The Band, “The Well” from The Last Waltz (1978): Across the Great Divide

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The opening element of a suite of songs that was appended to The Last Waltz during its lengthy gestation period, “The Well” provided an often-overlooked late-period showcase for the lost genius of Richard Manuel.

The Band’s original concert had, of course, been recorded on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1976, at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. But, as other projects consumed filmmaker Martin Scorsese’s time, the proposed album and movie were delayed until 1978. That gave Robbie Robertson plenty of time to tinker and edit – and, most interestingly, to mull over additional material for The Last Waltz, some of which ultimately came to be called “The Last Waltz Suite.”

Manuel’s performance of “The Well” opened this sixth side of extra music, followed by collaborations with Emmylou Harris on “Evangeline” and the Staple Singers on “The Weight.” The suite also included updated versions of the main theme and refrain, which the Band had offered as very early sketches in the original concert. The Staples and Harris collaborations were shot much later, on an MGM soundstage in front of a couple hundred people. Another new cut called “Out of the Blue” — one of just three Robbie Robertson lead vocals during his time with the Band — rounded out the songs.

All of which might indicate that “The Well” is a throwaway, something slipped onto the last disc of the Band’s sprawling farewell project simply to play out the string. Far from it. In fact, Richard Manuel rises up once again, reconnecting with an elemental part of his vocal muse here, as opposed to the ghostly presence he was reduced to as part of the Band’s Last Waltz film.

Richard Manuel displays every part of his genius, starting with a plucky verse, braying with carnal gusto, before releasing into a sweetly hurtful verse that conveys every bit of his tender sensibility with a lyric. The setting eventually returns to its original muscularity, powered by horns and keys and a pounding cadence, and Manuel rises to that challenge once more. Rick Danko doubles him at times, giving “The Well” another lift. The Band then conclude on a complex instrumental note, with Robbie Robertson’s incisive guitar leading the way.

Still, this is Richard Manuel’s song, with a vocal that is as tough and unvarnished as anything he did in the waning days of the Band’s five-man era. So often simply sad and sweet during this time of dissolution, one which Manuel himself referred to as his Beige Period, “The Well” finds him in a much different place. For this moment, he sounds whole again, entirely present, a world away from a fading figure whose muse had vanished.

He once again wove disparate parts into a cohesive whole, made old things new and new things old, took words that weren’t his and claimed them definitively as his own. And it was as if all of the years of drugs and drink never happened. It was as if Richard Manuel has gone back to this song’s figurative well — and, this time, it hadn’t run dry.

Across the Great Divide is a weekly, song-by-song examination from Something Else! on the legacy of the Band, both together and as solo artists. The series runs on Thursdays.

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