The Band’s Robbie Robertson Previews A Star-Studded Last Waltz Celebration
Concert promoter Bill Graham called it "Rock and Roll's Last Supper." There were 200 turkeys and 400 pounds of pumpkin pie served that Thanksgiving night in 1976 before The Band hit the stage of the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. The Last Waltz was The Band's swan song, but also a landmark in American roots music.
Martin Scorsese’s film, which captured the greatest roots rock band of its time in epic performances with Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and so many more, became an awakening and an onramp for many to an Americana sensibility that we're still living now.
Last weekend, Nashville artists collaborated on a big annual Last Waltz tribute show at the Basement East. This coming Saturday, arguably the biggest-ever Last Waltz themed tour has its finale at the Bridgestone Arena with a star lineup that includes, for the first time, rock and roll hall of famer Robbie Robertson.
"I never dreamt in a million years that it would have a lifespan like this,” Robertson told WMOT by phone from Los Angeles. "I always thought the movie was pretty special. Martin Scorsese did a magnificent job. Being together with all our friends and incredible talents, it did turn out to be once in a lifetime. And the idea that for what we're doing on Saturday night in Nashville - in Music City, how appropriate - that this incredible lineup of talent wants to still pay tribute to that is amazing. I've never heard of anything quite like that. I take that as a beautiful compliment and totally appreciate it."
Warren Hanes, Jamey Johnson, Vince Gill and Lukas Nelson are among the lead vocalists in the revue. Emmylou Harris is on hand as well, the only singer of this week’s show who appeared in the Last Waltz concert film. The band features folks like John Medeski, Cyril Neville, Don Was and Mark Mullins' Levee Horns. The tour has made stops through the Northeast over the past weeks. Margo Price joins the gang for St. Louis and Chicago dates this week, as well as Nashville's show.
The Last Waltz isn’t renowned for an immediate impact on roots music the way the Will The Circle Be Unbroken album did three years prior. If anything, the mid 70s through the 90s were a time when folk, bluegrass and traditional blues went underground while the culture was dominated by disco, classic rock and MTV. But the film endured, surging back to critical acclaim with CD box set and DVD reissues on its 25th anniversary in 2002. It’s safe to say that most roots musicians have seen the film multiple times and dwelled on its immaculate fusion of American traditions. The Band have been cited as founding fathers of the Americana movement. Asked about this, Robertson said his interest and his bandmates’ was always in “timeless” American music.
"I think it lives forever and I'm not talking about The Band's music exclusively. I'm talking about music that affected us in a way that you thought woah, this has no stamp on it of when or where,” he said. “This really has a life of its own and it's a kind of music I always embraced more than anything that struck me as trendy or pop of the moment. And that was just the train that I came in on - of admiring a musicality that you say wow this is so good it lives forever.”
He added he’s not sure there’s been “a revival” per se in the past 20 years. “To me it never goes away. It just lives there in its zone and I think any time anywhere poeple are going to be able to reach for this music and it will be available."
Speaking of reissues, Capitol Records/Universal Music have just released The Band’s eponymous second album in its 50th anniversary year. With tracks including “Up On Cripple Creek,” “Rag Mama Rag” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” the album helped insure The Band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The various packages include a ground-up remix by famed engineer Bob Clearmountain. More information here.