The Last waltz, but not the least… A retrospective on a band that never became a household name, but gave so much to so many.
We’ve done a couple of these ‘You Oughta Know…’ features already, and this is the first retrospective one we’ve done but with very good cause in my opinion. The intent of this feature, is to introduce you to a band or artist that you may never have come across before, and tell you why you should be as big a fan as we are. Quite patronising really, but if the end result is as desired, who cares. Good music is good music. That brings me to today, and I want to take you back nearly sixty years, to the very beginning of what would become The Band.
1958 saw the original line, up of what would become the Band, begin to formulate as they all individually joined rockabilly legend and absolute mad man Ronnie Hawkins’ band as his backing group. They went on the road with Hawkins, playing bars and clubs throughout the US, surviving however they could by stealing, and eating as little as possible, until 1963, when they decided to take on the world on their own. Now the Canadian-American five piece would go their own route, and immediately named themselves after the only American member of the group, Levon Helm, naming themselves Levon & the Hawks, and shortly after they also tried to call themselves the Canadian Squires. The rest of the band comprised of lead guitarist Robbie Robertson, who also acted as somewhat of a co-frontman along with Helm, but didn’t do much vocally. That was left down to piano player Richard Manuel, Bass player Rick Danko and of course the drummer, Levon Helm. Garth Hudson also joined the group on the organ, appearing figuratively and even aesthetically as the mad scientist of the line up. In fact Hudson’s introduction to the band was due to incredible talent and understanding of music, as well as his capability to play most instruments, but it was also all on one condition. To appease his parents who would have shuddered at the thought of their intelligent and well-educated son joining a rock n roll band, he made each member of the Band pay him for services as a music teacher, therefore justifying his position to everyone who may have a problem with it. Quick thinking right?
The independence of the band didn’t last extremely long as Bob Dylan came calling in 1965 to hire them for his upcoming tour, which would end up being the infamous tour that saw Dylan go electric and enrage the masses with his heathen new style and sound, as well as slapping folk music square in the face. The hate from the crowd got to Helm too much after just three months on the road. This may have also had a lot to do with the narcotics being heavily present on this tour, and though it may have been Dylan that divulged the most, his new backing band certainly didn’t shy away from it.
Perhaps one of their most infamous outings with Dylan was when they played the Free Trade Hall in Manchester in 1966, and with the same jeers and heckles from the crowd that had sent Helm packing, leading to Mickey Jones replacing him on the tour, one man in the crowd shouted at Dylan, calling him “Judas”, and in one of my personal favourite come backs of all time, Dylan replied “I don’t believe you” before turning to his backing group, and ordering them to “play it fucking loud” before tearing into the most aggressive rendition of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ I’ve ever heard. The Canadians did as they were told, and played it, fucking loud.
Another highlight of their time with Dylan would come also in 1966, after Dylan had that motorcycle accident which made him sing really well on Nashville Skyline. Never have understood that! But be that as it may, while in recovery he invited Hudson, Helm, Robertson, Dank and Manuel up to Woodstock, where they recorded a series of demos and bootlegs which would then later become known and subsequently released under the name of ‘The Basement Tapes’. This incredible piece of work that really showcases the individual talents of these five men, would feature such songs as ‘Going to Acapulco’, ‘Odds & Ends’, and my favourite ‘The Yazoo Street Scandal’. Following an infamous international tour, and recording with one of the absolute top stars in music at the time, it was time to try again, and again the issue of names came up again. They considered names such as ‘The Crackers’, and ‘The Honkies’ as well as a few other equally awful monikers. None of them stuck or seemed to fit, and it was Levon, in 1968 who thought it logical to call themselves what everyone had been calling them for the past ten years on the road, whenever backing another artist they would be referred to as the band. So now they would, from now on, name themselves The Band.
The name was met with agreement from the rest of the band and they went on to record the first album of their own material, and they named the LP after the house in Woodstock that they all lived and worked in. ‘Music from Big pink’ was released to the public also in ’68, and would feature some of their most well-known work. ‘The Weight’, a gospel inspired country song, and ‘I shall be released’ which was written in part by Bob Dylan. Both would go on to become quite famous, but only in the sense that if you played it to a friend, they might recognise it, but if you asked them who it was, they wouldn’t have a clue. Be that as it may, the success of the album made them a name to watch out for in the late sixties and they were invited to play Woodstock. However due to legal reasons, the footage of their performance was not featured in the movie. Despite this, they were now a success on their own and for the next nine years they would continue to record, tour and play with the biggest names of the generation. They released six more studio albums including their self titled second album, ‘Stage fright’ which has one of the greatest title tracks of all time. They also released 1971’s ‘Cahoots’ album, followed by ‘Moondog matinee’ in 1973. ‘Northern lights – Southern cross’ followed it in ’75 and was the last album they did as the full and original group until 1977’s Islands. But before 1977 came, a lot would happen.
