As obsessed as pop culture is with anniversaries and time-related milestones, especially in terms of how they play into merchandizing, it was perhaps inevitable that the long ballyhooed curtain call of The Band known as “The Last Waltz” would surface again this fall. Staged on Thanksgiving night of 1976 (which, for those obsessed with statistics, works out to exactly 40 years ago Friday), the concert was intended as a grandiose bow of a cherished, roots-directed band after a 16-year performance history. With Martin Scorsese filming the show, and a lengthy though sometimes perplexing guest list of collaborators in the wings, “The Last Waltz” was designed as The Band’s big blowout, an all-star tribute to itself.
Four decades later, a newly remastered version of “The Last Waltz” doesn’t offer much by way of illumination. It sounded sharp to begin with, although the new edition does bring additional clarity to Garth Hudson’s calliope-like keyboard orchestration and to some of the icier guitar stabs Robbie Robertson adds to songs like “It Makes No Difference.” Mostly, though, we are again presented was a chronicle of a show intended as a spectacle.
In that sense, it still seems bloated at times, especially when the guests take over. Some are vital from a historical perspective, like former Band bosses Ronnie Hawkins (who puffs with considerable gusto during the Bo Diddley staple, “Who Do You Love”) and Bob Dylan (who all cuts through the pageantry to reinvigorate his cohorts during “Baby Let Me Follow You Down”). It’s also nice to again hear Dr. John leading the entourage through a boozy sing-a-long of “Such a Night.” Then there is the big giggle moment, a cameo by Neil Diamond (for whom Robertson had just produced an album) that reminds us of how Hollywood this soiree became.
Not surprisingly, the moments that hold up the best are the ones in which The Band goes it mostly alone, from Levon Helm’s majestically tireless vocal command during “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” Rick Danko’s overwhelming impassioned reading of “It Makes No Difference” and, in one of the show’s most curious moments, Richard Manuel’s smoky but fervent duet with Van Morrison during the Irish serenade “Tura Lura Lural.”
There is also a sad reality to revisiting “The Last Waltz” (at least the two-disc version that’s reviewed here; there is also a newly remastered version of the four-disc edition first released in 2002). Helm, Danko and Manuel are gone, as are Hawkins and fellow guests Muddy Waters and Pops Staples. But that also reminds us of what a gift “The Last Waltz” ultimately is. Despite its bloated feel, it remains a vital rock ‘n’ roll timepiece. The excesses are obvious. But when Robertson, Hudson, Helm and Danko and Manuel work as one, “The Last Waltz” relishes in the effortless joy of a band being The Band.