This November 25th will mark the 40th anniversary of one of the most celebrated rock concerts of all time. It was on that date in 1976 that The Band played a fantastic show at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom that was immortalized in Martin Scorsese’s rock documentary The Last Waltz. Conceived as a farewell to touring by Band member Robbie Robertson, the show featured a slew of the group’s best songs, plus a hall of fame slate of guests each of whom were invited to perform one of their well known numbers (Bob Dylan actually got two songs). Though later generations would get accustomed to the gathering of all star musicians for benefit songs like USA for Africa’s “We Are the World” and Band Aid’s “Do they Know it’s Christmas?”, an argument can be made that there had never been a more star studded collection of rock and roll musicians in one place prior to the Winterland show. The list is legendary and included Muddy Waters, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Dr. John, Van Morrison and Dylan, among others.
I was lucky enough to attend a replication of the film part of the concert last Thursday by Classic Albums Live. If you’ve never heard of Classic Albums Live, you are missing out. The concept started in Toronto in 2003 and saw a core group of very talented musicians perform a classic rock album, note for note. The success of the venture has seen them play in numerous cities across North America. They often perform classic albums by rock legends with adoring fans such as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, but have also performed iconic albums that could hardly be characterized as rock ‘n roll such as Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever. Choosing The Last Waltz was daring, as not only do the members of the band play a huge number of instruments, but the addition of all the guest artists demands a wide range of vocal and instrumental replication. The concert was spectacular and reminded me of how gifted The Band was. Back in 1976, I was a thirteen year old junior high student who was probably unaware The Band was even playing this momentous show. Forty years later, I am so thankful I was able to attend the Classic Albums Live version which was both a splendid tribute and a celebration of fantastic contemporary musicianship.
Of course The Band’s story is not as well known as many of the super groups of the 1960’s and 70’s. In fact, mention of them to many people today elicits the bewildered response of ‘what band?’ Though many middle aged radio listeners would recognize iconic tunes such as “The Weight”, “The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up on Cripple Creek”, it would be a select few who could name the five key members of the group that wrote and recorded those songs: Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, and Robbie Robertson (in order of their left to right position in the photo above). All were born in Ontario with the exception of Helm, the group’s lone American, who was born in Arkansas. They are the furthest thing from an overnight success I can think of; but their hard work and decade long internship eventually resulted in something both unique and remarkable. They honed their craft in the early 1960’s under the demanding Ronnie Hawkins, a native Akansan who found Rockabilly success in the Toronto area music scene. Hawkins had an eye for talent and would frequently coerce talented musicians in other bands to join his band “The Hawks”. But though he could teach them about honing their craft, he couldn’t hang onto them forever. Still, the fledgling band members learned a lot from Hawkins about a musician’s life on the road, moving from bar to bar and adapting to the specific tastes of the audience. They learned too from Hudson, the classically trained musician who would only consent to be in the Hawks, if in addition to the money he earned playing rock n’ roll, the band members each paid him ten dollars per week so he could teach them music; thus, he could tell his parents he was earning his living as a music teacher and not be entirely fibbing. They left Hawkins in 1963 and would eventually catch the eye of another demanding musician by the name of Bob Dylan. After Dylan went electric, he was looking for a backup band and so the Hawks eventually found themselves as the house band for the most gifted songwriter of their generation. For some, that might have been success enough, but after touring and recording extensively with Dylan, the Band (the name they eventually settled on because it was the moniker people knew them as in relation to Dylan) started writing more and more of their own music and set off on their own. Rather than conform to the psychedelic experimentation so in vogue at the time, The Band embraced a combination of roots, blues, country and early rock n’ roll, incorporated the traditions of the midnight ramble (Helm’s familiarity with Southern medicine shows), and included an eclectic mix of instruments like full horn sections, accordions, organs and mandolins. They were adored by music critics, particularly Rolling Stone’s Greil Marcus and earned a legion of enthusiastic fans.
The music has aged well. At the concert on Thursday, it wasn’t the well known tunes of the guest artists like Neil Young’s “Helpless”, Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote” or even Van Morrison’s “Caravan” that I was humming after the show, as fine as they are. And it wasn’t the well known Band tunes like “The Shape I’m In” or “The Weight” that I went back to either. Rather, it was songs like the achingly beautiful “It Makes No Difference”, and “Stage Fright” (both sung with such vulnerability by Rick Danko), the fun and horn filled “Ophelia” which the band onstage Thursday admitted was their favourite number in the show, and the haunting “Evangeline”, loosely based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem of the same name. Another feature of the concert that made it so enjoyable was how much fun the musicians seemed to be having. Perhaps they were just in role, but it sure seemed to me that they were having a ball. As Neil Young says in the film without a trace of irony, it is one of the highlights of his life to be on the stage getting to play with these people. Sometimes, art is so powerful that even thrice removed (a tribute concert based on a film documentary of a concert of songs), it still provides you with the utter joy and wonder of the creative act. Do yourself a favour and listen to songs like “The Unfaithful Servant”, “Where Do We Go From Here” and “Acadian Driftwood” and you’ll be amazed at the unique vocals, the masterful musicianship and the relevant human story on display. I’m so glad that I’ve rediscovered these fantastic artists.