It’s a rarity for a group to retire from the stage while not only their currency is still high, but a time when they are still on favourable terms too. When it comes to farewells, The Band’s goodbye is about as close to perfection as humanly possible.
Appropriately billed as The Last Waltz, they arrived at their decision to end things after singer Richard Manuel suffered severe injuries following a boating accident. His situation made Robbie Robertson feel that they should retire from the stage and instead focus on studio projects. However, it wouldn’t be right if they didn’t go out without one final, grandiose send-off to draw the curtain.
Fittingly, they bowed out at The Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco — the same venue where they debuted almost a decade prior. Furthermore, The Band weren’t alone for the show, and musical royalty came out in their droves to play their part in history.
As the show coincided with Thanksgiving, the 5,000 fans were all gifted turkey dinners upon their arrival. The concert would last for over nine hours as The Band cemented their legacy in San Francisco. While a few years later, they’d end their hiatus, the cultural significance of their last goodbye is imperious.
Not only were The Band retiring after the concert, but it also felt like a moment that brought a whole era to a close. For one night only, the stars came together for a final send-off to the scene, which they combined to create.
Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Ronnie Wood, Ringo Starr, and Muddy Waters were all confirmed names for the star-studded event. However, there was trepidation that Bob Dylan wouldn’t show his face despite being integral in their journey.
Warner Brothers even reportedly refused to fund the Martin Scorsese documentary of the night if Dylan didn’t agree to take part, but, thankfully, he came through and characteristically stole the limelight.
Dylan was off-grid at the time of the performance, having not played live in six months, and dealing with divorce. His appearance didn’t come until towards the end of the mammoth set, and it wasn’t until he stepped foot on stage that those in attendance could rest easy. However, the night was primarily about The Band, and the first part of the show was a crucial reminder of this fact. They stormed through their opening set before welcoming Ronnie Hawkins to perform ‘Who Do You Love?’.
Other noteworthy cameos included Neil Young performing ‘Helpless’ and ‘Four Strong Words’, while Joni Mitchell elected to sing ‘Coyote’ and ‘Furry Sings the Blues’ from her then-forthcoming LP, Hejira, plus a version of ‘Shadows and Light’.
After arriving at the Winterland armed with a lawyer, Dylan agreed to perform a six-song set and later settled that only three would appear on the film. His showing comprised of a mix of their time together including ‘Baby, Let Me Follow You Down’ and ‘I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)’.
At the end of the show, The Band welcomed heroes including Neil Young, Ronnie Wood, and Ringo Starr for a wild jam which brought the evening to a flawless close. Similarly to their entire career together, The Last Waltz wasn’t an egotistical, self-obsessive performance from The Band, who made sure the night was a celebration of something bigger than themselves.