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.