Nostalgia trip: The Band's blowout triple-album farewell

The Last Waltz was one of those marvellous discoveries you might find after a little poking around the album collection of an ageing would-be-hippie uncle

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 July, 2015, 11:22pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 July, 2015, 11:22pm

The lesson to be learned from The Last Waltz is never say never.

Canadian-American five-piece The Band built their reputation outside North America as probably the best backing group ever by supporting the likes of Bob Dylan and Ringo Starr both live and in recording sessions that produced masterpieces such as Dylan's The Basement Tapes (1975).

But they weren't too shabby on their own, either, and when - after around 20 years together - they decided to call it quits, the idea was to say goodbye in the biggest way they could think of. They hired the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco for the night of November 25, 1976 - Thanksgiving Day, no less - and threw a party for the ages, calling it The Last Waltz (in keeping with the venue).

There were apparently truckloads of turkey and other traditional Thanksgiving fare passed around the crowd while the backstage posse was more interested in less-legal substances to help get them in the mood, judging by the stories that came out after Martin Scorsese made his famed documentary about the event.

More than a dozen of the artists The Band had collaborated with over the decades joined them on stage at various stages of the night, along with writers and poets and - it seems looking back - anyone who might have been wandering past the corner of Post and Steiner streets.

Enough went on over the course of the concert to fill five sides in the old album format (the sixth side is a post-concert suite recorded later in a studio). And The Last Waltz was one of those marvellous discoveries you might find after a little poking around the album collection of an ageing would-be-hippie uncle, adding a harder edge to a collection that included maybe a little Jethro Tull and most definitely Surrealistic Pillow (1967) by Jefferson Airplane.

Everyone, everywhere seemed at one stage to have a copy and it's easy to see why. What gets drummed home is just how tight an outfit The Band were, even forgetting the internal conflicts that would be revealed once the battles for the cash this project generated started becoming public knowledge.

The undoubted talents of singer-songwriter-guitarist Robbie Robertson were the primary focus of the Scorsese film (and the focus of much anger from the other four members of The Band), but take away the visuals and all you have is the sound, a rock-driven and southern country-inspired mish-mash that reaches its finest moments on the Robertson-penned gems Up on Cripple Creek and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.

Of the guests, Neil Young is his usual inspired self on the searing Helpless, Muddy Waters tears the house down on Mannish Boy, and Dr John does what only he can do on the rollicking Such a Night.

Dylan joins the lads on stage for the five songs that brought the night to a stunning conclusion and off they trooped, seemingly into history. But bills have to be paid, we can suppose, and they've returned in various guises since - giving hope to us all.

The Last Waltz  The Band  (Warner Bros)