Tuesday, July 27, 2010

'The Last Waltz' is likely rock and roll's best concert album

In general, I am not a big fan of live albums. Many times they are quickly slapped together to either take advantage of an artist's sudden popularity or to help an artist kill time while slipping out of the public eye for a while.

Plus, live albums are not always live. Usually, post-concert tinkering is done to clean up a performance and present somebody in the best possible light. We live in a day where it is common place for people to lip sync while performing. If the performance is not real, how can we expect their live album to be so?

The Last Waltz is a really good live album. It is not entirely a live album because six cuts were done in the studio. However, the rest of it is live and nearly fills up two CDs. It is filled with first-rate music.

The Last Waltz was billed as The Band's final performance. They were saying good bye and invited a list of artists that they enjoyed to perform with them. Their guests made the concert unusual to say the least. How often did Neil Diamond and Muddy Waters share the same billing at a concert? My guess is not often.

They started from the beginning. They brought in Ronnie Hawkins who sang 'Who Do You Love.' Of course, The Band played with Hawkins when they were known as The Hawks. The rest is a Who's Who in popular music from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.

Neil Young sang 'Helpless.' Dr. John sang 'Down South in New Orleans.' Van Morrison sang 'Caravan.' Eric Clapton sang 'Further On Up The Road.' There were others as well, but I think you get the picture. There was a lot of good music with a lot of big names. The show culminated with Bob Dylan who The Band had collaborated with several times.

Despite all that music, The Band is the unquestioned star of the show. The five members of the group made up the most versatile band in rock history. Their level of musicianship has been rarely seen in popular music.

Organist Garth Hudson's intro to 'Chest Fever' is unquestionably one of the most unique solos ever recorded. Bassist Rick Danko's vocal on 'It Makes No Difference' defines heartbreak. Guitarist Robbie Robertson's solo on 'Stagefright' is so sharp it almost draws blood. Pianist Richard Manuel's vocal on 'Shape I'm In' communicates the despair of the impoverished. Drummer Levon Helm's singing on 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' evokes dignity and pride in the same breath.

The Last Waltz is not only a great live album, but a great album, period. It captures lots of musicians at their peak in one album. It is essential for any collection.

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