Why Joni Mitchell sang behind a curtain for ‘the Last Waltz’


Credit: Paul C Babin / Warner

When it comes to dating, no one has done it better than The Band. After announcing their retirement from the road in 1976, the legendary Canadian-American roots rock group planned a massive farewell at Bill Graham’s Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. They would be joined by some of their key contributors and former employers, including Ronnie Hawkins, Neil Young, Dr. John, Muddy Waters and Bob Dylan. To top it off, Martin Scorsese would film the final performance of a documentary.

The fact that The Band regrouped a few years later without songwriter and frontman Robbie Robertson does not detract from the lingering nature of The last Waltz. Bringing together some of the greatest artists of the era at the height of their powers, there are too many highlights to count. Along with some amazing tunes from The Band, you also get Dr. John’s jazzy “Such a Night”, the playful version of “Who Do You Love?”, Dylan’s beautiful take on “Forever Young,” and even current circumstances cannot. away from the excitement of ‘Further on Up the Road’ by Eric Clapton and ‘Caravan’ by Van Morrison.

For her part, Young stumbled onstage in a bit of haze but nailed happy takes on “Four Strong Winds” and “Helpless”. For the latter, if you watched the performance live in the audience, maybe there would have been a voice that seemed to come straight out of the sky, a nice high pitched harmony to complement Young. This voice came from a future interpreter and Canadian compatriot: Joni Mitchell.

Young had asked Mitchell to sing on “Helpless”, as the two were friends and occasional songwriting rivals. The only problem was that Mitchell had to take the stage immediately after Young, and no one wanted to diminish the impact or surprise of Mitchell’s performance. So Mitchell decided to stay backstage and add his ethereal voice behind a stage curtain.

One of Scorsese’s backstage cameramen managed to capture Mitchell’s secret contribution. Young would reciprocate as a guest with Mitchell on the band’s “Acadian Driftwood,” a tribute to their collective homeland.

Mitchell was finally able to make an appearance in front of the curtain, joining The Band for performances of ‘Coyote’ and ‘Furry Sings the Blues’ from his upcoming LP. Hegira, plus a version of The hiss of summer lawns closer “Shadows and Light”. For a country-inspired rock band, The Band clings to the jazzy changes of Mitchell’s new style. Still, it’s hard not to go back to this spooky version of “Helpless”.


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