"There's a flood out in California, and up North it's freezin' cold! And this a-livin' off the road is gettin' purty old!", drummer Levon Helm twangs as The Band gives a fiery performance of 'Up On Cripple Creek,' one of their many signature songs. And indeed, the actual meaning of "The Last Waltz" was that The Band (or more specifically, songwriter/guitarist Robbie Robertson) were saying goodbye to the touring life, and had the intent of being reborn as a studio unit (think Steely Dan). But that didn't exactly go as planned, and the odds-and-ends album "Islands" was the only product of this idea (but even that album was released mostly as a contract-filler for Capitol Records). And though Band members were still talking about a new album as late as 1979, Robbie Robertson was obviously now focused on his work in terms of films, and the legendary five-man version of The Band was no more. And though some critics are cynical as to why a group would give up touring when touring is what a rock group does for a living, Robertson obviously had good reason to say goodbye to the road; it was obviously taking its toll on the personal lives of the Band members, most notably pianist and one of three lead vocalists Richard Manuel. Robertson said in 1987 "To see people teetering on the brink constantly...Richard scared us to death. We scared ourselves to death." (It's been argued that the touring hassles that the reunited Band went through in the 80s is what caused Manuel's suicide, but that's too personal to get into.)
It's ironic that Helm could deliver such a powerful vocal performance, belting out the lines that began this review, but the whole time, he was certainly not happy to be a part of this "celebration." And indeed, the rest of The Band may not have been either, despite bassist/vocalist Rick Danko's energy on stage and the musical prowess of Manuel and genius Garth Hudson. They were not ready to end The Band's life as a touring unit, or else they wouldn't have reunited without Robertson. When "The Last Waltz" was released as an album of film it was a definite success, and the movie has been called the greatest rock film ever made. But Helm was the most disappointed. He wrote has gone on record as saying "the camera focused almost exclusively on Robbie Robertson, long and loving close-ups...the film was edited so it looked like Robbie was conducting the band with expansive waves of his guitar neck...for me it was a real scandal." Helm also claims he was scammed financially, but it's easy to agree that the film does feature Robertson a bit prominently, which is why this beautifully packaged box set re-release is an essential item, showcasing each brilliant member, even if sometimes they're buried under the guest stars.
This 4-CD set features a heap of tracks that were left off of the original release making it the almost-complete concert. Band essentials like 'Rag Mama Rag,' 'The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show,' and 'This Wheel's On Fire' are fortunately included, as well as additional performances from the long line of guest stars that appeared at the concert (the songs from Eric Clapton, Neil Young and Bob Dylan are the best of the guest-stars). Concert rehearsals (including another essential 'King Harvest') and studio sketches are enjoyable listening as well. The album (and film) "The Last Waltz" is a timeless, definitive piece of rock history, and an important if not controversial piece of The Band's history.
In conclusion, it's important to note the song 'The Last Waltz Suite' (from the wonderful six-part "Last Waltz Suite"). Ironically co-sung by Robertson, this song is eerily but charmingly prophetic; as the song goes, "It's the last waltz, the last waltz with you, but that don't mean the dance is over...The last waltz was through, but that don't mean that the party is over."
How true this was. It wasn't meant to be finished, the studio was meant to be The Band's new home. And though that notion never unfolded, the dance was certainly not over Helm, Danko, Hudson, and Manuel, as they would re-unite as The Band in 1983, touring until Manuel's death in 1986, and releasing three studio albums to surprisingly good reviews in the 90s, until Danko's passing in 1999.