The Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco was the first place that the Band played as "the Band," guitarist Robbie Robertson tells director Martin Scorsese in an interview from his magnificent concert documentary The Last Waltz. So it was for emotional reasons that the group made Winterland their final stop, too. After years on the road, they spent Thanksgiving, 1976 at Bill Graham's now long-gone venue, an ice-skating rink and music hall at the corner of Post and Steiner, playing with "friends" who were also the era's greatest musicians.
"We had to play 21 songs with other artists, going from Muddy Waters to Joni Mitchell," Robertson said according to NPR, who recalled the concert on its 40th anniversary this year. "We played this five-hour concert and we didn't make a mistake." The concert, a who's who of the rock canon, included performances with Neil Diamond, Van Morrison, and Bob Dylan, whose association with the group, originally Dylan's back up band, lent them their name.
"We wanted it to be more than just a concert," Robertson told Scorsese, "we wanted it to be a celebration." While the show was bound to be the stuff of legend, it's thanks to Scorsese's documentary that we remember The Last Waltz as if it were yesterday rather than 40 years ago.
The timing couldn't be better — as our local Alamo Drafthouse celebrates the 100th anniversary of the New Mission Theater that it refurbished and took over last year, creative manager Mike Keegan put together a month of San Francisco-centric screenings. That closes Thursday with a screening of The Last Waltz, which Robertson will attend and introduce. There are still a few tickets left, and Alamo will also be selling copies of Testimony.
"The Last Waltz is a piece of work that's superlative of a few disciplines," Keegan told SFist. "Just from a performance perspective, it's fantastic. But this band was so synonymous with the late '60s, and the ending of that era, with all these guests." That's something Robertson refers to in the film as "the beginning of the end of the beginning."
And then, Keegan adds, "from a Scorsese angle — I'm biased, because I think he's truly one of the great practitioners of the art of film — but he's an underrated documentarian. At the same time he was crafting things like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull he was spending time making documentaries that meant a lot to him." Those included Italianamerican in 1974 and American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince. "They're two very personal movies," Keegan says. "That might seem different than a rock concert, but I think The Last Waltz comes across as personal as well. The way he talks to the Band when they're playing pool — he's caught up in the moment, it's fascinating on so many levels and its exciting to see it on the big screen.
The only thing missing at tomorrow's event? Martin Scorsese, who will coincidentally be in San Francisco on Monday at an SF Film Society Screening of his new film Silence. Another connection: Robertson, a longtime friend and collaborator, is the movie's executive music producer. They've worked together starting after The Last waltz with The King of Comedy, and Robertson even composed the score to The Color of Money.