When the Band decided to stage a farewell concert on Thanksgiving in 1976 they wanted to pack the stage with as many rock icons as possible, making even the Concert for Bangladesh seem like a minor affair by comparison. They aimed high, inviting Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell and even Muddy Waters, but one name on their want list towered above all others: Bob Dylan.
It would be hard to imagine a proper sendoff for the Band without Dylan. In 1965, he took the largely unknown group of musicians and made them the backing band on his first electric tour. Three years later they stepped out on their own and made some of the best music of the decade with only minimal help from Dylan, but his shadow loomed large. When they came back together in 1974 for a tour they packed stadiums all over America and didn’t even come close to satisfying the demand for tickets. Even so, Warner Bros. said they’d only finance The Last Waltz if Bob Dylan was a part of it.
The only problem was the Band didn’t exactly schedule the show at the most convenient time for Dylan. He hadn’t performed in six months and was gearing up for a highly contentious divorce from his wife Sara. Also, he was deep in the editing process of Renaldo and Clara and had little desire to lend his name to a competing film project. Dylan hemmed and hawed for days before the show, only agreeing to travel up to San Francisco at the last moment.
Dylan arrived at the Winterland Ballroom with a lawyer and a set of demands. He’d play six songs, but they could only film three. Even when this was agreed to, he tried to back out 15 minutes before he was due onstage. “I wasn’t that surprised,” said the Band’s Levon Helm. “[He] didn’t want to compete with himself by having The Last Waltz and Renaldo and Clara go head to head.”
He ultimately relented, leading the Band through a six-song set that highlighted every period of their time together. “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” and “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)” are two tracks from Dylan’s early 1960s acoustic albums that the Band helped electrify in 1965/66. “Forever Young” and “Hazel” both come from Planet Waves, the only studio album Dylan and the group recorded together. After a reprise of “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,” Dylan lead the Band and many of the evening’s guests through “I Shall Be Released,” a tune Dylan wrote during the Basement Tapes sessions that he let the Band cover on their first album.
After a long evening of music and backstage tension, Dylan still wasn’t ready to relent. “Bob Dylan’s lawyers [went] into the truck immediately after the show and seized the tapes Bob was on,” Helm wrote in his autobiography. “So there would [still] have to be negotiations.” The final movie contains three Dylan songs, and today is seen as one of the all-time great concert films, while Renaldo and Clara was widely panned as unwatchable nonsense punctuated by the occasional stellar Dylan performance.
What Dylan didn’t realize at The Last Waltz filming was that Martin Scorsese’s team didn’t control every camera at the Winterland Ballroom that night. Rock promoter Bill Graham had a black-and-white camera running throughout the entire show, and the tape recently hit the Internet. It’s fascinating to watch something so familiar from a new angle. Here’s Dylan and the Band playing “Hazel,” which had never been seen before.