What Really Happened At The Last Waltz: The “Most Epic Concert Of The 1970s”

The Last Waltz was a goodbye concert for The Band on Thanksgiving Day in 1976 in San Francisco. The Band certainly did things big, with the show being called one of the greatest concert movies ever produced. However, it wasn’t all just a good time, and a lot of things happened that made people feel sour about the whole thing. Take a lot about what made this concert so notable and why it’s sometimes referred to as the most epic concert of the 1970s.

There Was Going To Be No Expense Spared

Picture of Neil Young
Ed Perlstein/Redferns/Getty Images
Ed Perlstein/Redferns/Getty Images

Before things were even set into motion, both audiences and several of the biggest bands at the time had high expectations for the show and were prepared to spare no expense.

While it sounds like nothing but fun, something caused it to leave a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths, especially those that were excited to perform at what was supposed to be a legendary concert.

It Was The Talk Of The Town

Picture of the concert
Lester Cohen/Getty Images
Lester Cohen/Getty Images

The whole thing was the vision of The Band’s Robbie Robertson, with iconic music producer Bill Graham having only a few months to set everything up.

Of course, that didn’t stop word from spreading fast with Rolling Stone describing it as “a no-expense-spared adieu that started with a Thanksgiving feast and ended with everyone from Neil Diamond to Neil Young accompanying the quintet.” Essentially anyone who was anybody at the time was going to be there.

Martin Scorcese Was Going To Be Involved

Picture of Martin Scorsese
Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic
Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

As if having all of the all-star musicians of the time there performing, director Martin Scorsese also wanted to be involved and capture the whole thing on film.

Scorsese knew that this was going to be an event that was too hard to pass up and wanted to share it with people that wouldn’t be able to attend. On the potential film, Rolling Stone would go on to call it “the single greatest concert movie of all time.”

The Band Still Got Their Goodbye

Picture of the Band
Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns
Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

Even though things may not have all worked out as planned, one thing is certain, which was that The Band got the goodbye show they were looking for.

The Band had been around for some time by this point, starting off as Bob Dylan’s backing band before going on to have major success of their own with tracks such as “The Weight” and “Up on Cripple Creek.” After so many years on the road, they had built quite the fanbase, too.

An Appropriate Goodbye

Picture of The Band
RB/Redferns/Getty Images
RB/Redferns/Getty Images

The concert was set to take place at the Winterland Ballroom, which was only appropriate because it was the same venue that they made their live debut as The Band.

The Last Waltz was anticipated to be the final live performance of the original touring band members which consisted of Robertson on guitar, Levon Helm on drums, Richard Manuel on piano, bass player Rick Danko and multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson. It was a show that no fan of The Band wanted to miss out on.

Robertson Really Wanted It To Happen

Picture of Robertson
Michael Putland/Getty Images
Michael Putland/Getty Images

This legendary concert was essentially the brainchild of Robertson and Bill Graham with Robertson being insistent that the whole thing was filmed. One of the reasons for this is because The Band’s performance at Woodstock hadn’t been included in the documentary that captured the festival, so he felt that the group had been cheated.

Robertson also knew that if he wanted it done right it was going to have to captured by the best in the business who he felt was Martin Scorsese.

The Band Wanted To Quit While They Were Ahead

Picture of Robbie Robertson
Harvey L. Silver/Corbis via Getty Images
Harvey L. Silver/Corbis via Getty Images

Although The Band had a vast and incredibly devoted fan base, they knew that it was time to call it quits before something bad happened.

Robertson explained this in his memoir Testimony when he wrote, “Our rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle was passing the point of no return. The examples of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison – and more recently Gram Parsons, Nick Drake, and Tim Buckley – brought home the dangers of the road,”

They Had Their Fears About Continuing On

Picture of The Band
Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns
Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

Robertson continued to explain their situation, saying, “We’d heard this story about so many musicians; it was almost part of the ritual. All around us, bands we knew were imploding, trying to live what they thought was the rock ’n’ roll high life.”

Of course, that was the last thing he wanted to see come of himself or his fellow bandmates, so they decided the best course of action was just to quit touring entirely.

They Had Been On The Road For Long Enough

Picture of The Band
RB/Redferns
RB/Redferns

By no means did the group have a short and sweet career either, with many members have been working since the 1950s and meeting while performing as the backing band for Ronnie Hawkins.

On their way to Toronto to play a few songs, the group picked up Robertson, with Manuel and Hudson being added in the early 1960s to complete the group. So, it was clear that the group had already been through a lot together.

Working Their Way To Stardom

Picture of the band
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Initially playing together as Ronnie Hawkins & the Hawks, the group became one of the most well-known groups on the touring circuit. Then, by 1963, despite Ronnie having his name in front of the Hawks, people were going to the shows to see the Hawks at work more than anything else.

Although they were popular in their own right, everything changed when they were asked to play with Bob Dylan who was in the middle of his transition into electric music from his original folk sound.

