The Band's Final Gig?
by Robert HilburnThis article appeared on Saturday November 27, 1976, in the Los Angeles Times, a day after The Last Waltz was over. The text is copyrighted. Please do not copy or redistribute.
SAN FRANCISCO -- When the Band walked off the Winterland stage at just after 2 a.m. Friday, there seemed little doubt that the group's farewell Concert -_ billed as the "Last Waltz" -- had also turned into its greatest hour. In fact, the evening may well be rivaled only by New York's Concert for Bangladesh as the indoor rock spectacular of the 1970s.
For more than four hours, the Band -- long considered America's finest rock unit -- not only played 18 of its best-known tunes but also backed perhaps the most prestigious collection of rock stars ever assembled for a single show onnearly two dozen other songs.
On the closing "I Shall Be Released," for instance, the Band's regular lineup of Robbie Robertson on guitar, Rick Danko on bass, Levon Helm on drums, Garth Hudson on rgan and Richard Manuel on piano was joined by Ringo Starr on drums, Paul Butterfield on harmonica, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Ron Wood on guitars, and Neil Diamond, Dr. John, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Ronnie Hawkins and Bobby ("See You Later Alligator") Charles on backing vocals.
Except for Wood and Starr, everyone (plus veteran blues singer Muddy Waters) joined in solo appearances with the Band for one to four numbers during the concert that marked the end of the Band as a touring (though not recording) group. The concert was recorded and filmed (with Martin Scorsese, of "Taxi Driver" and "Mean Streets," directing) for a possible album and theatrical release.
The announcement this month of the Band's decision to stop doing live shows was particularly surprising because the group, some felt, had played better than ever on a summer tour (including three dates at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles).
Tired of the RoadBut Robertson, the group's main spokesman, said the Band simply had tired of the road and felt the time could be better applied to future albums and various solo projects.
All 5,000 tickets were sold as fast as they could be processed earlier this month. The concert even attracted Band fans from around the country.
"I've never even been away from home over night before," said 17-year-old Richard Palmer, who had hitch-hiked from Minneapolis and was still trying to buy a ticket to the concert Thursday afternoon, "but I just had to see the Band again. I saw them with Dylan in 1974. I really went to see him, but the Band just blew me out. Their words, voices, everything."
Similarly, Billie and Vicki Mudry, who were seeing the Band for the 34th and 20th time, respectively, had ridden the Amtrak from New York. They had concert tickets but the trip (costing about $250 apiece) meant Billie had to dip into the savings that she had planned to use to publish a book of her poetry. "The poetry can wait," she said. "This may be the last time I'll ever be able to see the Band unless they make the movie. Then, we'll always be able to see them."
The Band chose Winterland for its farewell concert because it was the hall (and the same producer, Bill Graham), in which the group made its first public appearar in 1969 after their release of its widely acclaimed first two albums. The albums -- "Music From Big Pink" and "The Band" -- pushed the Band to the forefront of American rock,
Since that'first Winterland concert, the Band has grown to international acclaim. There is more intelligence, precision and overall design in the Band's music than any of its rock competitors. Vocally and instrumentally, the quintet has the technical skills to tailor its music to bring out the maximum flavor of a song. Its material, most of it written by Robertson, reflects a sense of timelessness and craft that gives it a provocative, compelling ring. The them range from humor to social comment, romantic celebration to rich historical character studies.
Except for its new "Georgia on My Mind" single, the Band -- supported on several numbers by a six-piece horn section -- relied on most of its best-known tunes (see accompanying box) in its opening 50-minute set Thursday night. Each member played with an apparent sense of joy and determination that suggested the members'were glad to be putting the road behind them and doing it in such a stylish manner.
If the talent lineup (which was rumored but not confirmed in "Last Waltz" ads and interviews) wasn't enough to make the concert the rock event of the 1970s, the Winterland setting was as striking as anyone in the audience had probably experienced in pop.
