By Thanksgiving of 1976, we had seen The Band, they being one of my wife's favorite bands (and mine, as well). We had seen Eric Clapton. We had seen Neil Young as part of CSNY. We had seen Bob Dylan. I had seen Paul Butterfield before I'd met my wife-to-be. And in later years, we saw Van Morrison, and Neil Young, and Muddy Waters. We were, in short, the perfect audience for The Band's concert swan song, called The Last Waltz, held at Winterland in San Francisco on that Thanksgiving in 1976. We had been to Winterland before, and would go many times after, until it closed at the end of 1978 (we saw Bruce Springsteen there twice in the last month of its existence).
But we didn't attend The Last Waltz. We felt we couldn't afford it. The tickets, you see, were $25 each. (They included a turkey dinner.)
So we didn't attend. Certainly a reason to kick ourselves in the butts down the road. Honestly, though, it might be best experienced through Scorsese's film. It's true, not all of the songs made it into the film ... Dylan sang two other songs, for instance, and many of the other acts did additional songs not in the movie (Joni Mitchell, Dr. John, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison). On the other hand, there were jam sessions that Scorsese thankfully removed.
There was a lot of after-the-fact controversy about The Last Waltz, both the concert and the film. Some of the guests made sense ... The Band played with Ronnie Hawkins at the beginning of their career, and Bob Dylan after that. Four of the five members were Canadians, which probably accounts in part for the number of Canadians on the bill (Joni Mitchell and Neil Young and maybe others?). Some were clear influences on The Band ... they wanted to emphasize the importance of their blues roots, so Muddy Waters is there, along with people like Clapton and Butterfield. Neil Diamond seems like an outsider, until you remember that Robbie Robertson had just produced an album for Diamond (the song he sings here was co-written by Robertson). Dylan reported tried at the last minute to keep from having his segment filmed (the compromise was that not of all of his songs made the cut). There is a serious lack of women performers ... only Joni Mitchell, plus a fine studio version of "The Weight" with the Staples Singers.
As for The Band, Levon Helm was pissed until the day he died at Scorsese and Robertson for making Robertson seem more important than he was. And the group wasn't necessarily in agreement that they needed to quit playing concerts.
Anyway, Scorsese's movie removes most complaints. All of the band seem intent on expanding the myth of their existence, and some of the stories they tell are fun, even if they are tall tales. But, as Christgau said when reviewing the subsequent album, "The movie improves when you can't see it--Robbie Robertson and friends don't play anywhere near as smug as they look (or talk)." I could have used another Muddy Waters song and a little less of the Legend of The Band. But, in fairness, that would be a different movie. Ultimately, The Last Waltz is probably my favorite concert movie of all time.
As for The Band, I'd say they are both over and under-rated. Overrated, in that their peak wasn't quite long enough. Underrated, in that their peak was immense, and not just musically. Those first two albums were a part of the culture of the times as much as any Beatles album. Sure, the third album was a fall-off, and it went mostly downhill from there, but I give them bonus credits for those two albums.
Here they are with their two early band leaders, along with a good version of "The Shape I'm In":
And here the two highlights from the guests: