The Band, Little Feat

Reissues

Phases and Stages

The Band

The Last Waltz (Rhino/Warner Bros.)

Little Feat

Waiting for Columbus (Rhino/Warner Bros.)
Phases and Stages

In the live album canon, The Band's The Last Waltz and Little Feat's Waiting for Columbus are legendary curtain calls cut from a different cloth. The Last Waltz was The Band's visionary 1976 swan song, spearheaded by lead guitarist and primary songwriter Robbie Robertson. For seminal West Coast ensemble Little Feat, 1977's Waiting for Columbus also marked the end of the road, only its members didn't know it at the time. More than two decades after their original releases, both albums have now received deluxe reissue treatment, and are primers on the magic and miscues lurking in untapped audio vaults. Burned out from touring, The Band's Robertson wanted to go out in grand style, and staged a gigantic send-off at San Francisco's Winterland that featured Thanksgiving dinner for 5,000 fans, and a dizzying array of Band collaborators and friends ranging from Muddy Waters and Neil Young to Bob Dylan. As the 25th anniversary of the concert looms on November 16, 2002, the original 3-LP set (and 2-CD package) has been expanded into a 4-CD box set, featuring a wealth of unreleased concert performances, as well as rehearsals and Last Waltz-inspired studio tracks. It was a bittersweet night for The Band, and it shows in their performances. There are numerous moments that capture their pastoral majesty, like drummer/vocalist Levon Helm's defiant rebel yell vocals in Civil War novella "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"; bassist Rick Danko's high cries in "It Makes No Difference"; and tortured genius Richard Manuel throwing his soul into the confessional drunkard's anthem "The Shape I'm In." In less-inspired moments, the frenetic nature of their "farewell" show -- and the amount of illicit substances freely flowing -- speeds up the tempos, making the serene breathing room in classics like "The Weight" and "This Wheel's on Fire" sound huffing and puffing. The Band's backing of their special guests yields stronger results. Highlights include a scalding roadhouse version of "Who Do You Love" with Ronnie Hawkins, Robertson going mano a mano with Eric Clapton in "Further On Up the Road," Muddy Waters radiating naked lust in a deliberate, thunderous reading of "Mannish Boy," and former Band employer Bob Dylan revisiting the crackling arrangements of his 1974 tour with The Band for a snarling version of "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down." The previously unreleased material is -- no surprise -- a typically mixed bag. Clapton and Danko do a beautiful duet on their co-write "Our Past Times," while Joni Mitchell's patronizing Furry Lewis impression on "Furry Sings the Blues" is an embarrassment. If Robertson saw fit to include tentative rehearsal versions of Van Morrison's "Caravan" and Dr. John's "Such a Night," what's the justification for again omitting Richard Manuel's heartbreaking version of "Georgia on My Mind"? Ultimately, Band aficionados will have to consider such decisions to justify the hefty price tag of this set, while neophytes should proceed directly to The Band's 1971 live album Rock of Ages, a timeless document featuring horn charts from New Orleans composer/arranger extraordinaire Allen Toussaint. Little Feat's version of Toussaint's "On Your Way Down" is one of seven bonus tracks on the new edition of Waiting for Columbus, which captured the band at their peak. Recorded over multiple nights on Little Feat's 1977 tour, it shows the band's amazing scope, getting down like a funky Steely Dan, and stretching out like a jazzy version of the Meters. As good as their early-Seventies studio albums were, Little Feat fleshed out their songs onstage, turning the sly and subversive polyrhythms of "Fat Man in the Bathtub" and "Dixie Chicken" into intricate, full-blown jams. Leader Lowell George's unorthodox slide guitar playing meshes brilliantly with Paul Barrere's six-string boogie on "All That You Dream" and "Walkin' All Night," while the rhythm section of drummer Richie Hayward and bassist Kenny Gradney give tracks like the whorehouse ode "Spanish Moon" a hefty wallop. The icing on the cake was the brass accompaniment of the Tower of Power horn section, punching up the hairpin changes of "Rocket in My Pocket," and squalling alongside keyboardist Bill Payne's fusion-informed lines on "Time Loves a Hero" and "Mercenary Territory." One devastating unreleased track is a showstopping version of "Cold, Cold, Cold" transformed from an odd, smart-ass ditty into a kick-ass showcase for Little Feat's superb ensemble playing. George would soon quit the band in a power struggle, and died two years later. But the 2002 edition of Waiting for Columbus is a soulful, powerful reminder of his singular artistic vision.

(The Last Waltz) ****.5

(Waiting for Columbus) *****

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