The Band Comes To Life

Picture of the band
Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns
Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

After their time collaborating with Bob Dylan and releasing what would become known as The Basement Tapes, The Band established themselves as their own group.

Their debut album, Music From Big Pink, took the world by storm and they were quickly becoming celebrities on their own, proving that they didn’t need to play alongside any big-name artist in order to achieve commercial success. It was an exciting time for The Band, and it was just beginning.

They Took A Break

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Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

As anyone can imagine, life on the road and newfound success took a toll on The Band. So, they did what they thought was right and took a short break before coming back strong with another collaboration with Dylan on his album Planet Waves.

The Band would then come out with two more records on their own but were ready to hang up their hats by the time 1976 rolled around. But they were going to go out in style at The Last Waltz on Thanksgiving of that year.

It Was All Coming Together

Picture of musicians
Ed Perlstein/Redferns
Ed Perlstein/Redferns

With Scorsese now on board to direct the concert movie, The Band made it clear that they wanted to open the stage to any of their friends that wanted to play a show alongside them.

These were the likes of artists including Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Ringo Starr, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, and a number of others. This was anticipated to be the show of the decade, and everyone was buzzing about it.

5,000 People Were In Attendance

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Lester Cohen/Getty Images
Lester Cohen/Getty Images

When the day finally came 5,000 lucky people managed to get tickets. This wasn’t just going to be an epic rock show either – ticketholders were also going to be served a Thanksgiving meal as well.

This was about as good as it gets in terms of witnessing live music, and we can only imagine what some people were willing to do to get their hands on those precious tickets.

Not Everyone Was Thrilled About The Event

Picture of Helm
Ebet Roberts/Redferns
Ebet Roberts/Redferns

Believe it or not, not all members of The Band were on board with the whole thing, especially when it came to the movie. Levon Helm wrote about it in his autobiography, claiming that “When they first told me about making a movie out of The Last Waltz, I was against the idea.”

But Robertson wouldn’t give up on his dream, “And so the film was more or less shoved down our throats too, and we went along with it,” Helm added.

The Movie Made It Look Perfect

Picture of musicians
Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns
Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

If you were to just watch Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, you’d be surprised to learn that not everything went off without a hitch. But how could it not? There was music, food, dancing, and appearances from some of the biggest artists of the day.

Yet, that wasn’t the case, and not everything was going well by any means. But what could be going on behind the scenes that could ruin everyone’s good time?

There Were Technical Issues

Picture of Muddy Waters
Val Wilmer/Redferns/Getty Images
Val Wilmer/Redferns/Getty Images

Something that’s enough to stress any artist out is having technical difficulties, and there was no shortage of those. According to Helm, during Muddy Waters’ performance, “All but one camera had been turned off. We almost missed his entire segment.”

Helm continued, “As he was walking offstage, I stood up to applaud, and Muddy grabbed my head in his big hands and kissed my forehead. What a feeling! But the director hadn’t bothered to walk Muddy on and offstage, so there was no film of this.”

It Was Too Long

Picture of musicians
Lester Cohen/Getty Images
Lester Cohen/Getty Images

Also, regardless that these were all incredibly experienced musicians, the concert was far too long for many of them to keep up.

Helm claims that “We were pretty much wrung out, but we did ‘Acadian Driftwood’ as the last tune before intermission, with Joni and Neil Young singing along in a gesture of Canadian solidarity […] We’d been on for more than three hours by then, and my hands were bleeding. We were all half past dead.”

Not Everyone Was On The Same Page About Guest Players

Picture of Neil Diamond
Paul Natkin/Getty Images
Paul Natkin/Getty Images

On top of everything else, there were apparently disagreements in regards to who would be playing at the show as well. Robertson writes in his autobiography that he had invited Neil Diamond to play to keep all of the genres interesting, but it didn’t really fit with the scene that The Band was going for.

Supposedly, Helm went so far as to ask the rest of the group, “What does Neil Diamond have to do with us?”

There Were Also Issues Regarding Muddy Waters

Picture of Muddy Waters
Richard E. Aaron/Redferns
Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

To make matters worse, Helm was beyond excited to be in the presence of the legendary blues player Muddy Waters, so when Waters’ act was cut short due to time, Helm was furious.

Helm would later add that if this happened, He would do his own Last Waltz in New York with just he and Waters. By this time, people were really starting to get upset with one another and tempers were beginning the flare behind the scenes.

Not Every Performance Was As Good As It Seems

People in line
Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Apparently, some of the guest performers also didn’t perform to the level that most people would expect. For the 25th anniversary of the concert, Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune commented, “Scorsese’s editing ensures a galvanizing viewing experience that, by most accounts, surpasses the actual event, which was marred by a number of indifferent or ragged performances.”

Plus, it didn’t help that tickets were three times as much for a typical show, leaving some audience members feeling slightly cheated.

