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The Story Of The Band’s “The Last Waltz”

November 25, 2016

For this edition of our Classic Albums feature, we’re going to do things a little differently, not just focusing on an album, but also a movie. Both came from recording a live concert which took place on US Thanksgiving in 1976. The concert was to serve as a farewell show from one of the decade’s biggest influencers in music, The Band. Joined by a collection of famous friends, they played into the night at a show that would be dubbed “The Last Waltz”.

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the concert and happened to embody a very authentic sense of the boomer generations music tastes. The concert became more widely known when two years after the fact, a documentary of the same name and directed by legendary Martin Scorsese, was released. The film not only gave a filmed account of the concert but went behind the scenes of a band on the verge of splitting up. And while many of us might know the story of the concert from this film, it is in fact a poor representation of what that night really meant.

In the documentary, Robbie Robertson explains The Band’s decision to end their touring. Being on the rode so often made for a sad life and the tales of other musicians dying on the road convinced them to step away while they could. However, drummer Levon Helm tells a different tale. In his book This Wheel’s On Fire, Helm confirms that Robertson was getting paranoid about touring but none of the other members shared this sentiment. The other four equally important members of the group wanted to keep touring and suggested they go on without Robertson, who then threatened legal action if they did. So the rest were forced into early retirement.

This is just the beginning of the sad tale of Robertson’s betrayal of the group. When it was decided that they would go out with one final concert featuring some of their favourite and most influencing musical friends, Robertson quickly took over the show. He started inviting artists he collaborated with on solo projects. Ever wonder why Neil Diamond is on the bill? So do the rest of The Band. Then Robertson brought in his friend Scorsese to film the whole thing and that’s when things got ugly.

Robertson deserves much of the blame for how The Band ended, but Scorsese is at fault for how their legacy is perceived. He obviously thought of himself as a fan of the group, but judging by his film, he didn’t understand them in the slightest. The name “The Band” is quite purposeful as they are uniquely without a lead singer, least of all Robertson. However, 80 percent of the movie focuses on Robertson as the mastermind behind it all, barely given the other members anytime screen time. The concert footage is similarly biased, edited in a way that makes it seem as though Robertson is conducting the show, completely betraying the improvised, messy, jam-session feel to their music that makes it so special.

Still, even as unfair a piece of history it is, this was a gathering of genuine musical talent. The likes of Neil Young, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and many more take you back to an amazing era in rock and roll. And while they might not all get the recognition they deserve, the talents of all the members of The Band, Rick Danko, Richard Emmanuel, Garth Hudson, Helm and Robertson, are impossible to ignore once you hear that music.

Top track

A tough task to be sure, but the sad and fitting final bow to “I Shall Be Released” (better than the studio version) is one that captures the celebratory yet somber mood of the farewell. Nothing more to be said.

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