On Thanksgiving night thirty three years ago, the focus of the music world was on the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Luminaries from throughout the industry - Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Dr. John, Van Morrison, and others - joined The Band as they gave their final concert - The Last Waltz. It was a diverse collection of friends, mentors, and influences assembled to give a great group a proper sendoff.
Earlier that year, The Band - or more specifically The Band's guitarist Robbie Robertson - decided it was time to leave the road. So they decided to give one final concert, and invite Robertson's new buddy Martin Scorsese to film the whole deal. The result is one of the most legendary concerts of all time, and a film that is all at once the gold standard of concert films, a lasting - if disturbing - monument to Robertson's massive ego, and insight perhaps into just why The Band broke up. After Leo the Lion roared, signaling the opening of the MGM film, the sentence "This Film Should Be Played Loud!" appears on the screen.
Watching the film at some point over the weekend and listening to the CDs on my Thanksgiving morning drive to New Jersey has become a personal Thanksgiving Day tradition. So, in the event that anyone is looking to kill time this Thanksgiving, here are some performances from the film:
"Up On Cripple Creek", the concert's opening performance and one of The Band's most recognizable tunes
"It Makes No Difference", a beautiful song featuring the vocals of the late Rick Danko
"The Weight", easily The Band's most well-known and most widely-covered song. The concert performance didn't make the cut for the film. But a post-production performance was cut on a soundstage shortly after the concert. It features the fabulous Staples Singers, and Pops and Mavis really steal the spotlight on this one.
"Mannish Boy", with the legendary Muddy Waters. Just prior to the start of the song Scorsese had ordered all his cameramen to change film. One cameraman, fed up with Scorsese's incessant instructions, had long since removed his headphones. His was the only camera rolling during the performance and is the reason why the entire performance is a single shot.
"Further On Up the Road", with Eric Clapton. The strap on Slowhand's Strat gives out during his opening solo. Robertson astutely swoops in to grab the lead and keep things moving.
"Helpless", with Neil Young, and Joni Mitchell providing background vocals off stage. Drummer Levon Helm was the only non-Canadian involved in this performance. I imagine he was wondering why they didn't hold the concert on Canadian Thanksgiving the month before. Legend has it that Young had a huge clump of coke hanging in his nostril during this performance and that it was edited out during post-production.
"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", my favorite Band song, written about the war that was taking place when President Lincoln issued the proclamation that began an annual observance of Thanksgiving. This is easily the most powerful performance of the song that I've heard.
"Forever Young", with Bob Dylan. "The Band" existed as a band before they linked up with Bob Dylan, but they didn't become "The Band" until they met Dylan. They were with him for his foray into electric music, and it was Dylan who brought them to the hamlet of Woodstock, where Danko lived until his death and Helm still calls home.
"Don't Do It", the opening performance of the film was in fact the final performance of the night, and the final performance of "The Band" consisting of this line up. It's a Marvin Gaye song that The Band often covered, and covered well.