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LP and CD Versions of the Last Waltz

by Jonathan Katz

I have three versions of the Last Waltz. One (vinyl LPs) was purchased in 1978 when it was first released. I purchased a version on CD when I had the opportunity through a record club. Most recently, I received the Complete Last Waltz (Cool Daddy productions) as a Christmas present from my wife and much to her chagrin, have been listening non-stop ever since. My attempts to reassure her that this will pass are met with icy stares of skepticism - she knows that the Anthology of American Folk Music is looming on the horizon. With each of these Last Waltz acquisitions I have violated a promise to myself to conserve the "music budget" which is already excessive and stretched too thin. I try not to duplicate CD's and vinyl, and I actually play vinyl - or at least tape it for easy playback. But, opportunities were presented - I got the Warner Bros. CDs for "free" in one of those buy-one-get-ten-free deals. And my loving wife got me the Complete Last Waltz for Christmas. So here I am violating my rules with three copies of the Last Waltz. Can I get rid of one or two versions? Trade them at a used record store for other stuff? Below I compare these three versions of the Last Waltz more as a consumers' guide than a record review - my ear is not discerning enough for the latter. And maybe I'll decide during the process whether I can unload one or two of these.


Some might even today consider this purchase as vinyl makes an improbable come back [note the reissue of the "Brown Album"]. Some obvious arguments for this purchase are:
  1. The warm sound of vinyl, analog recordings. My not-too-discerning ear doesn't appreciate this argument. Plus, along with all of that warmth comes surface noise that my not-too-discerning ear can in fact too readily discern. My LPs have been played to death and did not age gracefully.
  2. You may be a collector. If so, I have pity on you - your music budget must be stretched more than mine.
  3. The artwork. The large LP format booklet contains lots of photos from the concert and surrounding studio recordings that are not duplicated elsewhere [see below].
  4. You might like the post-concert production. Overdubs and studio "magic" rendered these "performances" pristine.
  5. There's music on the LPs that is not available elsewhere. In particular [my favorites], the Staples doing "The Weight," "Out Of The Blue," and Emmylou's "Evangeline." These latter two arguments apply equally (or more so if you have no aversion to the "cold precision" of a CD) to the Warner Bros. CD production.

Warner Bros. CDs

The three LPs are condensed onto two CDs packaged in a multi-CD jewel box - the kind that can accommodate up to four CDs and wastes my ever dwindling space for CDs. Two individual jewel boxes take less space; better would be one of the double CD jewel boxes like the one containing the two CDs of "Guitars Kissing and The Contemporary Fix." Warner Bros. reproduced not one, but two booklets for this product; each in CD size and filling the vacant spaces that could be occupied by two other CDs. And everything is there - all the pictures from the original and all of the text, though in a different order. But unfortunately, all of the pictures are in black and white, and the smaller CD size format makes some of them worthless. Why Warner Bros. went to all the production costs to reproduce this CD set only to skimp on the photos seems schizoid, and is beyond me. I suppose some suit reviewed the bottom line and opted for black and white reproductions to cut costs to an amount under the projected revenue. None-the-less, its nice to have the "clean" versions of all this, particularly in light of the shop-worn nature of my LPs.

The Complete Last Waltz

When I first heard about this production, my thoughts were that it was not a cost-effective purchase. I already had the "cream" from the event twice over. But another opportunity arrived - Christmas and my loving wife's interest in finding me a present that I would really like. So I gave her the phone numbers for Generation Records and advised her to be persistent [the first call was negative].

Christmas morning comes with my first reaction to the CLW - the packaging. The four CDs are packaged in an old-fashioned album - not an "LP album," but an old-fashioned picture album in CD size. The tan cloth-covered album is inscribed on the front with the CLW logo in gold. On the inside flap is a penned number. [Mine is 1580 out of 3000 produced - and because this is a recent purchase there are probably about 1400 units still available!] The 100% recycled paper in the album is grainy and sepia/grey. Thirty-six pages of pictures and text precede the envelope-like pages that contain the CDs. These pages are filled with:

  1. the text of the printed announcement that was handed out to the audience on arrival [not available on either Warner Bros. production],
  2. a list of the players [including the horn section],
  3. a listing of the cuts with credits [though somewhat incomplete and with a few mistakes, but you get the picture],
  4. a Band discography [with a few mistakes and omissions], and
  5. six pages of text on The Band and The Last Waltz [nothing new here].
Also included are 18 black and white pictures from the concert. Pictures include members of The Band - with the horrific omission of Richard Manuel. [How could that happen!?] Also included are pictures of many, though not all, of the guests.

Christmas afternoon comes with an opportunity to steal away with a set of headphones and a Discman. I was previously concerned about the sound quality, and I had read that there was a real need for the post-concert overdubs. But, in general, the sound is good - its got an up-front presence and it sounds like a real concert. I've spent a lot of hours listening to a lot worse on bootlegs and traded tapes and enjoyed them [even though I like clean CDs and hate LP surface noise - So Warner Bros. doesn't have a monopoly on being schizoid!] This recording compares well to most bootlegs and is as good as many "official" releases of live material.

