This came out in 2002 – or at least that’s when I got it. Here’s what I said about it back then (with some minor editing):
As a rule, there are two things most rocks bands can’t figure out. One is when to quit. The other is how to go out with dignity.
The Band, thankfully, were an exception. Back in 1976, at the height of their fame, success and musical powers, they (or, more precisely, guitarist Robbie Robertson) decided to call it a day. But rather than set off on some ridiculous, never-ending “farewell tour” that tarnished their image, the boys decided to go out in style with a grand final concert on Thanksgiving. So they bedecked San Francisco’s Winterland with chandeliers, cooked up turkey for 5,000, hired a horn section, invited pals like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Ronnie Hawkins and Neil Diamond — yes, the Jewish Elvis — and staged an incredible blowout called The Last Waltz.
If you’re old enough, you probably saw Martin Scorsese’s film of the show (which just came out on DVD). Or perhaps you bought the three-LP live album/soundtrack. But they didn’t tell the whole story. Not by a long shot. Even though both the film and the live album hold about two hours of music, that’s still only about half of what was played that night. The missing tracks have long been the stuff of rumour, legend and poor-quality bootlegs.
Now, at last, The Last Waltz is finally getting the treatment it deserves. To mark its 25th anniversary, more or less, the set has been restored, remastered and reissued in a four-CD box with all the standard trimmings: Essays, beautiful colour pictures, drawings from Scorsese’s shooting plan, full credits, comments from Robertson (who helmed this reissue), and so on. The main draw, of course, is the music: The 30 cuts from the original album, augmented by 24 previously unreleased concert recordings, rehearsal numbers and studio outtakes. Believe it or not, this still isn’t the whole show — live renditions of Georgia On My Mind and King Harvest remain lost in the ether. But to a Band fan, it’s still like getting the keys to the kingdom.
First and foremost, of course, are the live cuts. Along with a handful of Band numbers (including crucial renditions of certified roots-rock roadhouse classics like The Weight, This Wheel’s On Fire, Rag Mama Rag and others), there are plenty of cuts with the boys backing up guests like Dylan (on a dark version of the Planet Waves cut Hazel), Waters (belting out Caldonia), Clapton (delivering All Our Past Times and Further on Up the Road), Young (covering Ian Tyson’s Four Strong Winds) and Joni Mitchell (offering Shadows And Light and Furry Sings the Blues). Even better: No extra Diamond tracks. Instead, there are some all-star encore jams with Ron Wood, Ringo Starr and Stephen Stills, followed by the set’s swan song, a superbly swampy, fabulously funky version of the Marvin Gaye chestnut Don’t Do It.
The show ends there, but the box set doesn’t. In addition to studio tracks that were recorded for the film, the fourth CD contains five rehearsal recordings (including Van Morrison’s Caravan and Tura Lura Lural, along with Dr. John’s Such A Night), and three studio outtakes that offer a peek into Robertson’s musical sketchbook. To be honest, these cuts do provide a behind-the-scenes view of how much preparation it took to pull off The Last Waltz, but they aren’t as amazing as those unearthed live treasures.
What’s even more amazing, however, is the realization that The Band edited most of these songs out of their own farewell album. And in many cases, they did so to make room for songs by other performers. Now that’s the true definition of going out in style.