The impetus was a one-off tribute to The Last Waltz during last spring’s New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Warren Haynes and Don Was put together an all-star cast of musicians to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Band’s all-star farewell concert at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom on Thanksgiving Night, 1976.
That performance spiraled into yet another tribute during Haynes’ annual Christmas Jam featuring many of the same musicians. All involved agreed that it was too good and too fun not to continue. The Last Waltz 40 Tour was born.
Upon entering the picturesque Palace Theatre, attendees were treated to a full scale reproduction of the original Waltz stage, chandeliers and all. With the stage aglow in indigo, the mood was set before the musicians even set foot on stage.
While billed as a tribute to the now 40-year-old classic concert, this show felt fresh, more of a celebration of this great slice of Americana. Those in the know understand that what was originally released in the film and the three-LP album in 1978 was far short of the actual four hour-plus long show back in 1976. Thursday’s show was closer in length to that evening, clocking in at three hours and 20 minutes.
The “Band” for this tour was fronted by Warren Haynes, founder of Govt Mule and former Allman Brothers Band guitarist. There isn’t much Haynes hasn’t had a hand in. Among his unlikely group of merrymakers was former Doobie, Michael McDonald, outlaw country artist Jamey Johnson, avant-jazz keyboardist and virtual mad scientist of the keys, John Medeski, of Medeski, Martin and Wood, Dirty Dozen Brass Band drummer Terence Higgins and uber-producer and bassist Don Was. The four-piece horn section, anchored by Bonerama trombonist Mark Mullins, performed the late Allen Toussaint‘s arrangements throughout the night, adding just perfect punch of authenticity to the classic songs of the Band.
The night began with the PA pumping in the introductory theme from the movie, bringing the capacity crowd to its feet. Johnson took the lead vocals on “Up on Cripple Creek,” giving proper reverence to Levon Helm while maintaining his Nashville twang. Each time Johnson took the lead throughout the night was a pleasure, particularly during his performance of “Georgia on My Mind.” Johnson channeled the legendary Ray Charles with a touch of Willie Nelson in a soulful country-fied take of this classic that had the audience cheering throughout. McDonald’s piano solo and Haynes’ guitar solo complemented Johnson’s vocals perfectly.
The music of the Band is the music of America (despite four of the original five members being Canadian). In their productive years, this group defied classification as they waded through the waters of blues, country, New Orleans-style funk and classic rock. At their peak, they were lauded by such legends as Eric Clapton and George Harrison, the former even expressed an interest in becoming a member at one point. There is a direct line that can be drawn from the Band through the Eagles, Tom Petty, Big Star, R.E.M., Wilco, My Morning Jacket to Blitzen Trapper. They compiled the best of American music into one package and launched the careers of a hundred bands. That is what this tour was all about. The fact that Haynes and Was could gather musicians of different genres and generations to pay tribute to this band attests to that truth.
Late in the first set, New Orleans royalty, Ivan and Cyril Neville, joined the festivities for a funky version of Bobby Charles’ classic “Down South in New Orleans,” a song performed with Dr. John in the original show. Medeski displayed his virtuosity on the keys here as Cyril and Ivan provided the vocals. This was followed by the biggest curve ball of the night, a slinky, slowed-down, funky version of the classic blues song “Who Do You Love.” Cyril drove home the beat on the congas accompanied by Higgins in the pocket, while Ivan joined Medeski on the keys. The contrast from the original, performed by Ronnie Hawkins, couldn’t be more pronounced, yet it fit the setlist perfectly. Haynes worked the pedals, Medeski and Ivan worked the keys and everyone with a microphone in front of them harmonized the chorus to a T. Mullins tossed in a muted trombone solo to cap off a true highlight of the night.