And The Band Played On ...
by Joel SelvinThis article appeared on Saturday November 27, 1976, in the San Fransisco Chronicle, a day after The Last Waltz was over. The text is copyrighted. Please do not copy or redistribute.
It was undoubtedly the single biggest collection of rock stars ever to perform on one stage: 17 musicians played Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released," led by the songwriter himself, Thursday at Winterland.
The occasion was the final public performance by The Band, Dylan's former accompanists, and the group assembled an all-star cast of friends and associates for a farewell concert, titled "The Last Waltz," that was both recorded and filmed.
Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Van Morrison and The Band's Rick Danko surrounded one microphone. Robbie Robertson of the Band, Dylan, and Ronnie Hawkins, veteran Canadian rock star whom The Band also used to accompany, circled another mike.
The Band's Levon Helm and Ringo Starr drummed. Eric Clapton, Paul Butterfield and Bobby Charles stood in another cluster, as Ron Wood, lead guitarist for the Rolling Stones, played off to the side.
Producer Bill Graham literally transformed Winterland with chandeliers in the hall, sets from the San Francisco Opera's "La Traviata" onstage, red velvet curtains in the lobby, bushes and a fountain in the ticket foyer, and Thanksgiving dinners for 5000 (at a cost of $36,000).
Diners were entertained by the Berkeley Promenade Orchestra, a 40-piece string group, and blues pianist Dave Alexander, as many couples turned waltzes on the dance floor.
Shortly after 9 p.m., The Band began a flawless hour-long set of tunes from the group's seven albums, which had all the power and intensity that was missing from The Band's last Bay Area appearance this summer at Stanford. Each song gained momentum and energy, as The Band laid its repertoire to rest, song by song.
For the next 100 minutes, guests paraded on and off stage, each singing one or two songs, and leaving. Beginning with Ronnie Hawkins, The Band's first bandleader, the guests were (in order) Dr. John, Bobby Charles, Paul Butterfield, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond and Van Morrison.
Butterfield tore it up, singing "Mystery Train" with Levon Helm, and blowing some superb harmonica. Clapton fired off a guitar solo on "Farther on up the Road" that easily matched his best. Joni Mitchell used the subtle musical shadings The Band provided to great effect. Van Morrison capped the string of guest stars, singing "Tura Lura" as if it were a Ray Charles tune.
After a half-hour intermission, The Band returned to perform "Chest Fever," with Band organist Garth Hudson supplying his famous introduction; "The Last Waltz," a song composed specifically for the occasion; and "The Weight," The Band's signature tune. "We'd like to bring on one more friend," Robbie Robertson announced, as the crowd began cheering. They knew who was coming. "A very good friend of ours...Bob Dylan."
In a white hat and black leather jacket, Dylan rushed onstage, plugged in his electric guitar and swung into a 25-minute performance that began and ended with a hard-rocking "Baby Let Me Follow You Down," and, in between, "I Don't Believe You" (a lost love song from "Another Side of Bob Dylan"), "Hazel", and "Forever Young" (from his "Planet Waves" collaboration with The Band).
After the ensemble version of "I Shall Be Released," as the crowd screamed for more, Ringo Starr sat back down at the drums and began pounding out a figure in tandem with Helm. One by one, the players straggled on for an impromptu jam: Robbie Robertson, Ron Wood, Paul Butterfield, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel from The Band, and Carl Radle, former bassist with Derek and the Dominoes. Bill Graham literally carried Eric Clapton onstage. Neil Young sauntered on. Dr. John took over the piano. Steve Stills joined in.
A half-hour later, it was over. The Band returned for one final tune ("Baby Don't Do It") and Robertson told the crowd "goodnight...goodbye."
The group first formed in Canada, as Levon and the Hawks, 16 years ago and first toured backing Ronnie Hawkins, a rock singer with a few hits. The band backed Dylan in his tours with a rock group, before retiring to Woodstock, where The Band recorded its classic first LP, "Music From Big Pink," in 1968. The Band made its solo concert debut in April, 1969, at Winterland, and toured with Dylan again two years ago, when he returned to concerts.
As to why the Band is quitting performances, Robbie Robertson has been quoted as saying he will soon have been on the road 20 years and he is too young for that status. The Band may make no more public appearances, but it will continue to record.
At Winterland Thursday, The Band had the rare opportunity to display the full range of their skills - both on their own and as accompanists. The group sensitively supported each musician it backed, playing in a style consistent with each guest artist. Behind Muddy Waters (with the eight-piece horn section blowing furiously), The Band adopted a hard-driving, big band rhythm and blues sound, while behind Joni Mitchell, The Band etched fragile, gentle shapes. It took Dylan, however, to utilize the full dynamics of The Band.
The concert was as perfect as it could have been, and the extravaganza was nothing if not a tribute to the power and skills of producer Bill Graham and his organization, for whom it was truly a labor of love. Even with tickets at $25 each, the sold-out show lost money for the producer. If the film made Thursday night - directed by Martin Scorcese ("Taxi Driver") - captured anything of the remarkable evening, it should be quite a movie.