Every Performance in The Last Waltz, Ranked

The literal and figurative highs of the greatest concert ever

By Eliott Grover

 
Every Performance in The Last Waltz, Ranked
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01 December 2016

A little after 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving, 1976, the five members of The Band took the stage at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. After 16 years of touring, most notably as Bob Dylan’s electric sidekicks, the road-wary group decided to unplug their amps for good.

But first, they planned a farewell concert with a name as subtle as their own.

A modest audience of some 5,000 was well fed thanks to the turkey dinner that was included in the price of admission. But despite the abundance of tryptophan (and less controlled substances), the energy inside was volcanic.  

The Last Waltz was conceived of nostalgia: a group of musicians writing the last chapter of their history with a little help from their friends — Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and others; a veritable who’s who of the classic rock cannon — before closing the book for good. The nostalgia was palpable that night, as the musicians and audience shared an acute awareness for the finality of the occasion: it was the end of a quietly great band and, perhaps, the final gasp of the interminable ‘60s.

Fortunately for us, The Last Waltz also marks a beginning. Martin Scorsese captured the evening on 35mm film, and the resulting picture, a highly aesthetic production that blended concert footage with interviews and other performances, was one of the first rockumentaries.

Forty years later, Scorsese’s film remains the genre’s seminal work.

And while the concert is a tour de force from first note to last, some performances outshine others. Below, we rank each of the 19 live concert cuts that appear in Scorsese’s film. This means we’ve left some great scenes off the ballot — it doesn’t get much better than a nubile Emmylou Harris belting “Evangeline” on a smoky soundstage with The Band wielding unconventional instruments, ever the consummate musicians — but a line had to be drawn somewhere.

19. “Dry Your Eyes” with Neil Diamond
The song, which Diamond co-wrote with Robbie Robertson, is a poignant selection. But there is no chemistry between the “Sweet Caroline” singer and The Band. And his purple suit makes him a bigger caricature of himself than he already is.

18. “Mystery Train” with Paul Butterfield
This spirited number features dazzling harmonica work from Butterfield. The song is a perfect storm of rock and blues, but the performance is one-dimensional and lacks soul.

17. “Don’t Do It”
Scorsese opens the film with this number, although in real time it was the final song of the night. Sequential sorcery aside, it’s not a particularly energizing tune. The cinematography is noteworthy, as Scorsese introduces each Band member with a deifying close-up.

16. “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” with Bob Dylan
Of all the Dylan songs The Band collaborated on, this one seems like an odd choice. It has energy but feels too mechanical. The Band look tense as they follow their erstwhile frontman’s lead. It’s worth noting that Dylan was, by many accounts, a dickish diva about his involvement in the concert.

15. “Further On Up the Road” with Eric Clapton
If you watch closely you’ll see Clapton’s guitar strap fall off during his opening solo. Clapton blames the booze in his autobiography. He recovers quickly and launches into an axe battle with Robertson. The dual intensifies as the guitarists swap solos. “It was like raising the stakes in poker,” Robertson recently wrote in Vanity Fair. “Finally Eric wailed off into the cosmos like only he can. Touche.”

14. “Who Do You Love” with Ronnie Hawkins
Country meets the blues as The Band reunites with the man who showed them how to live on the road. “You won’t make much money,” Robertson recalls Hawkins telling him, “but you’ll get more pussy than Frank Sinatra.” This could be one of The Band’s happiest performances of the concert. Danko and Helm flash schoolboy grins as The Hawk unleashes his vocal swagger through improvised lyrics.

13. “It Makes No Difference”
This is sneakily one of the most poetic and comforting breakup songs ever. Rick Danko’s voice — honest, melancholic and perfectly imperfect — captures the song’s raw emotion. The best part of this particular rendition comes at the end. The spotlight suddenly illuminates stage right and Garth Hudson emerges from the darkness with saxophone in hand. You can’t help but swell as his virtuosic solo takes you for a ride.     

