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  • Writer's pictureChester B Simpson

The Last Waltz

"We wanted it to be more than a final concert. We wanted it to be a celebration."

- Robbie Robertson

“The Last Waltz” concert happened on November 25th, Thanksgiving Day, in 1976 at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. The Last Waltz was billed as The Band's "farewell concert appearance.” The Band decided to disband as a group but have one last farewell concert in San Francisco. The Band members Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Robbie Robertson would perform along with Bob Dylan and guests. It would become one of the most momentous events in musical history.

As a young photography student at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1976, I knew I had to photograph this historic event.

All photographers had to arrive at 5:00 p.m. and hold their position 50 feet from the stage while director Martin Scorsese filmed the concert. By 7:30 p.m. all of us photographers were thirsty and tired of standing on our feet, so one photographer Larry suggested that, if we held his position, he would get everyone drinks. He returned and handed out everyone’s drinks. I drank half of my Dr. Pepper and placed it between my feet for later.

Fifteen minutes before the concert started, I realized, like all the other photographers that I had been dosed with LSD, so no more soda for me. This was history and I wanted to capture everything in focus.

The Band started their concert at around 9:00 p.m., opening with "Up on Cripple Creek” followed by, "The Shape I'm In", "This Wheel's on Fire", and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." Joining The Band onstage during the course of the evening were more than a dozen special guests, including Bob Dylan, Paul Butterfield, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, Ronnie Wood, Neil Diamond, Bobby Charles, The Staple Singers, and Eric Clapton.

Scorsese admitted that he was using cocaine heavily and drugs were present in large quantities during the concert. A bit of cocaine on Neil Young's nose was edited out of the movie later.

The concert ended around 2:15 a.m. with The Band performing an encore, "Don't Do It.” It was the last time the group performed under the name “The Band".

For me, "The Last Waltz" was the best concert I have ever photographed, and the film is one of the greatest music documentaries ever made.

I got my photos and one of my photos is in the November issue of Vanity Fair and four of my unpublished photos were released November 11, 2016, in 'The Last Waltz' Box Set - The Collector's Edition, limited to 2,500 copies worldwide. It includes remastered audio, Martin Scorsese-directed concert documentary, and a 300-page book highlighting the 40th-anniversary reissue campaign.

Check out photographs from this story: The Last Waltz Gallery

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