The Band: The Last Waltz, 40th Anniversary Collector's Edition

Performance
Sound
If The Band didn’t slow down and get off the road—and get off the road soon—they were going to wind up killing themselves, to a man. “It’s a goddamn impossible way of life,” says Band leader/guitarist/chief songwriter Robbie Robertson of being stuck on the wheel of a crushing, never-ending tour cycle. That urgent “stop the road, I want to get off” mentality was one of the main driving forces behind The Band masterminding a farewell concert for the ages at the Winterland Arena in San Francisco during Thanksgiving 1976, dubbed from the get-go-then-get-gone as The Last Waltz.

A top-shelf affair from beginning to end, The Last Waltz expertly captured the elegiac pastoral sonic beauty and intuitive interplay of a band that had honed its chops like a second skin throughout 16 years of nonstop touring. The chemistry that existed both onstage and on record between Robertson, drummer/vocalist Levon Helm, bassist/vocalist Rick Danko, pianist/vocalist Richard Manuel, and keyboardist/synth wizard Garth Hudson inspired many a musician to take a step back from the sonic excesses of the late ’60s to rediscover the power inherent in great songwriting, storytelling, and performing. So when it came time to support The Last Waltz, storied guests including Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Neil Young, and Eric Clapton all stepped up to play at the 7-hour event that truly signaled the end of one era of popular music while also acting as the bridge into the unknown. Or, as Robertson put it, “We had to figure out how to enter the next phase of our lives.”

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Much of that evening’s aural feast is contained within a six-disc Collector’s Edition that also includes a 300-page book housing a replication of director Martin Scorsese’s shooting script, one that’s as meticulously detailed as a head coach having diagrammed each player’s position and role on the field on both sides of the ball during every single play executed in the Super Bowl. It’s all lavishly bound in red faux-leather and limited to just 2,500 copies. If the $260 price tag is too rich for your wallet, find something to hock of equal value post-haste, because this is the definitive version audiophiles and collectors simply must have on their shelves. But if you’re still strapped for cash, the five-disc Deluxe Edition, as seen above, is also of merit (though it only contains one of the Blu-rays, the one with just The Last Waltz film itself), or you could spring for the six-LP 180-gram vinyl version.

It should be noted The Last Waltz has been well-feted before, having seen a four-disc 2002 retrospective filled with the outtakes, rehearsals, and “Studio Ideas” also found in the 40th anniversary collection (albeit in a different running order), not to mention a 96-kHz/24-bit surround mix produced by Robertson for DVD-Audio, also released in 2002. That said, Disc 6 here has the 96/24 5.1 mix on Blu-ray, and it’s the best version of The Last Waltz released to date.

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A few years ago, I asked Robertson what his goals were for The Last Waltz 5.1 mix, and he replied, “I tried to make it like you were sitting in the third row, and the audience is around you and behind you.” That philosophy is on full display with the unfolding of each of the main collection’s 20-plus live tracks, so the best thing you can do is sit back as an audience member and revel in the fusion of joy and grit on songs like “The Shape I’m In,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” Muddy Waters’ galvanizing take on “Mannish Boy,” and the all-in vocal jam on Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” which requires multiple listens just so you can pick out where each harmonic blend is situated in the mix, as well as discern who’s singing together in the physical sense across the main stage.

When it comes to the studio tracks, “The Weight” is one of the most fulfilling surround mixes I’ve ever had on constant repeat, with the vocal tradeoffs of its participants pinballing around like a church-charged calliope—or like being in the ring with prizefighters, as Scorsese put it in one of the accompanying documentaries. Helm starts the vocal in the front right, Manuel is over in the front left, Mavis Staples puts her gospel stamp in the rear left (also listen for her insistent handclaps during the song’s back half), Roebuck “Pops” Staples takes command of the rear right, and Danko counters in the front left. Chillingly beautiful from end to end.

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That it all wraps up with the all-channel mournful yet uplifting expanse of “The Last Waltz Refrain” is just the cherry up on top of Cripple Creek. The Last Waltz may have originally intended to put The Band in the purview of rock’s rearview, but instead, it lifted them into the permanent pantheon of the greats. This constantly rewarding collector’s edition is a testament to The Band’s legacy as a band that captured a certain magic in the air only they could share.

CD & Blu-ray
Label: Warner Bros./Rhino
Audio Formats: 96-kHz/24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (Blu-ray), 48-kHz/24-bit PCM Stereo (download), 44.1-kHz/16-bit PCM Stereo (CD)
Number of Tracks: 115 on 6 discs (53 on 4 CDs, 62 on 2 Blu-rays)
Length: 8:43:29
Producers: Robbie Robertson (original live and studio material, 5.1 mixes), Rob Fraboni, John Simon
Engineers: Terry Becker, Tim Kramer, Elliot Mazer, Wayne Neuendorf, Ed Anderson, Neil Brody (original live and studio material), Terry Davison (audio restoration)

COMMENTS
sgarfinkle's picture

So, a nice example of journalistic fawning supporting a ridiculous business model. Basically the only thing new here apart perhaps from the script is the 5.1 mix on BD. So, I have to pay $275 just for that? In a limited edition, of course! Even the exact same thing without the 5.1 mix is $65. This is insane and just plain insulting. Sell the 5.1 BD along with (as Tom Petty and CSNY did) downloadable FLAC. OK, Charge $40 or $50 for that. I can see it. But this is just insulting.