On 25th November 1976, The Band brought out all the stops for what was billed as their final ever appearance, a special one-off occasion as they called curtains on an exciting era. Their famed final show, held at San Franciso’s Winterland Ballroom, was appropriately titled The Last Waltz and saw the rockers joined by an all-star cast who wanted to ensure they were apart of a historic evening. Of course, it would not have been a fit and proper send-off without Bob Dylan sharing the stage with the group for one last time and, although that stole the show, it wasn’t where the fun stopped.
On top of Dylan’s appearance, The Band were also joined by more cherished artists such as Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Ringo Starr and Joni Mitchell. The farewell show came eleven years after The Band famously made their name in 1965, a year in which they accompanied Dylan on his controversial first electric tour and, at the time, were a relatively unknown entity. It wouldn’t take long for them to step out of his shadow, however, as the group became stars in their own right. Following a few years touring with the bohemian icon, they would eventually break out with and fanbase of their own and become a stadium filling outfit by the mid-70s. Despite the riches, they had grown tired of touring life and wanted to bow out on a high.
The idea for The Last Waltz originated early in 1976 after lead-singer Richard Manuel was left seriously injured in a boating accident. The situation made guitarist Robbie Robertson think that it would be in their best interest to stop living on the road and call an end to live shows, just like The Beatles had done in 1966. With that in mind, there was no more perfect a location to hold their final show than at legendary promoter Bill Graham’s Winterland Ballroom — a venue in which The Band made their debut as a group in 1969.
To make the occasion even more special, it was being directed by Hollywood legend Martin Scorsese and the result was one of the greatest music documentaries of all time. It’s rumoured, however, that Warner Bros. refused to fund the film if Dylan didn’t agree to take part in his old backing band’s farewell. Though Dylan would eventually come through for his old friends, he very nearly didn’t appear.
Dylan was in a difficult place at the time, he hadn’t performed live in six months and was in the midst of a tricky divorce from his wife Sara. On top of that, he was in the editing process of Renaldo and Clara and was reluctant to be involved in a rival project, preferring to focus on his own work. Eventually, though, he agreed to travel up to San Francisco at the very last moment.
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 set, comprised of a mix of their time together, included ‘Baby, Let Me Follow You Down’ and ‘I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)’ which are two tracks from Dylan’s earlier work that the Band would go on and electrify in 1965/66.
The iconic ‘Forever Young’ and ‘Hazel’ both featured on Planet Waves, the only studio album Dylan and the group recorded together. This was followed by a rendition of ‘Baby, Let Me Follow You Down’ before Dylan then finished on his ground-shaking ‘I Shall Be Released’—which he agreed to let The Band cover on their debut record.
Following the show, Dylan and his lawyer allegedly seized the tapes from Scorsese so negotiations would be required in regards to which songs would later appear and ‘Hazel’ is one that missed out. However, what Dylan didn’t know was that Martin Scorsese’s team didn’t control every camera at the Winterland Ballroom that night, promoter Bill Graham keeping a black-and-white camera running throughout the entire show and obtained the somewhat secretive footage.
As the show coincided with the Thanksgiving holiday, it was only right that the 5,000 strong fans in attendance were gifted turkey dinners upon their arrival — this was at around 5:00pm and the evening would rumble on through the night with The Band bowing out with a bang. They would take to the stage to perform their final encore at 2:15am with a thundering version of ‘Don’t Do It’ and leave their fans smiling from ear to ear.
Even though it was billed as The Last Waltz, and fans in attendance knew they were about to see something special, nobody would have expected the greatness that ensued. Not only did they get to see The Band’s farewell set, a set from Bob Dylan and The Band, they also witnessed Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Ronnie Wood, Muddy Waters, Ringo Starr, Stephen Stills, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison and more put on one of the most historic nights in music that was thankfully captured by the lens of Martin Scorsese.
Check out some handpicked highlights from that momentous evening, below.