In the years that have passed since the 2002 reissue of The Band’s star-studded finale, ever more of the participants have left the stage for the final time. With Levon Helm and legendary blues pianist Pinetop Perkins having joined Messrs Danko, Manuel, Muddy and Pops Staples in the great ballroom in the sky, the album title, memorialised in Scorsese’s 1978 concert film, becomes ever more prophetic.
Not that there’s much to add to the original release. The 2016 version comes in a variety of editions, the deluxe adding rehearsals, outtakes (notably Van Morrison revving his formidable vocal engine to drive the showstopping Caravan) and Scorsese’s movie to the remastered original.
It’s the latter that still stands the test of time. The Band’s eloquent command of sources is underlined by the appearance of Muddy Waters for the emphatic Mannish Boy, Mavis and The Staple Singers taking The Weight all the way to the Baptismal font, and their first employer Ronnie Hawkins invoking Bo Diddley voodoo.
This is a heart-lifting celebration of a vanished era, Dylan back with his barnstorming Basement Tapes buddies, Joni Mitchell at her luminous peak, Neil Young and Dr John in Night Tripper mode. The one sore thumb in the whole gathering remains Neil Diamond, included against the better judgement of his colleagues by Robbie Robertson, who had coincidentally produced a recent album.
But one Diamond does not a dog’s dinner make, and The Last Waltz captures an extraordinary musical community at the point of dispersal and preserves it for the ages.