If any group could be described as the distillation of a generation, then The Band are it. The group garnered as much mystique as they did musicianship from 16 years travelling the rough roads with Bob Dylan and the likes, eventually infusing their own music with everything they had learnt.
Martin Scorsese teamed up with the group for a farewell concert in San Francisco and lent his expert cinematic craftsmanship to the show. The gig itself is an important chapter in the history of music; the bill featured an array of wrongfully forgotten musicians, including the likes of Bobby Charles and huge names to boot. In a way, it captured the night that the seventies finally drove the sixties down.
The film is simply a fantastic document of superb musical performances from Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters and more. While the gleaming jewel in its crown is the teary-eyed symphony of ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ which features musicians at the culmination of a journey, giving it absolutely all they’ve got, this rather more mellowed magic of ‘Coyote’ closely rivals it.
Written two years earlier in 1976, Joni Mitchell’s classic track is one that she feels gives her most individualistic account. “I suppose a lot of people could have written a lot of my other songs,” she once said, “But I feel the songs on Hejira could only have come from me.”
‘Coyote’ is the opening track on the album and documents, at least in a metaphorical sense, Mitchell’s short-lived relationship with Sam Sheppard or, as he becomes known in the song, Coyote. At the time, Dylan had hired Sheppard to write the screenplay to a film based on his Rolling Thunder Revue tour, which Mitchell was part of. The two met, endured a whirlwind romance, but as the song attests, they were too different for it ever to last.
This fleeting nature of love, loss, belonging, and growth are transposed into dynamic song, and The Band do it justice by backing Mitchell with their own mercurial tones. Their years as a backing band allows them to seamlessly slip into the backseat and allow Mitchell’s performative talents to come to the fore.
The Last Waltz is undoubtedly one of the greatest concert films of all time, and it is stunning performances like the one in the video below, which makes it stand out as such. As the official logline for the concert DVD read: “It started as a concert. It became a celebration. Now it’s a legend.”
See the performance, below.