In keeping with the evening's slightly surrealistic mood, which juxtaposed a ragged rock element against a formal backdrop, huge chandeliers were hung from the ceiling and the set from "La Traviata" was borrowed from the San Francisco Opera Company. The 38-piece Berkeley Promenade Orchestra entertained while dinners were served to all 5,000 patrons, a few dozen of whom wore tuxedos or other formal attire. Besides the estimated 5,600 pounds of turkey, there were 300 pounds of Nova Scotia salmon provided as a "vegetarian" alternative.
But all the glamorous trappings faded into the background as the music began. After its initial set, the Band was joined by a series of guests who took solo vocal turns. Because the styles of the guests varied from rockabilly to blues, the Band was able to demonstrate some sides of its musical background that had often been hidden in recent years. By moving so effortlessly and authoritatively from style to style, one would have thought the Band had spent years backing each of the musicians rather than simply Dylan and Hawkins.
The flamboyant Hawkins kicked off the guest portion with an exaggerated, good-natured version of Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love" during which he jokingly fanned Robertson's guitar as if it were so hot it was going to catch fire.
It wasn't until Paul Butterfield came on to share vocals with Levon Helm on "Mystery Train," an old Elvis Presley flipside, that things got moving in the guest set. There was a drive and intensity to the number that continued through two songs by Muddy Waters, the influential bluesman.
Eric Clapton produced the first of two absolute show-stopping performances during the guest portion when, after some coaxing from Robertson, he stepped forward during "Further On up the Road" for the kind of blistering guitar solo that has been all too infrequent in his recent albums and tours.
After Clapton's display, the acoustic sets by Neil Young and Joni Mitchell (she previewed two songs from her new album) were tasteful but a bit too tame. Because he was on somewhat foreign rock turf, Neil Diamond -- whose base is mainstream pop -- was noticeably nervous and far more subdued in manner than he normally is on stage. Still, "Dry Your Eyes," the song he co-wrote with Robertson, was well received.
The only other guest moment that matched Clapton's was the return of Van Morrison, the excellent but often shy, retiring (on stage) singer-songwriter. In his first major U.S. concert appearance in some two years, Morrison did a gritty, intense duet with Richard Manuel on "Tura Lura Lura" and then went through a stylish, spirited, version of "Caravan" with a few energetic kicks in the air.
After intermission, the Band returned with "Chest Fever" (featuring another of Garth Hudson's fluid yet richly probing keyboard excursions), followed by a newly titled, for the occasion, "The Last Waltz") that was so fresh the lyrics had to be written on huge cue cards for the vocalists to read.
Dylan and the FinaleThen came Dylan, whose appearance on stage generated the evening's biggest roar. While playing with the same tenacity that, has marked his post-1974 concerts, Dylan's decision to use three of his relatively little known tunes ("Baby, Let Me Follow You Down," "Hazel" and "I Don't Believe You") along with the better known "Forever Young" prevented the kind of overwhelming celebration that the audience seemed ready to endorse.
After "I Shall Be Released" closed the formal portion of the program, several musicians (Robertson, Helm, Butterfield, Clapton, Wood and, briefly, Stephen Stills) joined in two instrumental jams that lasted some 30 minutes. The Band then returned for a final number, "Baby, Don't You Do It," before "The Last Waltz" concluded.
Backstage, the Band was ecstatic. Robertson was particularly lavish in his praise: "Everyone was so incredible about it, wanting to be involved, come hell or high water, Lear jets, canceled dates, whatever it took," he said. "It makes you feel great when they rise to the occasion that strongly. There wasn't one who said, 'Let me try and get my thing together and I'll call you back.' No one had to 'think about it.' They just said they'd do it."
Whether it proves to be simply the start of a touring sabbatical or truly the end of live performances for the Band, "The Last Waltz" told a lot about why the various artists wanted to participate. Just as the fans who hitch-hiked from Minneapolis and rode the train from New York wanted to be on hand, the musicians, too, wanted to make sure they weren't going to miss what might have been the last opportunity to be with the Band.