12. “Stage Fright”
This track highlights everything that is special about The Band: deft songwriting, masterful musicianship, relentless stage presence. Scorsese’s artistry cannot be overlooked here either. His lighting and composition mirror the song’s desperate tone. The silhouetted shots of a solitary Danko belting lead vocals are particularly poignant.

11. “Such a Night” with Dr. John
Dr. John’s Cajun drawl is intoxicating. But it’s his cartoonish look that makes this performance so enticing. With beret, sunglasses and an oversized pink bow tie, Dr. J looks like a jazzed-up version of Snoopy.

10. “Up On Cripple Creek”
The concert begins with this high-octane number. The Band is firing on all cylinders and the crowd feasts on their energy. Helm’s gritty and authentic vocals pave the way and he leads some good old-fashioned yodeling at the end. Hudson’s organ game is strong, too, as he takes us to the Church of Garth.

9. “The Shape I’m In”
Robertson wrote this song about his good friend Richard Manuel, The Band’s keyboardist, who struggled with depression and addiction throughout his life. Watching a burnt-out Manuel stare vacantly at Robertson for his cue to sing is simultaneously heartwarming and -wrenching.

8. “Coyote” with Joni Mitchell
Scorsese’s decision to place this song after a clip of The Band discussing “women on the road” is a bit heavyhanded. But Mitchell is the embodiment of feminine mystique. She seizes the reins and The Band becomes hers. The result is a cohesive sound that represents the best of Canadian rock.

7. “Mannish Boy” with Muddy Waters
Want to learn about the Chicago blues? Here’s your lesson. As you listen, be careful not to confuse Muddy Waters’s growling vibrato with a bending guitar string. It’s an easy mistake.

6. “I Shall Be Released” with Bob Dylan et al
A more perfect closing song does not exist. As all the artists take the stage to end the night with Dylan’s prison ballad, the weight of the event becomes real. Ringo Starr and Ronnie Wood join the party too, though they both look a bit lost.

5. “Ophelia”
In the years since The Last Waltz, Robertson has reshaped the narrative to establish himself as The Band’s leader. (After the film was released, the other members accused Robertson and Scorsese of colluding during the editing process to portray Robertson as the frontman.) With the bulk of the songwriting credits, one can make the case that Robertson was The Band’s brain. But Helm was the undisputed heart. This performance is all the evidence you need.

4. “Forever Young” with Bob Dylan
If you had to pick one song that captures the essence of The Last Waltz this would be the obvious choice. Nostalgia oozes across the screen, starting with Scorsese’s slowly descending crane shot into Dylan’s flowing locks. The Band is a bit stiff, perhaps due to their docile subordination to Dylan, but the song hits home.

3. “Caravan” with Van Morrison
Cloaked in purple sequins, Van is an Irish Adonis. He growls, scats and dances across the stage, punctuating Helm’s bass drum with perfectly synchronized air kicks. Let’s call it like it is: Van is sh*tfaced. His voice isn’t perfect; he misses a few notes. But in the words of the song, “it’s got soul.” Make sure you keep your eyes peeled at the end for Van’s mic drop and abrupt exit stage left. You cannot watch this and not smile.

2. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”
Helm’s greatest asset as a singer is the authenticity of his voice. When he sings this song, he is Virgil Cain. As one of The Band’s most narratively evocative numbers, this performance is brimming with gusto. The booming horn section provides musical depth and emotional 

1. “Helpless” Neil Young
You can’t see the glob of cocaine dangling from Young’s nostril — Scorsese edited it out in post-production — but it’s there. But that’s not why this is the single greatest performance in The Last Waltz. It’s the greatest because it represents the pinnacle of music’s euphoric and immersive powers. Young’s vocals transport us to North Ontario. Joni Mitchell is there too, harmonizing from backstage. Young is in lockstep with The Band and the stage is bursting with positivity.

Towards the end of the song, Young saunters over to Danko and Robertson. The three Canadians smile at each other and lean into the same microphone to deliver the chorus. This is what music is all about.

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