Allow me to commit a bit of light heresy: I don’t particularly care for The Last Waltz. Which isn’t to say that I hate it (though it was brutally panned by no less than Levon Helm himself), but that I don’t think it’s quite the musical end-game it’s made out to be.
I’ll back things up a bit. I’ve owned my copy of The Last Waltz for eight or nine years now. I picked it up at the long-gone Magic Bus on Toulouse St. in the French Quarter for $6, spun it maybe once, and put it on my shelf. At the time, the music sounded musty and riddled with cliche, and the appearance of Eric Clapton on the second record didn’t help. I remember wandering into a friend’s house right as he’d put on the then-recently released concert DVD and snorting at the title-card’s note that “This music should be played loud!” I did eventually come to my senses (developing a taste for Southern, and especially Cajun, music probably didn’t hurt any), at least as far as The Band is concerned. I’ve spent nights flicking through individual performances from Scorcese’s film–it’s how I spent my birthday, in fact–but still haven’t watched the entire thing the whole way through.
As I clicked around YouTube a couple of weeks ago, I realized I was largely skipping around the guest appearances, Mavis and Roebuck Staples’ stint in “The Weight” notwithstanding. This is in part because I am not terribly adventurous, musically, and in part because the songs performed by The Band alone are so strong: I could listen to Levon batter that version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” for an hour on end, and blow half a night considering the complexity of New Orleans R&B legend Allen Toussaint’s having composed the horn charts for a song that sympathizes with a defeated Reb. The soundstaged version of “The Weight” doesn’t quite match the charm of the original, but it does show how beautifully the song had aged to that point, and Roebuck Staples sings the third verse as if it were written on the lining of his lungs. “Evangeline,” “The Shape I’m In,” “Up On Cripple Creek”–even the semi-ridiculous “Theme From the Last Waltz” is incredible, especially when the entire orchestra begins to lurch and stomp in a mimic of Levon’s drumming style.
It’s the guests. That’s what I don’t like about The Last Waltz. The performances aren’t necessarily lacking anything (except Neil Young’s “Helpless,” which, references to Ontario aside, still seems like a strange choice; after hearing Robbie Robertson rip through “Who Do You Love?” you can’t help but want to hear he and Neil pick apart “Down By the River”). The Band actually acquit themselves at every turn, yelping along to Muddy Waters and “Mannish Boy,” making Neil Diamond sound good in “Dry Your Eyes.” Brushing behind Joni Mitchell’s speak-sung “Coyote,” they suddenly become downtown-cool, almost post-punk. Unsurprisingly, they sound perfect behind Bobby Charles’ “Down South in New Orleans,” and probably should have gone straight to the studio with Dr. John after an incredible “Such a Night.”
Yes. Technically, the profusion of guests is a great tribute to The Band, both to the level of respect they enjoyed from their peers and to their ability to shift in and out of styles with remarkable ease. And yes, the actual concert was quite long–something like five or six hours, not including Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Michael McClure’s poetry readings or the turkey dinner served to the audience –and it included a pair of Band-only sets. As a document of The Band’s final performance, The Last Waltz is maybe technically a success, insofar as it crams in nearly every noteworthy detail. But in other ways, The Last Waltz is a failure, as it spends almost exactly as much time on other people’s music as it does on the music of The Band.
It’s a difficult hair to split, I understand. And as I mention above, it’s not as if The Band simply fade into the ether when backing, say, Ronnie Hawkins or Van Morrison. And, of course, backing up other musicians is integral to the group’s legacy. But they only played behind Hawkins and Bob Dylan for so long, and created an incredible body of work on their own afterwards. Apparently, Hawkins and Dylan (who really howls his way through “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down”) were supposed to be the night’s only guests. But, as these things often do, the guest list ballooned to the point of including seemingly any- and everyone with whom The Band had ever worked. It seems only perfect that the group are almost completely subjected to celebrity muddle in album- (though not show-) closer “I Shall Be Released,” with Ringo having taken over the drums and the stage overcrowded with guests. The Last Waltz is supposed to be a document of the end of the on-stage career of one of the greatest bands in rock history, but, to me anyway, it ends up feeling like a document of bloated seventies excess, a less-exultant narrative that’s been as conveniently erased as the rock of cocaine that Martin Scorcese had to rotoscope out of Neil Young’s nose.
1. Rachelle and I saw Mavis Staples at Hangout Fest this summer, a month or two after Levon passed away, and she tore through “The Weight,” building it into a crescendo that climaxed with her shouting “LE-VON!” and the crowd echoing her. Back to post.
2. Neil Diamond was a controversial choice even at the time. Robertson had produced Diamond’s Beautiful Noise, and so made a kind of tangential sense, but the rest of the group–and rock history–objected. Levon, as you can imagine, had something to say about it. Back to post.