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Credit: Paul C Babin/Warner

Music

The reason why Joni Mitchell sang behind a curtain for 'The Last Waltz'

@TylerGolsen

When it comes to going out with a bang, nobody did it better than The Band. After announcing their retirement from the road in 1976, the legendary Canadian-American roots-rock outfit planned out a massive farewell at Bill Graham’s Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. They would be joined by some of their high profile collaborators and former employers, including Ronnie Hawkins, Neil Young, Dr. John, Muddy Waters, and Bob Dylan. To cap it all, Martin Scorsese would film the final performance for a documentary.

The fact that The Band regrouped only a few years later without songwriter and leader Robbie Robertson does nothing to take away from the evergreen nature of The Last Waltz. Collecting some of the eras greatest performers at the height of their powers, there are too many highlights to count. Apart from some amazing tunes from The Band, you also get Dr. John’s jazzy ‘Such a Night’, Hawkin’s playful take on ‘Who Do You Love?’, Dylan’s beautiful rendition of ‘Forever Young’, and even current circumstances can’t take away from the excitement of Eric Clapton’s ‘Further on Up the Road’ and Van Morrison’s ‘Caravan’.

For his part, Young stumbled onto the stage in a bit of haze but nailed down blissful takes on ‘Four Strong Winds’ and ‘Helpless’. For the latter, if you were watching the performance live in the audience, there might have been a voice that appeared to be coming straight out of the heavens, a lovely high-pitched harmony to complement Young. That voice came from a future performer and fellow Canadian: Joni Mitchell.

Young had asked Mitchell to sing on ‘Helpless’, as the two were friends and occasional songwriting rivals. The only problem was that Mitchell was slated to take the stage immediately after Young, and nobody wanted to diminish the impact or surprise of Mitchell’s performance. So Mitchell decided to remain backstage and add her ethereal vocal from behind a stage curtain.

One of Scorsese’s camera operators assigned to the backstage area managed to capture Mitchell’s secret contribution. Young would return the favour by guesting with Mitchell on The Band’s ‘Acadian Driftwood’, a tribute to their collective homeland.

Mitchell eventually got to make her appearance in front of the curtain, joining The Band for renditions of ‘Coyote’ and ‘Furry Sings the Blues’ from her then-forthcoming LP Hejira, plus a version of The Hissing of Summer Lawns closer ‘Shadows and Light’. For a country-tinged rock group, The Band gamely hold on to the jazzy changes of Mitchell’s new style. Still, it’s hard not to go back to that spine-chilling take on ‘Helpless’.