Forty years ago, the rock group The Band gave its final concert. The acclaimed film of that event, “The Last Waltz” was directed by Martin Scorsese. To commemorate the anniversary of the concert, there are a host of new releases, including a set with more of the music than had previously been available and “Testimony” (the title of a memoir on Crown Archetype by Robbie Robertson, the lead guitarist and principal songwriter of the group, as well as the title of a CD of his favorite tracks from his time with the Band as well as in later years).
Robertson is as compelling telling the story of his life (ending with the Band’s breakup) as in the classic songs he penned. A son of a Mohawk Indian mother, he was raised in Toronto and did not learn until he reached adulthood that he had a Jewish father. He taught himself to play guitar and, while a teenager, joined the backup group of a journeyman rocker named Ronnie Hawkins.
After four years, the backup band (known as the Hawks) left as a unit after a falling out with the leader. The group was made up of one American (Levon Helm from Arkansas) and four Canadians (Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson). They were basically a bar band until Robertson met Bob Dylan, who was making the transition from acoustic to electric music and asked the Hawks to join him on tour.
They went from being a crowd pleaser in bars to being jeered at in stadiums, where Dylan usually performed solo in the first half with the band joining him in the second half to the consternation of legions of fans. Dylan was not perturbed.
Later they moved to upstate New York and played with Dylan on what was later released as “The Basement Tapes.” In 1968, the album “Music from Big Pink” came out. Dylan wrote one of the songs and co-wrote two others with group members and also supplied the art work for the cover. Robertson contributed “The Weight” and three others. The group took the name of The Band, since that was how people often referred to them.
Robertson emerged as the leading songwriter of the group, contributing such classics as “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” a Civil War song from the Southern point of view. Manuel, Danko and especially Helm handled the vocals. Their roots music was an original blend, different from what they had played with Hawkins or Dylan. An avid film enthusiast, Robertson claims his lyrics were influenced by the screenplays he read.
There was sex and drugs along with the rock and roll, as Robertson and the Band traveled among music royalty. Robertson has plenty of colorful stories about his friends, but some of it is tragic, such as the narcotics use and car crashes. Before the Band called it quits, Robertson came up with the idea of a film of the farewell concert and he enlisted Scorsese.
The director embarked on the project with the same dedication as to his fictional films. He obtained a set designer, top photographers and studied the play list so that he knew what he wanted on camera.
UMe has released “Testimony” (with the same title and cover photo as the memoir). The 18 track CD covers Robertson’s entire career. About half are with the Band, plus one with Ronnie Hawkins and another with Levon and the Hawks. Two are with Dylan, including a live “Rainy Day Woman” that proves that Robertson didn’t exaggerate the master’s ability to come up with new lyrics each night. Finally, a couple of songs show that Robertson could sing effectively, something he didn’t do with the Band.
“The Last Waltz: Fortieth Anniversary Edition” (on Rhino) comes in four editions. The collector’s edition contains Scorsese’s shooting script. All the sets have CDs of the music as well as DVDs of the film. In addition to the Band’s sterling performances of their own hits, there are the spectacular guests, including Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Dr. John, Neil Diamond and Van Morrison. It is a testament to the Band’s versatility that they backed up these varied artists, all of whom were in top form. The video and sound are crystal clear. What a concert!