Bob Dylan Proved To Be A Problem

Picture of Bob Dylan
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

For The Band, having Bob Dylan perform at the show was one of their biggest insistences. He had helped raise the group to stardom and their collaboration with him had been nothing short of integral to the creation of The Band.

Therefore, Dylan had to be in the show, which also meant that he had to be in the movie. There was no way around it, but this proved to not sit too well with the musician.

Dylan Was Having None Of It

Picture of Dylan
Gary Fong/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images
Gary Fong/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Of course, technically, Dylan could do as he pleased despite the amount of respect that The Band had for him.

Helm would later explain in his book This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band, “Bob Dylan had come in with his people during the first part of the show and retreated to a dressing room off-limits to everyone else. Halfway through the intermission, about 15 minutes before we were due back on stage with Bob, he decided he didn’t want to be in the film.”

Bob Had His Own Movie Coming Out

Picture of Dylan
United Artists/Getty Images
United Artists/Getty Images

One of the main reasons why Bob Dylan didn’t want to be in the movie was because he had his own film, Renaldo and Clara, about to come out. So, Bill Graham stepped in to see if they could work out some kind of deal, which they did.

It was agreed that Dylan would play, but not all of the songs that he recorded could be used in the movie. Ultimately, only a few of his songs made it into the film.

It Was About To Get Worse

Picture of Dylan
Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

So, Dylan went on stage, everyone went wild, and Scorsese got the shots that he needed for the movie. But tensions finally exploded when Dylan’s lawyers went to the truck after the show and demanded the tapes that Dylan was on, claiming that they were going to need to have negotiations.

Helm calls the whole situation “pretty funny” because it all seemed so ridiculous at the time and that you can’t even make something like that up.

A Not So Smooth Evening

Picture of Helm
Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images
Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images

After all that, the Last Waltz was a far from the smooth event for almost everyone involved, including the audience, believed it was. That still wasn’t the end of things, unfortunately. It appears that the night took its toll on the members of The Band as well.

Levon Helm was furious about Robertson’s decision to stop touring with the band, claiming that he was out to “destroy” everything that they had worked for. He was so angry that he didn’t even want to perform at the show.

Helm Thought Stopping Touring Was A Joke At First

Picture of The Band
Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns
Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

Helm couldn’t believe that Robertson was serious about The Band breaking up. He wrote, “Sometime in September 1976 we got word that Robbie Robertson and our management wanted to put it away.

Robbie had had enough, and they decided to kill The Band and go out with a bang. I thought it might be a joke.” At the time, the last thing that he wanted to do was break up The Band, which he loved so much.

They Were Already Breaking At The Seams

Picture of The Band
Ed Perlstein/Redferns/Getty Images
Ed Perlstein/Redferns/Getty Images

However, it turns out that not everything had been going so great with the group for a while, with Robertson talking about business aspects more and more.

Robertson commented, “To say that [money and songwriting credit] was an issue [in The Band at that time] is just nonsense, utter nonsense, after all these years. Who did the work? I tried, I begged Levon to write songs or help me write songs – all the guys.”

Tensions Remain High

Picture of musicians
Harvey L. Silver/Corbis via Getty Images
Harvey L. Silver/Corbis via Getty Images

Helm and Robertson still remain at odds about many things surrounding the falling out of the band.

Robertson went on to say, “…what [Helm’s] saying now is the result of somebody thinking about their financial problems […] I wrote these songs and then 20 or 30 years later somebody comes back and says he wrote the songs? It never came up back then, and it’s preposterous that it’s coming up now.” Clearly, there’s still some trouble in paradise.

The Last Waltz Was The Final Straw

Picture of Helm
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

In the end, The Last Waltz would prove to be the last straw for The Band. While Robertson made out the show to sound like it went great, that’s not what Helm had to say.

Regarding the movie, Helm commented, “As far as I was concerned, the movie was a disaster […] For two hours [at a screening], we watched as the camera focused almost exclusively on Robbie Robertson, long and loving close-ups of his heavily made-up face and expensive haircut.”

The Show Brought Up Some Financial Issues

Picture of the band
Richard E. Aaron/Redferns
Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

On top of everything else, Helm was also firm in his belief that that the movie didn’t make any money for himself or his other bandmates, except for Robertson. He later commented, “Today people tell me all the time how much they loved The Last Waltz […] “I try to thank them politely and usually refrain from mentioning that for me it was a real scandal.”

Of course, their disagreements on everything are hard to hear, especially for fans of The Band, but it goes to show that few things are as good as they seem.

The Last Waltz Was Truly The Final Moments Of The Band

Picture of The Band
Michael Montfort/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Michael Montfort/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Although The Last Waltz was only supposed to signify the end of touring for the band, they were still expected to record together, but Robertson was the only one to show up to the recording session when the time came.

He commented, “I had to read the writing on the wall,” and it turns out that The Band’s “Final Waltz” would be the last time that they would play together like they once did.