Album Review: The Band - The Last Waltz (1978)
By Sergio Ariza
‘The Last Waltz’ by The Band that returned rock to its roots
On the 25th of November 1976, Thanksgiving Day in the U.S., The Band took the stage at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco to celebrate their last show. Joining them on stage were la creme de la creme of rock music back then, from Bob Dylan to Van Morrison, and on to Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters or Dr. John, besides an ex- Beatle, Ringo Starr and Ronnie Wood from The Rolling Stones. To immortalise the importance of the occasion, they signed filmmaker Martin Scorsese who had released Taxi Driver that year.
Formed in the early 60s in Toronto, where Ronnie Hawkins, an Arkansas-born rockabilly addict recruited them one by one among the best bands around, their jump to fame came when Dylan signed them up for his electric conversion. That’s how they started with the name The Band, despite still being recognised as The Hawks. It was also while the author of Highway 61 was in spiritual recluse in Woodstock after a motorcycle accident, where they would take rock back to its roots, after the excesses of psychedelia. Their first 2 albums are still an absolute reference, country, blues or soul mixed into their sound with perfection.
In the mid-70s, their leader and songwriter, Robbie Robertson, decided to quit going on tour, like the Beatles did in the 60s, and focus more on studio work. Despite the displeasure of the rest of the group to the idea, which would end up hastening their end, they set a date for a goodbye gig. When it was decided to include Hawkins and Dylan, who they had collaborated closely with, the list of guests started to pile high, due to the tremendous esteem they always enjoyed among other musician mates, like Clapton, who said that he would have liked to have joined the band.
The show started at 7pm with their most emblematic piece, Up On Cripple Creek, and lasted until 2:20 in the morning finishing with a version of Don’t Do It arranged by Allen Toussaint. In the meantime, several hours of ecstasy in which the gig is generally considered the best film of a concert ever.
In the middle of it, we can see all the glory in one of the stars, Robertson’s 1954 Fender Stratocaster bathed in bronze. A guitar that he had modified over time to his liking. Having got used to playing with a Telecaster, he changed the pickup in the middle for a left-handed one, and put it below next to the bridge pickup, something similar to what a humbucker does. It was the last appearance of The Band on stage in its classic form with Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, and Garth Hudson. And in a way, it was the end of an era.
By the time the triple album and Scorsese’s film was released, Elvis had died, and punk rock had served to label these great 60s musicians as dinosaurs. It didn’t matter much, 40 years later, another generation paid tribute to the historic show, and Warren Haynes, Don Was or Michael McDonald recreated the magic of that night of November 25, 1976.