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The Story of the Band’s Thanksgiving Farewell

A wise man once said it’s better to burn out than fade away, and on Thanksgiving Day of 1976, the Band, one of the best live acts of the rock era went out in a blaze of glory that was called The Last Waltz.

After spending more than 15 years on the road – first as a backing band and then as a recording act in their own right – they called it quits as a touring entity by leading an all-star ensemble through an epic night of food, dancing and rock ‘n’ roll. Commemorated by director Martin Scorsese, the event would later serve as the grist for one of the most beloved concert films of all time, but on Nov. 25, 1976, it was simply one heck of a show.

At the time of the concert, the Band was enjoying a run of success dating back to its 1964 formation as the backing crew for rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. After rising to prominence as Bob Dylan‘s band in the mid-’60s, the group – consisting of bassist/vocalist Rick Danko, drummer/vocalist Levon Helm, multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson, keyboard player/vocalist Richard Manuel, and guitarist/vocalist Robbie Robertson – embarked on a recording career that produced six straight Top 40 albums, including their platinum self-titled 1969 release.

In the context of the times, their music was resolutely and singularly old-fashioned, evoking a homespun Appalachian feel that was often utterly out of step with current trends. That didn’t stop them from breaking the Top 40 with several singles, including 1969’s “Up on Cripple Creek” and 1972’s “Don’t Do It.” (Ironically, the song that would become arguably their trademark number, “The Weight,” petered out in the lower reaches of the pop chart.)

Watch the Band Perform with Eric Clapton in ‘The Last Waltz’

All of which is to say that when they announced their retirement from the stage, the Band were still very much in demand – and had acquired enough famous friends over the years that The Last Waltz quickly became a star-studded affair, featuring appearances from former benefactors Hawkins and Dylan as well as a long list of guests that included Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, and Dr. John. Considering that the audience was treated to a turkey dinner and ballroom dancing prior to the start of the show, the event’s $25 ticket price – which was a lot of money at the time – ended up being quite a bargain.

If the music was solid, the Band’s ties were already starting to fray. To begin with, the concert never would have happened in the first place if Robertson hadn’t decided to leave the road, effectively making their live retirement a unilateral decision that rankled the other members of the group.

Resentment over Robertson’s control of the Band’s affairs extended to decisions as simple as who should join them in the lineup – such as his infamously divisive insistence that Neil Diamond be brought on to perform a cut from his recent Robertson-produced LP. (Walking offstage after his performance, Diamond supposedly challenged Bob Dylan to “follow that.” Dylan was said to have issued the scathing retort, “What do I have to do, go on stage and fall asleep?”)

Sadly, the Band would quickly disintegrate into rancor in the years following The Last Waltz, with the film itself proving a persistent sore spot between former members – particularly Levon Helm, who openly resented the way he felt Martin Scorsese focused on Robertson. For all the bad blood surrounding the show, however, Waltz remains a high point of ’70s rock, as well as the arguable apex of each of the members’ respective careers. Even as they were falling apart behind the scenes, they managed to demonstrate the strength of their musical bond – and the result remains a powerful example of just what can happen when talented artists are able to set aside their differences long enough to give in to the power of song.

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