The Last Waltz
Warner Brothers Records, 1977
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/31/1998
Back in 1976, the Canadian group The Band decided they had had enough of the road and being together. On Thanksgiving Day of that year, they threw possibly the most lavish farewell concert ever seen in rock and roll. Dinner was served to 5,000 attendees, and the guest list on stage rivaled the amount of guests on today's rap albums.
The album of that concert, The Last Waltz, is a companion to the film of the event shot by Martin Scorcese. Supposedly this film is considered the greatest rock documentary ever made. (Having never seen it - sorry, Marty - I'll take people's word for it.) However, the triple live album (well, five out of the six sides are live) is what we call overkill - and overkill in a big way.
When the music features only the original members of The Band - Garth Hudson, Rick Denko, Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel and Levon Helm - the music is quite good, easily beating the pants off their previous live release Rock Of Ages. Where the first live album documented a band going through some heavy tension (they would take time off the road after that particular show), The Last Waltz seems to be more relaxed, as the band members know that the end is quite near. Songs like "Life Is A Carnival" and "Up On Cripple Creek" have not often sounded better.
Now, had this been just a concert featuring The Band, it would have been a semi-decent live album. But this is where the plot sickens. Frankly, there are far too many guest musicians at this show - almost at the end of each song, some member of the band is introducing another "friend" who they either worked with or were influenced by. After a while, you want to yell, "Enough!"
I will concede that some of these guest performances are worthwhile. The set of songs featuring Bob Dylan (with whom The Band worked on and off with) feature Dylan at his best in some time. And the re-teaming with Ronnie Hawkins (whom The Band started out with as his backing band) is kind of interesting - coming full circle, if you will. Van Morrison's two-song appearance is also noteworthy.
However, the remainder of the guest performances only seem to act as vehicles for those artists: Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Dr. John - blah, blah, blah. I like these artists as much as the next person, but their work here doesn't complement the music of The Band, who are supposed to be the stars of their own retirement party. It's far too distracting, and it's far too crowded for my tastes.
The final portion of The Last Waltz features what were supposed to be the final studio recordings of The Band - guest spots are also here, but this time they do complement the music, and are somewhat enjoyable.
Of course, many of the band members (save for Robertson) unwilling to never say "never," reformed in the '80s, and recorded Jericho in 1993 (except for Manuel, who committed suicide in 1986). So, the experience of the listener in 1978 (when this album came out) would have been one of respectful awe, thinking this was the last act for the group. However, in 1998, one seems to wonder just what all the hoopla was about.
The Last Waltz isn't particularly difficult to get through in regards to the album's length, but when you factor in the potpourri of guests popping up more often than acne on a teen's face before a big date, it becomes a rather tedious listen. Still, it's a helluva lot better than Rock Of Ages. (I do wonder, though, how this holds up to Live At Watkins Glen, which was released a few years ago.)