The Band's 1976 farewell concert at San Francisco's Winterland Arena was an extravagant affair, complete with turkey dinners for the show's 5,000 audience members, each of whom had paid the then-exorbitant ticket price of $25 to attend. Produced by legendary promoter Bill Graham, the Thanksgiving show, billed as "The Last Waltz," featured the Band -- Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson -- along with numerous high-profile guests such as Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. (Dylan had hired the group -- then known as the Hawks -- as his backup band in 1966.) Martin Scorsese filmed the concert (to be released on May 7 in a new DVD version), and Warner Bros. Records issued the soundtrack, a lavish three-album set with a slipcase and an embossed cover. It all seemed a long way from Music From Big Pink and The Band, the group's first two albums, near-perfect collections of stripped-down, country-infused rock and roll.
To celebrate the concert's 25th anniversary, Warner Bros. (with help from Rhino Records) has remixed and remastered the original tracks and added many that were left off the original album. The result is a deluxe four-CD set that contains more than four hours of music, including sixteen previously unreleased concert tracks, five songs from the show's rehearsal, and several heretofore unheard studio numbers. In the liner notes, Robertson, the Band's lead guitarist and chief songwriter, says, "All the previously unreleased material will hopefully give the listener more of a feeling of what the whole experience was like." But the bonus cuts are both a blessing and a curse.
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On the plus side, we get to hear several of the Band's greatest songs, "The Weight" and "Rag Mama Rag" among them, that for some reason were omitted from the album. We also get to hear the great Muddy Waters doing "Caldonia," the old Louis Jordan number, and Neil Young's wonderful cover of Ian Tyson's "Four Strong Winds."
Unfortunately, the boxed set also restores Eric Clapton's lackluster "All Our Past Times," Joni Mitchell's tedious "Shadows and Light," and Dylan's deservedly obscure "Hazel." Worse, the new edition contains two lengthy guitar jams -- featuring Clapton, Robertson, Young, Ron Wood and Stephen Stills -- that never should have seen the light of day. And the rehearsal numbers sound like, well, rehearsals.
Still, The Last Waltz, for all its excesses, contains some great music: the Band's hauntingly beautiful "It Makes No Difference," with Danko's quivering lead vocal, and "Life Is a Carnival," featuring Hudson's circus-band organ fills; Young's "Helpless," in a version that may just be better than the original; Mitchell, at the peak of her powers, doing a rollicking version of "Coyote"; and Van Morrison tearing down the house with "Caravan." The Band, in top form, backs up its illustrious guests with taste and aplomb. (One question remains: What the hell is Neil Diamond doing in this company? It's as if he missed a turn on the way to Las Vegas and ended up at Winterland.)
Despite the finality of the occasion, the Band, minus Robertson, limped along for years as a touring unit, even if they never recaptured the group's glory days. For Manuel, a longtime alcoholic, the last waltz came in 1986 in a Florida motel bathroom, where he hanged himself after a gig. Danko, who struggled with heroin addiction, died in his sleep in 1999. The road, Robertson observes in Scorsese's movie, "has taken a lot of the great ones. It's a goddamn impossible way of life." True words, indeed.