Almost two years ago, the Band called it quits. They also called in a cast of friends and movie director Martin Scorsese to film a farewell concert. On hand were Ronnie Hawkins, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, Dr. John, Paul Butterfield, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Bobby Charles, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan, among others. The Band went out the same way they had come in: with ambition and style. And now, anyone who missed the concert on Thanksgiving Day 1976 can not only see the movie but own the album, a deluxe, slipcased three-record affair.
The Band’s best work promises to outlive its era. At the end of a decade that had seen rock explode into the rococo enthusiasms of psychedelia, the Band rehabilitated basics and championed values like economy, simplicity and conviction. Their second LP, The Band (1969), was the right record at the right time. Looking back to earlier forms of blues, soul and country, and forward to the polished intimacy of the singer/songwriters of the early Seventies, the album accomplished that rarest of feats for a piece of popular art: by conscientiously defining a moment in time, it enabled its audience to articulate a new range of feelings.
I can still remember a summer night in 1970, when the Band played outdoors before an enthusiastic crowd in Cambridge. Every person there seemed to know every song in the Band’s book. It was the last time I felt a part of a tranquil community of rock listeners — a tranquility all the more remarkable in a concert held shortly after the invasion of Cambodia and the murders at Kent State.
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But other aspects of the concert were troubling. For a group that ostensibly embodied the virtue of rough-hewn integrity, the Band displayed an awesome slickness that evening: even the raw edges seemed planned. These bar-band auteurs were only too ready to embalm their own best work beneath a veneer of professionalism, as if to exhibit it behind a glass case in some museum. Their Rock of Ages could sound pretty stolid.
In the Seventies, the Band added little to their “classic” repertoire. Recording only fitfully, they released five studio LPs and one live set. They also undertook a highly publicized tour with Bob Dylan. Altogether, that doesn’t add up to much in terms of quantity. In terms of quality, it’s arguable that such American bands as Steely Dan and even Little Feat have done more work of substance in this decade. Rarely has a group gone so far with so little.
So why the legend? Partially, no doubt, because of the longstanding Dylan connection. And, of course, the Band did seize the moment, once.
In a sense, The Last Waltz is a somewhat self-serving elegy to that moment and its passing. As an album, it attempts to do for rock in the Sixties generally and the Band specifically what The Band did for the American ethos: to fix a place for the past by showing its importance to the present. Perhaps the Sixties are still too near, but the effects of The Last Waltz are not always gratifying. Like scrupulous caretakers making merry at a wake, the Band brings on the best of the survivors — an impressive cast of stars not unlike the Hollywood has-beens who often take cameo roles in airport disaster films.
There is little here that demands a second hearing. Most of it we have heard before, done better. On this score, some of the guests are at fault: Dr. John and Neil Diamond turn in mediocre performances, Muddy Waters sounds muddy and Eric Clapton stumbles through “Further on Up the Road.” But the Band isn’t entirely blameless. In their role as accompanists, they lumber through what should be limber, making heavy weather of Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote” and Van Morrison’s “Caravan.” They provide lumpy harmonies for Neil Young’s “Helpless.” Throughout, there is an earnest and turgid air about the proceedings — and that air, one fears, may just be the Band’s special signature.
Still, several of the finest tracks belong to the Band. “It Makes No Difference,” with a new horn arrangement by Howard Johnson, stands out among the ballads and is a distinct improvement over the rather passionless version on Northern Lights — Southern Cross. “Ophelia,” as well as old chestnuts like “Up on Cripple Creek,” exhibits an attractive authority. And Levon Helm and Paul Butterfield have fun with “Mystery Train.”
The sixth side of The Last Waltz is devoted to a new studio work, Robbie Robertson’s “The Last Waltz Suite.” It opens with a fanfare for horns that belongs on the Johnny Carson Show and closes with an orchestrated instrumental that could pass for the “Third Man Theme.” In between is a pastiche of echoed synthesizers and rural echoes. Emmylou Harris is enlisted for a taste of country, while the Staples add a dollop of soul. On “Out of the Blue,” Robertson proves himself a wobbly singer, but the worst is yet to come: a remake of “The Weight,” taken at a jaunty clip and drained of the brooding presence that possessed the original version. This time out, even an emblematic chorus by Mavis Staples doesn’t really help.
Which leaves the performance of Bob Dylan, who, apart from the Band, is the one artist who dominates this record. Can there be any doubt that the Band’s best playing has come behind Dylan? On the bootleg LP of Dylan’s 1966 British tour, Robbie Robertson solos like a man pressed to his limits; there is nothing quite like it on any of the Band’s albums. Perhaps Dylan’s volubility cuts against the stylistic conventions the Band refined to the point of stodginess; perhaps Dylan is simply a galvanic artist. Whatever the reasons, Bob Dylan makes the Band come alive, if only because Dylan himself is so unpredictable (even in the mundane sense of changing chords impulsively, thus forcing his accompanists to save a song rather than merely play it).
On The Last Waltz, Dylan resurrects a couple of songs from the 1966 tour, “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” and “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts like We Never Have Met).” Both are sung in the kind of talk-song the singer used on Hard Rain, and the Band’s playing is full-blooded, eloquent and forceful. In its hoarse fierceness, “I Don’t Believe You” even evokes the spooky intensity of Dylan’s voice in 1966. But the most surprising performance comes on “Forever Young,” the flaky lyric first heard on Planet Waves. Wielding words like a careless man with a knife, Dylan infuses the song with an acid irrelevance, while Robertson responds in kind with two sputtering, choked solos. This version of “Forever Young” could almost pass for an ironic commentary on the whole concert. It would not, however, end matters on a suitably edifying note. For that, we need Bob Dylan to close with “I Shall Be Released,” on which Ronnie Wood and Ringo Starr join the Band and friends for a choral sing-along.
Of all the coffe-table albums to date, The Last Waltz is in many respects the most impressive. The production and pacing are crisp, the performances generally competent, if rarely much more. Yet, like Woodstock and The Concert for Bangla Desh, the Band’s farewell seems destined merely to quench a momentary craving for nostalgia, only to be stuffed away on a shelf, unlistened to and forgotten. A classic recording of a classic pseudoevent, The Last Waltz poses as a document of rock history in the making. But no new standards are set, few old standards are met, and future challenges are never raised. What we have here is a glittering but empty rite of passage.