Four decades ago last month, one of the best concerts ever marked the end of a band that had a major impact on The Music.
Nov. 25 was the 40th anniversary of “The Last Waltz,” the San Francisco show that concluded the Band’s career as a touring ensemble — and ended up being the last time the original group played together under that name. The star-studded concert was made into a multi-disc live album, and a Martin Scorsese motion picture that is considered by many to be the finest concert film ever.
The Band was one of those groups that Madison's WIBA-FM, during its early days, in the fall of 1969, turned me on to. I purchased their second, self-titled album as a result; about the same time, under the same influence,, I bought Van Morrison’s “Moondance.” I consider them to be a couple of the best LPs ever made.
“The Band,” like Van the Man’s classic, is just about perfect — not a weak song on it. But it was also revolutionary: at a time when acid and hard rock, and psychedelia, were taking over, it was a disc chock full of American roots music; when the electric guitar was dominant, the group used accordion, fiddle and mandolin
The lyrics, all written by band members, vary from the wry and tongue-in-cheek, to an American Gothic mysticism: you can hear both “When that little love of mine/Dips her doughnut in my tea” (“Up on Cripple Creek), and “A scarecrow in a yellow moon/Pretty soon, the carnival on the edge of town.” (“King Harvest [Has Surely Come]”).
The 1969 album also showcases the multi-instrumentalist talents of the band members. Robbie Robertson plays only acoustic and electric guitar, but all the others crossover between different families of instruments, playing percussion, keyboards, stringed instruments, brass and woodwinds.
Garth Hudson, particularly, is a musical polymath, performing on five different keyed instruments, including accordion and melodica, and trumpet and saxes. (A classically-trained musician, he also initially charged his Band mates a nominal fee for lessons, making him a music teacher and not just a rock and roller, in hopes of convincing his parents that the money they spent on his college education had not been wasted.)
The band’s music also showcased its members’ diverse roots. Rick Danko, Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robertson were all Canadians, but Danko was a country kid; the others were from urban areas of Ontario, although Robertson’s mother was a Native American. Levon Helm was from Arkansas, and influenced to become a musician by his parents and Bluegrass legend Bill Monroe.
The Band came together in the late 1950s and early ’60s under Ronnie Hawkins, a Canadian rockabilly singer who initially told Robertson that he couldn’t pay them much, but that they would “get more pussy than Frank Sinatra.” They toured and performed a lot with Hawkins, but his manipulative management style and creative differences resulted in a 1963 breakup.
What had been the Hawks then performed under a variety of names, before Bob Dylan hired them as his backing band, for his first tour after he went electric. The association with the former folkie culminated with the making of the legendary “Basement Tapes,” which brought Helm back into the fold (he had bailed on the tour and gone to work on an oil rig), in the Woodstock, N.Y., area.
That led to what was then known as the Honkies or the Crackers getting together in a big, rented house with pink siding to write songs and make music. “Music from Big Pink,” the Band’s first album, was the result.
Although I’d heard many of the songs from “Big Pink” on FM radio, I didn’t buy it until years later, after the CD age arrived. The instrumentation is not quite as diverse as the follow-up LP, and some of the songs weren’t penned by band members (although having Bob Dylan write, or co-write, your lyrics is not too shabby). But it was an impressive debut, and has held up pretty well over the 48 years since its release.
But, for some reason, I haven’t bought any of the eight Band albums that followed. I downloaded two of my favorite songs from the later LPs, but the group’s post-1969 work generally just didn’t seem to move me the like the first two projects did.
I’m going to reevaluate that, though, after watching parts of “The Last Waltz” before I wrote this. I’ll probably Fill in the Corners with an album or two, maybe three.
The band’s final concert under its original lineup (some members reformed and recorded in the 1980s and ’90s, but three of the five are now deceased) was an extravagant affair. Staged at the Winterland Ballroom, the venue made famous by concert mogul Bill Graham and bands like the Airplane and the Dead, started with a turkey dinner. Ballroom dancing and the works of Bay Area beat poets followed, before the Band took the stage.
The music is where the rubber hits the road, and the group started out by running through a baker’s-dozen-less-two of its songs, backed by a horn section playing charts crafted with the help of New Orleans music legend Allen Toussaint. The film illustrates how tight and musically solid the Band was live, and in particular showcases Helm’s gritty, soulful voice.
The Big Easy R&B sound was continued in the first appearance by a guest performer, Mac Rebbenack, aka Dr. John. That began a procession that, while not quite a who’s who of rock and roll, was definitely star-studded: Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Neil Diamond, Paul Butterfield , Muddy Waters and others performed with the band, in various combinations.
Hawkins joined his former backing band to do the Bo Diddley chestnut “Who Do You Love.” Dylan led his one-time touring group in four numbers. And the guest stars — joined by a few others like Ronnie Wood of the Stones and ex-Beatle Ringo Starr — returned to the stage for “I Shall Be Released,” one of Dylan’s contributions to the Band’s first album.
The guest performances I watched before writing this were all pretty good, and the between-song interviews and commentary are interesting and informative. There are moments in the film that are worth the price of admission alone: Mitchell’s haunting backing vocals off-stage during fellow Canadian Young’s “Helpless”; the Staples Singers’ performances on “The Weight”; Dylan and Morrison singing at the same mic.
On the shopping list with some more Band albums, I think, will be a DVD of “The Last Waltz.” And some electronics to allow me to play it, and some other concert videos, over the Man Porch stereo system.