Forty years have passed since the the Band walked out on the stage on Thanksgiving for their farewell concert at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. It was one of the landmark concerts in rock and roll history and, arguably, the greatest one-night show of all time.
Winterland Ballroom, an ice skating rink that legendary promoter Bill Graham rented for concerts, closed three years after the Band’s Last Waltz, and all members of the Band except Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson are now performing somewhere in the heavens. But some of the superstar performers who joined the group for their final concert on Nov. 25, 1976, including Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison and Neil Young, are still going strong.
The magical night gets celebrated anew with a 40th Anniversary release by Rhino Records this month. A remastered two-CD set, a four-CD/Blu-ray box, and a six-LP vinyl package are on the market, and a “collector’s edition” will be released Dec. 9. The four CD/Blu-ray box, for the first time, includes the audio material and Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed movie of the concert. The six-LP set is also a vinyl first -- the entire concert, rehearsals, and outtakes. On Dec. 9, Rhino will release 2,500 copies of a “collector’s edition" which includes a Blu-ray of a 1990s interview with Scorsese and Robertson, a 5.1 audio mix of the album and a 300-page book with a replication of Scorsese’s script to shoot the movie.
Some of my favorite Last Waltz performances are Van Morrison doing a wild version of “Caravan," Muddy Waters playing down and dirty on “Mannish Boy,” the Band’s Rick Danko singing like a pleading choir boy on “It Makes No Difference,” and an apparently wasted Neil Young managing a mournful “Helpless” backed by the sweet voice of Joni Mitchell. Dylan, though, steals the show with a short, spirited set that includes “Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” “Hazel,” ”I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met),” ”Forever Young,” and a reprise of “Baby Let Me Follow You Down.”
Many fans of the Band say the group’s two-CD live album Rock of Ages is superior to The Last Waltz. I agree that the Band’s performance may be stronger on Rock of Ages, but I am a sucker for the star power and the many songs that weren’t penned by the Band that appear on The Last Waltz.
Critics have pointed out flaws in the performances of The Last Waltz, but I give it my vote for the best one-night rock show in history. My runner-up would be Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration in 1993, which included some of the cast from The Last Waltz.
Of course, a best-ever concert proclamation depends so much on personal taste and the artists one prefers. Several months ago, I declared Van Morrison’s three-CD/DVD box set, It’s Too Late to Stop Now… Volumes II, III, IV & DVD, the best live album by a single artist. Many No Depression readers chimed in with their own favorites providing, by far, more feedback than any other column I have written. Lots of great albums were cited, including many I never had the good fortune to hear, and readers’ supporting comments were insightful and enlightening.
So, readers, begin the debate: Fire away your thoughts about the best one-night concert of all time with multiple artists, or just one artist, on record or unrecorded. I use the term “one night” to disqualify festivals like Woodstock, Live Aid and Bonnaroo. Please add your reasons why, so everyone can get energized to give your favorites a listen or three.