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It remains one of the most exquisite concerts ever filmed. My friend Rich and I fantasized about buying tickets when sales were announced in the early fall of 1976. We sat in his apartment near the University of Maryland’s College Park campus doing bong hits and running scenarios about getting to the show. Should we try and get a friend in San Francisco to buy us tickets, then buy a cheap plane ticket or should we just buy a beater car and drive across country hoping to find a reasonable scalper? There were no phone sales of tickets in those days, much less anything online. (What did online mean in 1976? Anything?) The weed we were smoking was golden in color and made those who imbibed prone to fantasy and inaction. The combination meant we would never leave Maryland, much less get to the concert.
Martin Scorsese and his crew filmed the whole show. When the film was released in 1978, I was living in Oakland, California. A friend and I saw it at a theatre in Berkeley. Naturally, the venue was sold out. Marijuana smoke and the sound of people snorting cocaine accompanied the showing. I have a feeling this ambience was repeated in almost every theatre the film was shown. The reason Scorsese was chosen to direct the film had something to do with the fact that The Band’s tour manager, Jonathan Taplin, had produce Scorsese’s film Mean Streets. Scorsese had credentials in rock cinema. He had been one of the videographers at Woodstock, that rock festival mythologized in the eponymously named film.
The film of The Band concert, titled The Last Waltz, recreates the concert in a stylized manner. The title of this piece refers to the film’s opening admonition. No rock concert was ever that orderly. However, it does not diminish the energy. There are a limited number of audience shots, yet the viewer can easily place themselves in Winterland, the venue where the event took place, even if they never had the experience of attending a concert there. Much more than the skating rink it was constructed to be, Winterland hosted some of music’s most legendary bands and performances. The late Bill Graham was the venue’s promoter and patron and, despite the many valid criticisms of his capitalist streak and occasional meanness, lifted rock, blues and jazz music into a stratosphere never equaled since. The Last Waltz was once such moment.
I recently had the chance to listen to a bootleg recording of the entire show. This recording includes at least four songs not included on either officially released album or CD version or either version of the film. More importantly for the listener desiring the raw and unadulterated version of the concert, there is no overdubbing or studio cleanup on the bootleg recording. This does not mean the official recordings are not worthy of a listen or viewing. They are. Furthermore, the films remain the best presented documentation of the event. Additionally, many of the raw performances are currently available on YouTube.
One of the songs available only on the bootleg recording is the ever-intriguing “King Harvest.” The version here is a bit more uptempo than the studio version that appears on the Band’s second album. Robbie Robertson’s guitar playing is exceptionally crisp, while Rick Danko’s bass guitar work is more than just a bottom. Why this tune, which many assume to be based on the 1928-1935 organizing drives of the Trade Union Unity League in the US South did not appear on the official releases is beyond me. Another tune (available on all versions of the recording) is the version of “Evangeline” sung by Emmylou Harris. This recording was filmed in a studio, as Harris did not play at the concert. In 1976, Harris was just gaining national notice, having released her solo album Pieces of the Sky the year before. The album featured some incredible country-rock combo playing and Harris would become one of the first women performers of the genre not yet known as Americana. The fact that The Band included her in their long list of artists in the film is testament not only to Harris’s artistry, but also to the ensemble’s awareness of the musical form they had helped spawn.
The Last Waltz in all of its various releases remains one of the best rock music performances ever recorded. It is a uniquely North American celebration of that strangely North American settlers’ celebration of survival and colonization called Thanksgiving. It will be on my playlist along with Arlo Guthrie’s antiwar ode “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” this last Thursday in November.
Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.