As well as a number of studio albums, they also released numerous live albums, most of which featured either heavily or a little, their former band leader, Bob Dylan. They also featured as the backing band on Dylan’s ‘Planet waves’ album. But by 1976, lead guitarist Robbie Roberston was tired of life on the road and began to make plans for the end. He convinced the rest of The Band to think about retirement, to which they all agreed after years of playing music and over indulging, especially as Richard Manuel had just suffered a severe neck injury after a boating accident. But of course a roller coaster career such as theirs had to end in style, and dreams of a grand goodbye were beginning to become very real. On Thanksgiving day 1976 at the Winterland ball room in San Francisco, The Band treated fans and guests to The Last Waltz.
The Last Waltz was an extravaganza of music, set in the classy ballroom and joined by a number of adoring, well dressed fans, The Band took to the stage for what would be their final live gig. To make the occasion even special, Robertson’s friend, a young director by the name of Martin Scorsese was on hand to film all the action, to which he would later immortalise the event by releasing it to the public. The Band were joined by friends and other artists, which would later become a legendary who’s who of music in the 60’s and 70’s. Names like Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, Dr.John and Paul Butterfield would join them onstage as well as many others that created some of music’s best moment on that one night. Chicago blues god Muddy Waters performed his classic ‘Mannish Boy’ with the Band, and before the song began, Scorsese had called for a camera break under concern that they’d overheat.
Half way through the song he realised he was missing history by not recording it and hurriedly campaigned for cameras to begin rolling. Luckily one intuitive young camera man had decided against the move and had kept his camera rolling throughout the entire performance. God bless that man! Also, when Eric Clapton took his turn on stage to do ‘Further on up the road, the guitar genius began with those technical electric licks, keeping the audience in awe as he has for years… until his guitar strap broke!!! Luckily Robertson was also on hand with his electric guitar and took over seamlessly. Robertson kept the song rolling until Clapton had fixed his strap and then with professionalism not seen before in music, he handed the solo back over. The song built and built into a crescendo of electric guitars and with both men tearing the house down, the night was barely beginning. Van Morrison joined them The Band onstage to perform his hit from album ‘Moondance’, the energetic gypsy anthem ‘Caravan’. After an attack of self-consciousness backstage over his outfit, many changes later, Van the man took to the stage with a backing band of epic proportions and proceeded to blow the whole place up. This legendary artist, that gave everything on this night to honour a great band, even after high kicking his way through the end of the song, put down his microphone and walked off stage without so much as a wave to the audience. I don’t know this as fact, but I’ve always liked to think that even an icon like Van Mo, didn’t want to upstage or take away the attention from The Band, and his subtle exit was his way of showing them respect.
As well as all these incredible collaborations, the main event of the night was the Bands original material, being blasted at the audience harder and bigger than ever. ‘Up on cripple creek’ kicks things off in a big way, and songs like ‘Stage fright, ‘It makes no difference, ‘Ophelia’ and ‘The night they drove old Dixie down’ steal the show and when listening to the audio version of the live album, the crowds response is chilling in its greatness. The night, as far as the movie dictates’ features everyone that collaborated on the night, as well as more guests such as Ringo Starr and Ronnie Wood, and fronted by… you guessed it, Bob Dylan, as they did a rendition of the classic ‘I shall be released’ Richard Manuel despite his injury, which had altered his voice even took to the microphone while he played piano which served as yet another treat for the audience.
It’s said that encores ensued and the whole deal itself was around 7 hours long, some people report. Martin Scorsese’ film featured songs from the gig, interviews and stories post retirement, and studio performances with Emmylou Harris and the Staples singers. But this night would go down in history to anyone that knows about it, as one of the greatest of all time. The 1977 album ‘Islands’ was released due to contractual agreement with their record company, and they did reform in the late 80’s but not as a whole entity, and also not as successfully as they had once been. Robbie Robertson didn’t join the reformation, and Richard Manuel committed suicide following a concert in 1986. His drug and alcohol addictions were noted as the cause for this. Manuel was known to consume eight bottles of Grand Marnier every single day. Rick Danko died in his sleep in 1999. The Band gave up for good following his death.
So if you’ve never heard of the Band, never seen the Last Waltz, never listened to Richard Manuels gorgeous rendition of ‘I shall be released’, never seen Dylan’s electric tour footage and noticed who’s playing guitar. Then do it, because let’s face it, you’ve read dissertations shorter than this shit, so you owe it to yourself.
Words by Stuart Green (@mojo20_music)