A deep ominous bass note, and then a long descending chord on that most odd of hybrids, the harp-guitar (imagine a guitar with a harp strapped to it, and you’ll have the exact idea). Mandolins flutter, strings soar, and the mood is set.
This is nothing less than the biggest end of days party you’re ever likely to hear coming out of your gramophones; this is the grand farewell, the final hurrah, The Last Waltz. After 6 years with Ronnie Hawkins, and 10 years on their multi-talented own, The Band, that simply monikered behemoth of Americana, gave their final concert in San Francisco’s Winterland, on Thanksgiving, 1976.
Kicking off with a simple ‘Good Evening’ and the funky strut of ‘Up On Cripple Creek’, Levon Helm leads the line with his plaintive Southern vocals and groovy drumming. Complemented by Rick Danko on bass (and violins, and vocals), Richard Manuel (on piano, and vocals, and guitar, and drums), Robbie Robertson (guitars, background vocals, lyrics) and the peerless Garth Hudson, whose synthesizers, saxophones, pianos and God knows what else add that extra final layer to the melange of sound that this unit could produce, the hunger and desire to keep on playing are palpable throughout Helm’s performance.
Having a much more electric, kinetic bite than their sometimes ethereal studio work, the atmosphere is what astounds here. Perfectly recorded (similarly so on film by none other than Scorcese himself), the sound jumps out of the speakers, especially on the 25th anniversary remaster, which I have here. Initially, I heard the original triple LP pressing, and whilst very good, I’m going to have to go back on my ‘vinyl is better’ mantra in this case. The clarity of every yodel, every snare crack, every piano key, is just astounding.
What makes this album greater than other live efforts, with the possible exclusion of Led Zeppelin’s How The West Was Won are the ‘couple of friends’ playing with them on that night. When the line-up consisted of Ronnie Hawkins, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, Dr John, Paul Butterfield, Muddy Waters (and that’s just the first disc) the importance of The Band to American music is suddenly grasped: they didn’t just write complicated pop and rock music, they drew on everything they had ever heard, although I suppose working with one of the greatest twentieth century songwriters in his most controversial period didn’t hurt (but more on that in a bit).
The spectacular reading of Neil Young’s ‘Helpless’, with Joni Mitchell on backing vocals is just pure yearning for home, as most of The Band, bar Helm, hailed from fair Canada. Mitchell’s own ‘Coyote’, given a pumping, throbbing electric makeover, and Neil Diamond’s ‘Dry Your Eyes’, are the less incendiary moments of the first disc, but ‘Stagefright’ and ‘It Makes No Difference’ show off Robertson’s emotional, psychological side, as well as the Band’s incredible ability to express those emotions musically – the saxophone solo in ‘It Makes No Difference’ is more than just a thing of beauty: it puts every 1980s ‘evocative’ sax solo to shame, and brings the raw emotions of jazz (or, the devil music, as Hudson’s parents would refer to it) to this stately ballad.
Muddy Waters’ seven minute tour de force on his ‘Mannish Boy’ proves that while age is nothing but a number, it’s also a testament: the living, breathing embodiment of Chicago blues circa the 1940s and 1950s still sounded horny, sexy and dangerous in his 70s. ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’, the Band’s possible signature tune and one of the most plaintive laments on the oft-used Civil War theme of Robertson’s comes alive here. Powerful in the studio, here it burns through the auditorium with a powerful sense of history, misery and pride. Helm’s voice is at its Southern best, the horn section lifts the song to the heavens and Robertson’s guitar gets a great airing.
That’s the biggest difference between studio and stage: Robbie Robertson’s guitars. Usually clean, or acoustic, here they have a distorted, electric, improvised bite, and his solos and fills are, in the words of Dylan, ‘mathematical’. Watching him sweat and strain every ounce of his talent on film, you can see the passion behind the songs, and the telepathy within the group as to where to take things reminds me of some of the great jazz bands: rehearsed, yes, but with a volatility that could lead to unexpected delights.
One of those is the introduction to ‘Further On Up The Road’, the Eric Clapton showcase. When Clapton’s guitar strap broke mid solo, Robertson whips out a surprised but jerkily confident section to fill the time, bang on the beat and idiosyncratically his. The second disc has some of the more curious tunes, at least to Anglo-phonic listener. ‘Down South In New Orleans’ was a curveball, if I may use a baseball term, Bobby Charles being someone I’m unfamiliar with, but his little excursion down the Mississippi sets up my favourite song, not just on this album, but of ALL TIME. Yes, that needed capitals, but ‘Ophelia’ just hits all the buttons. It’s danceable, it’s funky, it’s got sex in it (all the best rock songs, at root, come down to sex – or power, society’s sublimation and expression of the id in a different way… get me, I read too much Freud without understanding it), it’s witty and intelligent, it’s emotional, and has a tune to which you can hum along.
Van Morrison puts in an outstanding vocal performance on ‘Caravan’, and after the Band finish up with ‘Life Is A Carnival’, that man pops along for a little set. As Robbie Robertson simply introduces him: ‘Bob Dylan’.
Rivalled only by Lennon/McCartney, Noel Coward and Robert Johnson (well, he did define, at least in traditional musicological terms, an entire, highly influential genre, in about 30 songs), Dylan needs no real introduction. However, the Band’s part in his successful move to the electric sphere does: standing behind him across the world, getting jeered, bottled and booed, only made them stronger, and fed into his maverick urge to turn folk, pop and rock upside down, inside out, and then feed it acid.
‘Baby Let Me Follow You Down’, ‘I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)’, ‘Forever Young’ and ‘I Shall Be Released’ (which has just about every guest, plus Ronnie Wood, Ringo Starr, Steven Stills, and anyone else backstage who happened to feel like playing something) set the night on fire, and although the show didn’t end there (a few long jams were captured by Scorcese’s cameras before they ran out of tape), the live section of The Last Waltz went out on an incendiary high.
The studio section, with reworkings of ‘The Weight’ with The Staples Singers, ‘Evangeline’ with country legend Emmylou Harris and a new song ‘Out Of The Blue’, as well as their vocal rendition of the Last Waltz’s theme, rounds out the collection, and while the two guest spots are strong, the rest is really for completists. You won’t miss much having just listened to two exhaustingly brilliant hours of classic American music; in fact, it’d be like eating the seaweed around the sushi – part of the whole, but not as special.
I can’t really be objective: this album has been part of my listening habits since I was old enough to notice what was being played in the house, and in the car. The film entered my consciousness a bit later, and only filled in some of the gaps (such as the poetry readings, the Marvin Gaye cover (‘Don’t Do It’) in the encore, the post concert jams), but the towering, brilliant monument to a life on the road is too ingrained in me for objectivity. Buy this. Listen to this. Find your centre.