Remembering The Band: “The Last Waltz” (1978)

Said to be one of the greatest rock documentaries of all time, The Last Waltz (1976) focuses on the one of the most famous backing bands- The Band (formerly The Hawks), who first formed 50 years ago in 1964 and first worked as a band for other singers before becoming recognised for their music in their own right. The film opens with a title card stating: ‘This film should be played loud!’ Perhaps most notable for playing with Bob Dylan, The Band have played with a wide assortment of musicians, including Neil Diamond, Ringo Starr, Joni Mitchell, Ronnie Wood, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Neil Young and many others. The Last Waltz was The Band’s last concert before moving off the road. It was filmed by Martin Scorsese and features The Band playing with an ensemble of musical geniuses and features a terrific array of performances (including a fantastic rendition of Muddy Waters’ ‘Mannish Boy’, filmed by cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs). Other great scenes throughout the film include The Band performing ‘Down South in New Orleans’, ‘The Shape I’m In’, and the stunning ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’.

Their music is distinctly country/rock/gospel, with shades of zydeco and rockabilly, and like all great singer-songwriters of the day, they were tremendously influential storytellers, singing stories most often about love and loss, places and dreams. The brilliant Garth Hudson adds a terrific sound to The Band’s music with his organ, synthesisers and sax. Drummer Levon Helm criticised in part the film’s insinuation that Band guitarist Robbie Robertson was the head of the band, while others including Richard Manuel received little camera time.The concert was held on November 25, 1976, filmed by Scorsese and released two years later. Before the concert The Band had toured with Bob Dylan from 1965-67, often billed at concerts as Bob Dylan and The Band. They released a studio album, Bob Dylan and The Band: The Basement Tapes (1975), which was received with both critical acclaim and criticism, mainly for the omission of some of Dylan’s songs (such as ‘I Shall be Released’) and recordings of The Band on their own, which critic Michael Grey described as “disrupt[ing] the unity of Dylan material.” The Band have 10 albums of their own, including The Band (1969), Stage Fright (1970) and Jericho (1993), as well as one other album with Dylan, Planet Waves (1974). Guitarist Robertson, who turned 71 this month, joins Jerry Lee Lewis on Lewis’ forthcoming album, Rock and Roll Time, released by Vanguard Records, on October 28, 2014. The album will also feature Keith Richards, Nils Lofgren, Ronnie Wood, Neil Young, and others.

The Band reformed in 1983, though were not received as well as in their heyday. Adding to the band’s woes was the suicide of Richard Manuel after a performance in Florida in 1986. Hudson and Robertson are the only surviving members of The Band. 1999 was the last year The Band recorded together, recording a cover of Dylan’s “One Too Many Mornings”. Following the death of band member Rick Danko in December 1999, The Band went their separate ways. Levon Helm died in 2012. The Band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.


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