The Band – The Last Waltz

The Last Waltz (1978)

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1. Theme From The Last Waltz 2. Up On Cripple Creek 3. Who Do You Love? 4. Helpless 5. Stage Fright 6. Coyote 7. Dry Your Eyes 8. It Makes No Difference 9. Such A Night 10. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down 11. Mystery Train 12. Mannish Boy 13. Further On Up The Road 14. The Shape I’m In 15. Down South In New Orleans 16. Ophelia 17. Tura-Lura-Lural (That’s An Irish Lullaby) 18. Caravan 19. Life Is A Carnival 20. Baby, Let Me Follow You Down 21. I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met) 22. Forever Young 23. Baby, Let Me Follow You Down (Reprise) 24. I Shall Be Released 25. The Well 26. Evangeline 27. Out Of The Blue 28. The Weight 29. The Last Waltz Refrain 30. Theme From The Last Waltz

 

This is an album review, not a film review, so I’ll refrain from boring you with the ceremonial 100,000th collection of surely unoriginal thoughts about the Scorsese flick, which I just watched for the first time in several years. Suffice it to say, I can understand why Levon Helm hated the movie, which might as well be called In The 70s, Everyone Was In Love With Cocaine Almost As Much As Robbie Robertson Is In Love With Himself. But I think one of the things Marty speed-mumbled in the making-of featurette is relevent: that The Last Waltz definitively represented “the end of an era.”

Let’s be honest: Thanksgiving 1976 was virtually the last possible moment when a big blowout gangbang of classic rock superstars like this could not be tainted with an air of anachronism. The Ramones’ debut album, the first harbinger of the changing of the guard, had been released almost exactly seven months before the concert. And virtually immediately after the concert, pretty much every one of the super special mega guest stars featured other than Neil Young would either die off/become irrelevant, steamrolled by the furious fuckin’ choo-choo train of punk rock (Dr. John, Van Morrison, Ronnie Hawkins), or be corrupted by the consuming jaws of synth pop and disco and help to make mainstream rock and pop in the 80s the unrelenting shitstorm that it was (Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan). Shit, maybe Robbie Robertson has a legitimate reason for being such an arrogant douche – did he have some kind of cosmic insight into the trends of the music business that told him if the Band stuck around for even a few months longer, they would be forever condemned to eternal dinosaurdom and tarnish their legacy by soldiering on lamely through the 80s?

Nah. Methinks he just got lucky.

As for the music itself, well, it certainly helps that they’re playing a bunch of classic songs by other people instead of lumbering through “The Unfaithful Servant” or some shit like on the last live album they did, but to my ears this is easily the best the Band ever sounded. Must be because they were so inspired by the momentousness of the occasion. And by “inspired by the momentousness of the occasion,” I mean, “they spent 18,000 hours overdubbing all their parts so everything would sound perfect.” But do you think I care? Hell no I don’t care!  I mean, maybe it’s kind of weird sometimes to hear like four keyboards magically playing at the same time in order to fill in every little get and riff that could possibly fit into any available nook and cranny of the music during what is supposed to be a “live” recording. But man, if it took Robbie Robertson five months in the studio to get his solos to actually sound good for once, then so be it. Plus, hearing this record in an audio-only context means we’re spared from having to watch Robbie giving his “I’m getting a BJ right now” face every time he plays a rudimentary lead lick, which makes the whole experience a lot more enjoyable. Besides, all the beefed up arrangements and impassioned overdubs make even the hackneyed whining of “Stage Fright” sound like an orgy of catharsis, and result in what has to be the definitive version of “Up On Cripple Creek.” You’ve just gotta love Levon’s roaring performance on that one. Which, according to inside sources, was actually live, as Levon didn’t partake in any instrumental or vocal overdubs.

As for the guest stars, well, you’ve seen the movie (and if you haven’t, well, watcha waitin’ fer?). To go over them all would be a reductive exercise. But ain’t it great that all those nice folks showed up? For all the hits they had in their own right, in the end, the Band are probably best known for being a backing band, and they give a pretty good indication why on The Last Waltz. They demonstrate equal adeptness at backing Neil Diamond and Muddy Waters within literally minutes of each other, which is pretty goddamned impressive if you ask me.

Still, even with all the star power present, one can’t help but feel like everything is just building up to the eventual Dylan appearance… which is a little bit anti-climactic, cause it sounds so under-rehearsed compared to the rest of it (true to form, Bob cast doubt over whether or not he would even show up, fearing that The Last Waltz would interfere with the success of his 87-hour cinematic masturbation session Renaldo & Clara, which is a bit like trying to sabotage The Godfather in order to boost sales of The Room. Bob sulked his way on stage anyway, and despite the deficiencies, the versions of “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” and “I Don’t Believe You” are, synths aside, surprisingly close to the old Live ’66 versions (well, they at least got closer in spirit to the old days than they ever did on the bloated, lazy Before The Flood tour. Still, by far the most entertaining guest appearances on this record occur after the final bows are taken, during the “Last Waltz Suite,” recorded after the concert and tacked onto the album at the end. Namely, the joyous Robertson-penned country waltz “Evangeline,” featuring guest vocals by Emmylou Harris, and especially the transcendent version of “The Weight” featuring the Staple Singers, which is basically the best thing the Band ever did. No joke. The other new songs are the spacey blues rock of “The Well,” which benefits from the newly gruff vocal delivery of the drug-addled Richard Manuel, and the bland but pleasant soul-pop balladry of “Out Of The Blue,” which um, doesn’t, since Robbie Robertson decided to finally take a turn at the lead vocal mic for the first time. He’s about as good at singing as he is at guitar playing, a statement I present with absolutely no further comment whatsoever. SCROTUM.

So if you ain’t jaded about the circle jerkery of classic rock culture, you probably already have this. If you are, then you should check this out anyway. Just ignore the pomp and circumstance and enjoy some really great rock songs played with life-depended-on-it fervor. Or just go ahead and listen to a bunch of Ramones albums if you think you’re too cool for this album. This one is just as much worth your time, in its own way.



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