IN THE EARLY 19th Century, the waltz was denounced as the devil's work for placing the lady's waist in the "lewd grasp" of her male partner. Bearing this in mind, it seems only fitting that The Last Waltz (Warner Bros. SWS 3146) belongs to The Band. It represents the plaintive denouement of a group that derived its desperade mystique from ladies, loose living and - as Grell Marcus pointed out in his book, Mystery Train - from being "committed to the very idea of America: complicated, dangerous and alive."
The Band conveys these impassioned images of rural life through ribaldry, country blues and down-home rock and roll. Their songs elicit simple gut emotions - from lamenting ballads to whoop-and-holler exultation, from idle play to manual labor - and blend many contemporary rhythms into a musical stew best described as "funk". It is difficult to trace the origin of that word - it's become so much a part of American culture - but it is as though the term was coined to describe The Band's music. Their distinct and familiar sound has become as much apart of today's culture as, say, disco or the new Coke campaign. It will be difficult adjusting to their absence.
The Last Waltz , a three-record set, is the final chapter in the history of The Band, and chronicles the group's 1977 Thanksgiving concert at Winterland in San Francisco where they began the major headlining phase of their career nine years ago. Being on the road for well over 16 years had, according to group-leader Robbie Robertson, imbued them with "a sense of emptiness; it has all become like a merry-go-round." So they decided this concert would be their last together; in the media-oriented tradition of rock and roll, it was planned as an event to mark an event.
What evolved from that decision is a tribute by and to a group whose influence spawned the careers of so many of today's popular artists, including several with whom they shared the evening's stage. Musical deities such as Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan (who recorded and performed with The Band for several years) came out of their respective seclusions to take part in the long goodbye. In that sense, The Last Waltz is a home-coming of family and friends. It is not a wake to note the group's passing, but rather a celebration of fond memories in the sharing of personal music.
Unfortunately, the recording carries neither the impact nor the luster to support The Band's shimmering legacy. As with similar live recordings, the energy on stage becomes lost in the translation. The result is a flatness of both spirit and sound. The performances begin to run together like alternating coats of wet paint, completely undistinguished by The Band's solo interludes. In fact, it is The Band that fare worst. Their parade of past hits seems drenched by the sound engineer's inability to maintain microphone levels and results in a wishy-washy delivery that boders on mumbling. Their instrumentation remains solid throughout, but vocals fail to maintain the power necessary to balance out the songs, or to provide the thread to hold it all together. Robbie Robertson's fluent guitar solos - in perhaps larger and more articulate doses on this album than ever before - are overpowered by an unneccessary ensemble of cymbals and squeaking horns; Rick Danko's once-frightening vocals are listless and at times serve only to stave off his over-amplified bass siege; Garth Hudson's usually magical keyboards are a nonentity.
We are temporarily saved not by the electricity of the event, but by the familiarity and especially the potency of the material. Neil Young's ever-popular "Helpless" is a formidable crutch on which to lean. His presence catches the audience off guard as he wanders unannounced from off-stage and into his song; settling quickly into his classic delivery, Young is a soothing voice amid babel. "Stagefright" subsequently seems like somebody's idea of a bad joke. Joni Mitchell, however, followes quickly on the bill, spinning a web of vocals and strings in her usual alluring style. It is her performance that is the most authoritative and, in tandem with Neil Diamond's rendition of "Dry Your Eyes," provides the album's strongest surge.
If there is any one outstanding show of verve and complete selfish abandon, it is embodied in the performance by Eric Clapton. Sharing the instrumental spotlight with Robbie Robertson, Clapton again exhibits the technique which earned him the title of Prince of the Electric Guitar. His leads are innovative and at the same time impulsive; there is no feeling of mechanical routine as Clapton makes the guitar work for him. "Further On Up The road" marks Clapton's return to the electric blues so visibly absent on his recent, overproduced albums.
The appearances of Van Morrison and Bob Dylan seem almost anticlimatic by comparison. Morrison is dragged down by the sameness of The Band's accompaniment. However, Dylan proves that his superstar image transcends even the most lackluster of extravaganzas. His presence so charges the audience and musicians that one can almost hear the entire event come to life as he begins a medley of recent hits. The result is electric. Dylan is the biggest beneficiary of his own enigma, and he exploits his popularity to compensate for an otherwise low-key performance.
Although it may seem unfair to compare the immediacy and intimacy of different media, the movie version of the concert reveals a spontaneity and resilience not found on this record. More than anything else, the visual sincerity of The Band - their emotion, their elation upon being joined by their peers, their evident wit and collaboration - is bottled up and uncorked like an effervescent soft drink on the screen.
Most film makers have found it futile to attempt the energy of a live concert on film because of the static camera angles and too-familiar surroundings. But Martin Scorsese (editor of Woodstock , and director of Mean Streets , and Alice Doesn't LIve Here Anymore ) is able to intercut performances and interviews so that the visual meter paces the film with a waltzlike effect in which the viewer is swept into the experience. The audio - the longest sound edit in film history, recorded and mixed on 48 separate tracks - is scintillating. The viewer never feels he is less than fifth-row center at the show. One wishes that they had responded on record with the same technical care given to the dubbing of the film or, better yet, chosen to go once more around the floor.