After wrapping up the main show with an all-star rendition of “I Shall Be Released,” the five members of the Band returned alone for a sweaty cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Don’t Do It”
The life of Robbie Robertson — who died Wednesday morning after a long illness — can neatly be divided into everything that happened before The Last Waltz and everything that happened afterward. The 1976 all-star concert at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom marked the end of his career with the Band, the end of his years as a touring musician, and the start of life as an elder statesman of rock.
He went out by throwing one of the biggest concerts in rock history featuring Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Neil Diamond, Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Paul Butterfield, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Ronnie Wood, and Ringo Starr. Martin Scorsese and his team were there to capture every moment of it on film, but after 42 songs and nearly 10 hours of continuous shooting, the cameras started melting down. Thankfully, a stationary black-and-white camera quietly placed on the side by Bill Graham’s crew caught everything Scorsese’s team missed.
The main set ended with nearly everyone from the night returning for “I Shall Be Released” and a couple of sloppy jams. It was 2:00 a.m. at this point, and all five members of the Band were burned out and numb after playing all night, but they decided to come back one final time to cover Marvin Gaye’s “Baby Don’t You Do It,” which had been a staple of their live show for years. Check out this video of the performance that mixes together footage from Scorsese’s team and Bill Graham’s camera.
The Band reunited in 1983 without Robbie Robertson. He played with them at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1993, but keyboardist Richard Manuel was dead by this point, and drummer Levon Helm stayed home due to a long-simmering battle with Robertson over songwriting credits. That means The Last Waltz really was the final time all the classic lineup of the Band played together in public as the Band. (If you want to get technical, they all shared the stage at a 1978 Rick Danko solo show, but it wasn’t a Band concert.)
Robertson never even attempted a tour on his own despite releasing many several solo albums, restricting his live performances to special events like the Crossroads Guitar Festival and various Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. Topping The Last Waltz was impossible. He didn’t want to even try.