The Central New York music community has always been a tight-knit one and one that has always held a fondness for The Band. Saturday night at the Palace Theater was the perfect example of this. The fourth edition of the Salt City Waltz gathered a bevy of local artists both young and young at heart to celebrate the music of The Band, whose The Last Waltz farewell concert occurred on Thanksgiving Day 40 years ago.
The Salt City Waltz was created five years ago (the production took 2015 off) under the guidance of producer Stacey Waterman and music director Gary Frenay and has quickly grown to become a Syracuse must-see. Los Blancos, with honorary Blanco Scott Ebner, served as the house “Band” and, much like the musicians they were honoring, are well-versed in all forms of American music. If there is any band perfectly fit for this role, it is Los Blancos.
Rather than a re-creation of the original farewell concert, the Salt City Waltz bills itself as a celebration of the music of The Band with a focus on the music and pageantry of The Last Waltz. The original featured guest appearances from such musical luminaries as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Ringo Starr, Neil Diamond and Dr. John. The Salt City version showcases some of Central New York’s finest musicians.
The Levon Helm Studio Horns, with special guest trombonist Melissa Gardiner, graced stage left all night, adding a punch of majesty and soul to classics such as “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Don’t Do It” and “Such a Night.” The lineup of Jay Collins, Steve Bernstein and Erik Lawrence, along with Gardiner, provided the perfect accompaniment to the evening.
The night began with the Salt City Waltz Ensemble performing “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and “Acadian Driftwood.” The latter was dedicated to the Standing Rock water protectors in North Dakota with an accompanying slide show. The lyrics of “Acadian Driftwood” were especially poignant as the images scrolled before the respectful crowd:
They signed a treaty
And our homes were taken
They didn’t give a damn.
Try to raise a family
End up an enemy
Over what went down on the Plains of Abraham.
Following the two-song intro by the Salt City Waltz Ensemble, the members of Los Blancos ascended to the stage, with Steven T. Winston’s bass dropping the opening notes of “Don’t Do It.” Winston’s soulful voice accompanied by the horn section’s punch had fans flocking to the front of the stage, getting the main portion of the show off to a funky upbeat start.
The first guest of the night was Mark Gibson, singing “Who Do You Love.” This role is typically filled by Dugan Henhawk, who had to sit out this year’s show. Gibson gave props to Henhawk in his spirited rendition of the blues classic.
Drummer and vocalist Bob Kane made his Waltz debut, performing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” An obviously nervous and ultimately gracious Kane delivered with Levon-like aplomb, accompanied by the audience. See a side stage performance of this in the video attached below.
The middle section of the set scorched as Joe Altier took the stage to belt out “Mystery Train” while Pete McMahon, founding member of local blues legends The Kingsnakes, lit up the room with some serious harp blowing. Carolyn Kelly then made Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” her own, changing the lyrics to suit the powerful female behind the microphone. Her soulful presence took over the room and was one of the highlights on a night full of highlights.
Rex Lyons of The Fabulous Ripcords traded licks with Colin Aberdeen as McMahon induced chills with an electric performance of “Further on Up the Road” to rival that of Clapton’s version, easily one of the night’s peak moments.
Nick Piccininni and Jason Barady of Floodwood joined guitarists Penny Jo Pullus and Doug Moncrief with Liz Friedel on fiddle for an “Evangeline” that brought the tempo down just a bit from the high octane prior blues stomp. This one turned into another sing-along with audience members swaying along.
No Waltz would be complete without the legendary Joe Whiting channeling his inner Van Morrison on a performance of “Caravan” that was equal parts manic, soulful and bluesy. Whiting is a veteran of the Syracuse music scene, having done everything from replacing Ronnie James Dio in Elf to performing with Van Halen and Savoy Brown. His stage presence and voice are powerful and demand your attention. His showmanship elevated the energy of the Palace to an even higher level.
The main portion of the show closed with keyboardist and America’s Got Talent semi-finalist Jonah Smith pulling off a haunting vocal performance of “I Shall Be Released.” Smith was accompanied on vocals by Donna Colton, Cathy Cadley, Pullus and Friedel for a rousing and fitting close to the main set.
The ensemble returned for an “Atlantic City” and “Life is a Carnival” singalong before the host band returned to the stage for the encore, a Levon Helm favorite, “Get Out Your Big Roll, Daddy,” a song made famous by Jerry Lee Lewis.
The Palace Theater is the perfect setting for this somewhat annual event. No expense is spared in the set design or the sound engineering. The room had terrific sound all night and the production crew deserves accolades for their efforts. Smiles were had; memories were shared and made. This town is blessed with superbly talented musicians and behind-the-scenes people. They gave The Band proper tribute and the sweaty, smiling, sold-out crowd waltzed out into the cool Syracuse air thankful for the talent they had just witnessed.
Salt City Waltz Setlist:
When I Paint My Masterpiece – Salt City Waltz Ensemble (feat. Gary Frenay, Cathy LaManna, Jonah Smith, John Cadley, Liz Friedel and Chris Eves)
Acadian Driftwood – SCW Ensemble
Don’t Do It – Los Blancos w/Scott Ebner
Up on Cripple Creek – Los Blancos w/Scott Ebner
The Shape I’m In – Los Blancos w/Scott Ebner
Who Do You Love – Los Blancos w/Scott Ebner and Mark Gibson
It Makes No Difference – Los Blancos w/Scott Ebner
Such a Night – Los Blancos w/Scott Ebner
Helpless – Los Blancos w/Scott Ebner, Jason Barady, Nick Piccininni and John McConnell
Stage Fright – Los Blancos w/Scott Ebner
The Weight – Los Blancos w/Scott Ebner and Carolyn Kelly
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down – Los Blancos w/Scott Ebner and Bob Kane
Dry Your Eyes – Los Blancos w/Scott Ebner and Tim Herron
Coyote – Los Blancos w/Scott Ebner, Donna Colton and Chris Eves
Mystery Train – Los Blancos w/Scott Ebner, Joe Altier and Pete McMahon
Mannish Boy – Los Blancos w/Scott Ebner, Carolyn Kelly and Pete McMahon
Further On Up the Road – Los Blancos w/Scott Ebner, Pete McMahon and Rex Lyons
Evangeline – Los Blancos w/Scott Ebner, Penny Jo Pullus, Dough Moncrief, Nick Piccininni, Jason Barady and Liz Friedel
Ophelia – Los Blancos w/Scott Ebner
Caravan – Los Blancos w/Scott Ebner and Joe Whiting
Forever Young – Los Blancos w/Scott Ebner and Sean Patrick Taylor
Baby Let Me – Los Blancos w/Scott Ebner and Ed Zacholi
Follow You Down – Los Blancos w/Scott Ebner
I Shall Be Released – Los Blancos w/Scott Ebner, Jonah Smith, Donna Colton, Cathy Cadley, Liz Friedel and Penny Jo Pullus
Atlantic City – SCW Ensemble
Life is a Carnival – SCW Ensemble
Get Out Your Big Roll, Daddy – Los Blancos