In June 1976 The Band began what was to be their final U.S tour in their original congregation, the tour kicked off at the Frost Amphitheatre in Palo Alto California and would wind up on Thanksgiving Day at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, that concert would be immortalised in the movie The Last Waltz. The previous year saw the release of their sixth studio album Northern Lights Southern Cross which has over the years divided critics and fans alike, many felt it to be their best set since their 1969 self titled album, other felt it was bereft of anything new. It seems that it was becoming increasingly difficult for The Band to find time to be in the studio at the same time, for various reasons. The rock and roll lifestyle had taken it's toll, especially on Richard Manuel who was battling severe alcohol and drug addictions, his voice weathered and beaten, that soulful cry now a whispered remembrance of past glories.
Robbie Robertson was becoming tired of life on the road and of trying to pull the individual strands together to create that cohesive brotherly vibe that had created such magic years earlier. This tour was to be the last and it was to end in grand style, so The Band hit that well worn endless highway treating fans to a catalogue of their best. On the 20th of July 1976 The Band hit the Casino Arena in New Jersey and played an energetic soulful show, guided by the brilliant drumming of Levon Helm. The set kicks off with Rick Danko supplying that familiar thumping bass introduction to Don't Do It alongside Helms natural shuffle. Shape I'm In is driven by some twisted funky guitar work from Robbie, Richard growls but his voice is shot. The same can be said for his work on King Harvest the rest of the Band create a music tour de force but Richard is unable to summon the requisite soul to carry the song over. He is in better shape when singing harmony on the Northern Lights outtake Twilight which they give an almost reggae flavour, once again Helm is a piledriver creating a rhythm that has the rest of the band floating. The brilliant Garth Hudson swirls around with piercing slice of synth. The Weight is another song given a more full blooded send off, with an almost reggae backbeat the Band carouse along capturing the beauty of this tale of taking the load, something the band had been doing as they crisscrossed the U.S over 16 years of touring.
Rick was always at his best when his plaintive voice was given the right platform, It Makes No Difference was one if his best and he gives a heart rending performance, their is a nice interplay in the finale between Robertson's fiery start bursts and Hudson's tenor sax explorations. The jazzy Ophelia has more Garth wizardry, Richard gives his all on Tears of Rage and in parts of the song you can hear the old Richard come through, that soulful ache penetrates through darkness that was enveloping Richard. Rick performs a sprightly version of This Wheels On Fire from the Music From Big Pink album, I think on that tour Levon sang The Night They Drove Ole Dixie Down as though it was the last time he would ever sing it. He gave it such visceral emotion he seemed to connect with the idea that his dream of the Band as a brotherhood was beginning to fade. Garth then performs a prog symphonic inspired Genetic Method that quite possibly traverses the entire history of recorded music before blasting off into Chest Fever, Garth would have been a natural for movie scores. Richard's voice is perfectly placed on Chest Fever, the gruffness his achieved on the original he goes some way to replicating but that Ray Charles inspired soul is missing. Stage Fright thought to be about Bob Dylan could have been easily about Rick himself, a man uneasy in the spotlight and one who eventually suffered for it. Levon's drumming was always based on a southern Saturday night, it was all about fun and dancing. On Up On Cripple Creek Levon put this to great use funky and syncopated this is always a joy to hear live and it's played with gusto. W.S Walcott's Medicine Show closes the show another song that Robbie wrote as a tribute to the cultural history of the south.