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35 Years Ago: The Band Releases ‘The Last Waltz’ Soundtrack

The Band Last Waltz
Warner Bros.

Is it better to burn out than fade away? Or is it best to have one last, blow-out show? ‘The Last Waltz,’ as a concert, a film and an album, served as the Band’s farewell to performing and recording – at least in its original incarnation.

In 1976, Band guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson decided he’d had enough of the road and envisioned a Beatles-esque transition to becoming a studio-only outfit. Some of his fellow Band-mates didn’t feel the same, but went along with his idea of a special “final” performance, which he called ‘The Last Waltz.’ (The Band would reform without Robertson in 1980.)

The show was planned to take place at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, the same place that the group had first performed as the ‘Band’ in 1969. The concert was scheduled for Thanksgiving night, November 25, 1976, following a meal for the attendees and some actual waltzing from ballroom dancers.

The notion of having special guests join the group throughout the show sprung from the idea of incorporating Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan into the lineup – seeing as the Band had served as the backing group for both artists before they officially became a stand-alone act. Soon they began inviting friends and collaborators such as Van Morrison, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Dr. John and Eric Clapton.

Sensing that something truly special was in the offing, the Band felt the night should be documented. The initial idea of having one 16mm camera running in the back eventually gave way to a full-blown, multi-camera production helmed by Martin Scorsese and featuring some of the best cinematographers in film. Following the night of the marathon concert, Scorsese also filmed a few Band performances on a sound stage (without the complications of a live event) to incorporate into the movie.

But because the ‘Taxi Driver’ director was so busy with other projects, the film version of ‘The Last Waltz’ wasn’t ready for release until nearly a year and a half after the concert took place. As such, a soundtrack album (actually a three-LP soundtrack set) didn’t arrive in stores until April 16, 1978 – two weeks before the movie’s release.

Although the album is a solid companion piece to the film, the fiery energy, propulsive pacing and sly interplay between the Band and their pals doesn’t always translate. As the third live release by the Band in the ’70s (following ‘Rock of Ages’ and ‘Before the Flood’ with Dylan), it could have been a needless exercise, if not for the unique collaborations it contains. Among these are ‘Caravan,’ which features Van the Man at his most celebratory, Muddy Waters’ barnstorming ‘Mannish Boy,’ and the inspired Staples Singers/Band take on ‘The Weight.’ Plus, drummer Levon Helm never sang ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ with as much bare-knuckled pathos as he did at this show. Recognizing he could never better this delivery, Helm refused to sing the song ever again.

A more extensive, four-CD set of ‘The Last Waltz’ was released in 2002. It incorporates everything seen in the film, plus performances left on the cutting room floor and superstar jam sessions that took place as encores.

Watch the Band Play ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ in ‘The Last Waltz’

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