon song) is a particular favourite, because he sounds like he's really enjoying himself. There are live perforamces of 'The Weight' and 'Acadian Driftwood', as well as a pumped-up 'This Wheel's on fire'.

As far as I can tell, the 4CD version contains the whole gig, minus the poets' interlude halfway through. And I'm more than happy with that.

Allen Fant's picture

We can never get enough of "The Last Waltz"
I,too have the 2002 4-cd edition. Happy Listening!

CraigS's picture

Any release date for the hi-rez download?