Its all here - everything that was played, and in the order in which it was played, including the "post-concert" jams and the last song this group [in its original composition] played together in front of a live audience - "Don't Do It." [Is this Levon talking to Robbie?] Notable are: all of their classics, "Acadian Driftwood" by the Canadians [including Levon], a great version of "Caledonia" by Muddy Waters, and all of the Bob Dylan set [including "Hazel"].

"Evangeline/The Last Waltz" didn't come across too well; Robbie had only finished writing it that day, but it makes a great contrast to "The Weight" which follows. "Evangeline/The Last Waltz" is awkward and tentative at best, with singers forgetting words and dropping out mid-song. Its a stretch that they don't reach [hence the perceived need for a studio version on the Warner Bros. release, and the opportunity to hear Emmylou! - though I don't think that she was/is ever as good as she was on "Heaven Ain't Ready For You Yet" from the "Legend of Jesse James"]. When the group gets past this to "The Weight" they romp, and its great. It must have been a relief to get past the new number and it shows. I like "The Weight" with the Staples on the official release, but I like this more. These guys are great at what they do.

A few random comments:

Garth Hudson.

Its been said over and over, but its no less true, this guy does so much for this music in so many ways. Listen to "Stage Fright," listen to "Georgia On My Mind," listen to any of it - he's there sitting back and laying a foundation or he's up front dazzling you. He's a national treasure.

Levon Helm.

Somebody said that Levon's drumming can make you cry. He's great - but no drumming ever made me cry. On the other hand, his voice can do it to me at will. There's real heartbreak in his rendering of "Dixie," and he does it equally well in "Acadian Driftwood" so he can project his compassion to points less close to home. At least one native son of Arkansas can feel other peoples' pain.

Richard Manuel.

"King Harvest" doesn't quite make it here, the vocal drops out at points and the utter futility doesn't project like I've heard it before, or on the "Brown Album." On the other hand, its great to hear him do "Georgia" live, and he does it well. On "The Shape I'm In" [second number] he's in fine form, spitting out the latter lines [though The Band doesn't appear to be quite warmed up yet]. It's such a loss to us that he's gone.

Rick Danko.

I thought surely that his yodel in "Stage Fright" on the official release was an overdub. And maybe it was - but the one here is just fine. Its a fine vocal on "It Makes No Difference" too.

Robbie Robertson.

There's a great picture of R.R. on page 30 - demonstrating what his playing could do to drive these songs. Was this taken during the lead to "King Harvest" or "It Makes No Difference" or during one of his Curtis Mayfield like embellishments on any other song? For my money, no lead guitarist anywhere puts more passion into a song when he cuts loose.

The Music.

Its vintage The Band in their later years, and its good - real good. But I have to air this gripe. Contrast this performance to earlier live versions of the same songs [get a good bootleg of an early performance, or if you can't get anything else, spring for the Woodstock 1969 compilation that has a few of their songs]. The older performances are open - you can hear the individual players. There is room in that music, but no dead space. The notes that they don't play are as important as the notes that they do play. In 1976 the music over all is crowded - and every nook and cranny is filled with a frill or trill. Its as if each of the players is elbowing the others for room to be heard. Its all great playing, but you can get jostled listening to it. Maybe these guys were all just too good. There's a similar comparison to be made. Listen to "Guitars Kissing..." [or similar vintage material] and compare it to "Before The Flood." Its the same thing - there's no breathing room in "Before The Flood." The same songs in 1966 were open and the players were able to make a stronger musical statement because there was less to hear.

The Packaging.

The packaging complements the recordings. The sound is a "concert" sound [obviously I guess - but that's not so of the official release - obviously again, I guess]. This is an honest sound. You're at this concert, with all of its moments of sheer brilliance and with all of its warts. Likewise, the packaging has grainy pictures and a cloth [almost burlap] cover. The gold embossing of the CLW logo doesn't completely cover all of the cloth - but it clearly shines through the course weave.

While the CLW is an honest rendition of the concert experience, the official release is by contrast an honest rendition of Robbie Robertson's tribute to what he strived for in his musical offerings. The CLW contains grainy pictures [copped from the video?] on recycled paper, in contrast to the shiny paper of the official CD release or the color of the official LP release. Robbie Robertson's vision belongs in the studio, and it sounds like it - its perfect. The CLW puts you in the audience at the concert - eat a turkey before you listen to it and you're practically there. I love this album - buy it if you can!

One more thing: Can I get rid of one or two of the versions? Maybe the LPs? But what about the artwork? The official release CDs? But what about the pristine sound? The Complete Last Waltz? Not on your life!

-- Jonathan Katz

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