You know when you think about who you would have in your dream band, if it could be anybody alive or dead? Well, I always start off with Robbie Robertson on guitar. But then I think, well I need Rick Danko…and I can’t have a band without Levon Helm… and then I figure that I would need Richard Manuel on the keys and the mad professor Garth Hudson on early 70s synth-mania keys.
Trying to pick your favourite part of Martin Scorsese’s 1978 film The Last Waltz is kind of like trying to pick your favourite Band member. Recorded at the farewell performance at The Winterland in San Francisco, it was The Band’s way of celebrating 16 years on the road – the beginning of the end of the end of the beginning is how Robbie Robertson describes it. I think that’s what he said anyway. So they decided to have a concert and ask all their mates to play a few tunes with them – only their mates are Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Ron Wood and Ringo Starr, among others.
There are so many highlights in this film; Joni Mitchell singing backing vocals to Neil Young from backstage, Levon Helm surrounded by horns when he sings The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, Dr John singing Such A Night wearing the most incredible glittery shades, Ronnie Hawkins blowing the steam off Robbie Robertson’s guitar with his Stetson, Van Morrison doing a few little kicks in a tight mauve catsuit, Muddy Waters’ entire performance, Robbie Robertson jumping in to seamlessly save the day when Eric Clapton’s guitar strap breaks in the middle of a solo…the list goes on and on.
It’s not just the performances which are amazing, but the interviews with The Band and Martin Scorsese which are interspersed between footage of the concert. Scorsese appears to be on speed at times, and The Band all seem generally bonkers after 16 years on the road. One highlight is when Garth Hudson, who came from a strict classical music background, explains that he had to tell his parents that he was The Band’s music teacher so they would allow him to go on tour with them.
The only lowlight in this film for me is when Neil Diamond plays; it’s like watching a bloated ego in 70s sunglasses and offensive suit lapels. He’s the only performer in the whole concert who seems to be making it more about himself, rather than about celebrating The Band.
The EmmyLou Harris performance, which wasn’t done on the night at the farewell concert but at another time in a television studio, doesn’t have the same energy as the performances on the night, and so people often pick that out as a low light. I love her performance, and not just because I love Emmylou in general, but because Rick Danko is playing the fiddle like a mountain hillbilly, and it’s a Robbie Robertson country song, reminding you that The Band are primarily a country rock band, and a blimmin great one at that.
The absolute without a doubt highlight though is The Staple Singers singing The Weight with The Band, which was also recorded in the studio as opposed to at the concert. Mavis Staples would definitely be in my dream band. She has one of the best voices of all time. Here’s the video of the performance – check out the ‘mmmhhuh’ sound she makes just after singing her first verse, fucking yeah!
It upsets me when I meet someone who hasn’t seen this film, which is arguably the best rock documentary of all time. I do that very annoying music shop guy Barry from High Fidelity thing; gasping and feigning dizziness and all that stuff. Really irritating, I know, but I can’t help it.
The Last Waltz DVD has been in Tower Records for 7 euro and 99 cent for the last five years. I’m sure it’s still that price. It’s Christmas time, so if you know anyone who loves music but hasn’t seen this film, get it for them for their stocking. That’s all I have to say.