Wednesday, July 19, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 028: The Band: The Last Waltz (DVD reissue)

Martin Scorsese might understand American popular music better than any other mainstream film director (although the Coen Brothers certainly give him a run for his money). In every one of his movies, going all the way back to Mean Streets, there are fantastic moments when music takes over the telling of the story.

Some aspects of this film, which details the supposed "farewell" concert by the group known as the Hawks, then the Crackers, then "Dylan's band," then just "The Band," are painful, for one reason or another: Robbie Robertson’s absurd and transparent self-aggrandizement being chief among them: why Martin ever let Robbie think he could be a movie star is beyond me (must have been the shared coke habit), but you can see the germs of it here. The reality is that Robbie is an opportunistic scumbag who used his connections with Marty and his position as songwriter to do the others out of rights to both the performances and the band’s very name. The tragedy of Richard and Rick: in this film, Richard (who would eventually commit suicide) is already almost a ghost, and Rick, who looks to be enjoying his life, and never more than when he’s high as a kite and singing-and-fiddling Old Time Religion, but whose lifestyle would eventually kill him.

Other moments, however, are transparently wonderful: Levon’s stories of the chitlin’ circuit and the minstrel shows he remembers, in their first, grainiest, and most unself-conscious manifestation, the group’s wonderful story of meeting Sonny Boy Williamson in Memphis, the quiet intensity with which Garth speaks of the musician’s “holy obligation.”

Scorsese made a conscious decision to leave out the audience and emphasize the interplay between band members, and he got it, brilliantly: the way that Robbie visibly straightens up and defers to Ronnie Hawkins (who also goads out of him his best solo of the night, on Who Do You Love?); the way that Rick laughs uncontrollably at Ronnie’s hyper-Cracker antics (yelping "BIG tahm, now, Bill! BIG tahm!" when he first hits the stage); the moment after Clapton’s first chorus on Further on Up the Road when his guitar strap breaks and Robbie is forced to step into the breach (and, with Slowhand breathing down his neck, is forced to come up with his second-best solo of the night, before Clapton comes back in and obliterates him) ; the ungainly but transcendent stage kicks from Van Morrison in Caravan, which should have been the anthem for this show, and who truly does “go someplace else” when he’s on; the Longhair-on-acid cakewalk of Dr John as he sashays off stage after playing the greatest piano coda ever on Such a Night; even the huge glob of snotty cocaine visible on Neal Young’s upper lip; the ferocity with which, starting with Baby Let Me Follow You Down, Dylan channels the careening genius of the ’66 shows in England when he and the Band played into the teeth of the folk-Nazi gale; the psychedelic supercharged Chicago blues of Butterfield as his and Robbie’s versions of Mystery Train duke it out, with Butterfield’s tornadic harp-playing declaring him the uncontested winner; the look on Joni Mitchell’s face as, trying to play the diva/Madonna, she teeters over the Band’s groove as they take Coyote (her greatest song) into places she never could by herself; the trance Garth Hudson enters as he plays The Genetic Method/Chest Fever; the unself-conscious, truly sacred intensity of Mavis Staples as she leads the Band into a version of The Weight even greater than Aretha’s; and, perhaps most compellingly, the 8-minute version of Muddy singing I’m a Man, shot from a single fixed angle because every other camera had simultaneously run out of film—and all the more riveting for that.

And then there are the original songs. I’ve known a lot of musicians over the past 35 years—not as many different people as some free-lancers I know, and certainly not as many as the horn players like Sonny Stitt or Ben Webster who used to travel from town-to-town playing one-nighters—but a lot of musicians nevertheless. And they’re no better (and in some ways worse) as a group than are the civilians.

But one thing I can say is that all of them, not matter how sleazy, opportunistic, neurotic, or just plain lazy, have some kernel of beautitude in them, because the music couldn’t be that beautiful otherwise. Even Charlie Parker, even Charles Mingus, even Richard Wagner or some of the dysfunctional singer/songwriters I’ve known, have that bit of grace inside them. And so does Robbie Robertson, because he could not have written songs like these without it. Cripple Creek, It Makes No Difference, Life is a Carnival, Stagefright, Rag Mama, The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show are absolutely and utterly supernatural songs, rooted in a sense of America so deep and so true that it’s astounding that Robbie, like Rick, Garth, and Richard, is actually Canadian. Maybe it takes growing up next door to “old weird America” that makes it possible to imagine it so lovingly; to channel these old, grainy voices. Maybe it takes a band of singers as intense, unself-conscious, and original as Rick, Richard, and Levon (Robbie’s microphone was famously unplugged for this concert).

These songs sound like they were written by William Billings, Dan Emmett, Stephen Foster, Jimmie Rodgers, and Robert Johnson, and they sound like they’re being sung by the backwoods choirs, minstrel troupes, parlor singers, and mountain musicians they wrote for—or their offspring. If Robbie never did anything else—and, by the looks of things, his writer’s block has now stretched into its third decade—this would assure his place in the history of American music.

Ultimately though this record is about the state of grace that musicians can create together: the pristine beauty of the Theme from the Last Waltz; Allen Toussaint’s fantastic horn arrangements, which epitomize the New Orleans synthesis of funk and church (and, in Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and Caravan, take us back to church again); Levon’s loopy inside-out drumming that sounds like it comes off the King Biscuit Flour Hour; Rick’s jug-band/tuba-esque fretless bass-playing (he was certainly the earliest and greatest fretless player in rock) ; Richard’s impeccable, rolling New Orleans piano.

And Garth. Garth Hudson, who agreed to come along and join the teenaged Hawks only when they agreed to hire him as music teacher (thus placating his conservative parents) is easily one of the most brilliant, imaginative, and unfettered improvisers rock music has ever produced. I used to play with a keyboardist nowhere near as well-known but every bit as brilliant—the much-missed “Dr Jolt”—and he was the only other keyboard player I’ve heard come within hollering distance of Hudson. Endlessly imaginative, technically virtuosic but always in service of a musical idea, a fantastic improviser, an instinctive (and fluid and sophisticated) harmonist, Garth and the Good Doc both shared a background as church organists—who after all spend their whole musical lives improvising on some of the greatest, most bedrock tunes in the American musical imagination. Beyond that, they both had a grasp of “Saturday night” versus “Sunday morning” music (the Doc famously said that, if the night’s gig ended too late, and the morning service was too early, he’d wind up playing organ preludes on Bob Marley and Ladysmith Black Mambazo), and of the transcendence each experience was capable of creating.

You cannot understand American music if you don’t have this record. Billings, Dan Emmett, Foster, the Singing Brakeman—they all would have understood this music. You should too.

No comments: