Celebrating ‘The Last Waltz’ 40th Anniversary: 10 Memorable Moments
By Team JamBase Nov 24, 2016 • 9:06 am PST
On Thanksgiving night in 1976 The Band said farewell with one of the most memorable concerts in rock ‘n’ roll history, The Last Waltz. The legendary act teamed with impresario Bill Graham to put on the guest-filled performance at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom on November 25, 1976. In addition to a marathon concert, attendees were treated to a full Thanksgiving turkey dinner.
Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel’s final performance together was immortalized in the 1978 concert film The Last Waltz directed by Martin Scorcese. Viewings of The Last Waltz have become a Thanksgiving tradition ever since and in honor of the concert’s 40th anniversary we’ve put together a list of our favorite moments from The Last Waltz:
10. “Don’t Do It” Ends The Last Waltz Concert & Starts The Last Waltz Film
After a marathon evening that included a full Thanksgiving Dinner and over 40 songs, the capacity crowd at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom demanded an encore. Bill Graham told The Band no one had left and the group decided to return to the stage for one more song, their cover of “Don’t Do It.” Robertson described the scene in his recent memoir Testimony, “When we came out again, the roar was deafening. Levon looked around the stage at all of us and went, ‘One. Two. Three. Uh!’ He and Rick pounced like it was the first song of the night. Richard came in, with Garth adding sonic wonderment. This band—the Band—was a real band. No slack in the high wire. Everybody held up his end with plenty to spare.” While “Don’t Do It” ended the night, Scorsese decided to start The Last Waltz film with the song.
9. Canadians Neil Young & Join Mitchell Sing “Acadian Driftwood”
According to Robertson’s Testimony, it was Canadian Neil Young’s idea for the mostly Canadian band to honor their native land along with fellow countrywoman Joni Mitchell. The touching tribute came in the form of a rendition of “Acadian Driftwood” featuring Young, Mitchell and The Band on the song about the Canadian region of Acadia. However, it was not the first time during the concert that the trio of Canadian acts performed together as Joni contributed vocals to during Neil’s performance of “Helpless” earlier in the concert. Mitchell sung into a microphone backstage as her appearance was kept secret until she emerged later to lead the ensemble on her “Coyote,” “Shadows Of Light” and “Furry Sings The Blues.”
8. Bob Dylan Leads “Forever Young”
Along with fellow long-time collaborator Ronnie Hawkins, the idea of having Bob Dylan join The Band at their final concert was part of the genesis that ultimately led to the all-star lineup of guests gracing the stage at the Winterland. A clear highlight of Dylan’s extensive sit-in was the performance of “Forever Young” which he recorded with The Band on his 1974 album Planet Waves. A well-documented dispute over filming Dylan’s appearance resulted in Scorsese only getting to shoot two of the songs he played that night. Thankfully, one of the two (“Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” being the other) was “Forever Young.”
7. Rick Danko Belts “It Makes No Difference”
One of the last great The Band songs was “It Makes No Difference.” Robertson wrote the song for inclusion on 1975’s Northern Lights – Southern Cross. While The Last Waltz included many tender moments, perhaps the most solemn among them was Rick Danko’s heartfelt vocal delivery of “It Makes No Difference.” Beyond Danko’s lead vocals, the performance also thrived from Robertson’s pointed guitar solo and Hudson’s delicate sax solo.
6. Garth Hudson Shows Off Skills On “The Genetic Method”
The Band keyboardist Garth Hudson is a mad scientist who is able to eek out unique tones from his instruments in an inventive way. One of the showcases for Garth’s work is “The Genetic Method,” an instrumental introduction to “Chest Fever.” On the night of The Last Waltz, Hudson displayed his massive skill set on an extra long rendition of “The Genetic Method” that spanned seven minutes.
5. Eric Clapton Rips Through “Further On Up The Road”
Acclaimed guitarist Eric Clapton was right in the middle of a blistering solo during “Further On Up The Road” when the strap on his Fender Stratocaster gave way. The faulty strap led to Robertson stepping in and showing off his skills on a bronzed Fender of his own. Once Clapton readjusted, he and Robbie traded a series of hot licks on the Bobby “Blue” Bland blues standard.
4. The Band Teams With Mentor Ronnie Hawkins On “Who Do You Love?”
As mentioned, it was the desire to include Dylan and Ronnie Hawkins in The Band’s final concert that initiated what became the star-studded affair. The Hawk was fittingly the first guest brought to the Winterland stage that evening, and for one song the group became The Hawks again, backing the vocalist just as they had for many years in the early-1960s. A roaring romp through Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?” set the room up for a historic night of collaborations, while showcasing the earliest days of the group that later set off on their own as The Band.
3. The Band And Bob Dylan Reprise “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down”
Bob Dylan’s appearance during the main set of The Last Waltz was bookended by portions of “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down.” Dylan first recorded the song by blues guitarist Eric Von Schmidt for his self-titled 1962 debut album. The song was a staple of Bob’s 1966 tour with members of The Band and it’s hard not to smile when Dylan and The Band reprise “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” after the poignant, heart-warming “Forever Young” noted earlier on this list.
2. Van Morrison Brings The House Down With “Caravan”
“For me, Muddy (Waters) and Van (Morrison) steal the show,” Clapton said when asked about his participation in The Last Waltz during a 2007 interview. “Van doing (“Caravan”) with the leg kicks – some of the greatest live music you’ll ever see.” It’s hard to disagree with Clapton’s assessment after watching the Irish vocalist’s maroon suit-clad, bombastic performance of his song. Morrison not only belted out his now classic hit but he completely commanded the Winterland stage, emphatically delivering his vocals while eliciting wide grins on the faces of the members of The Band.
1. Levon Helm Growls Out “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”
While The Last Waltz is best remembered for all the guest spots, The Band started the concert with 12 songs by themselves before beginning the cavalcade of collaborations. One of the emotional high points of the night came with the group’s rendition of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Helm sang and played the song as if it were his final moments on earth. It’s only fitting that Helm would never perform “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” again after The Last Waltz.
Written by Andy Kahn and Scott Bernstein