‘The Last Waltz’ Looks Great at 40

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.

The first set concluded with Johnson leading a sing-along to the Band classic “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Johnson’s contributions to this show cannot be overstated. The man has the vocal chops to handle anything in the Band’s repertoire.

Following a quick 20 minute intermission, the band jumped feet first into the second set with a stellar horn intro to the classic “Ophelia.” Johnson again took the lead singing as Don Was kept the back end with a huge smile on his face. Haynes contributed one of his trademark solos and the stage was set for a second set that somehow ended up overshadowing the first.

At the original, a maroon jump-suited Van Morrison appeared to perform his classic “Caravan” with the Band backing. On this night, Haynes played the role of Van the Man. Morrison’s voice is difficult to replicate. Haynes made it sound effortless on his turn at the mic. His soulfulness combined with the horn section made it seem as if one was back at the Winterland in 1976.

Michael McDonald took center stage for Neil Young’s “Helpless,” tossing in a bit of his blue-eyed soul that gave his own imprint on the song. McDonald is still at the top of his vocal game and his unique cover of Young’s classic was a welcome addition to the setlist. McDonald was the wild card of this lineup. While he’s contributed keys and vocals to many classics throughout his career, covering someone like Neil Young isn’t something one would expect from him. He made it his own while still keeping true to Young’s original.

As if the night couldn’t get more exciting, John Medeski took over McDonald’s keyboard while the Doobie sat aside him playing banjo for the Johnson-led “Rag Mama Rag.” Medeski put on one of the performances of the night with his assault on the keys, putting the audience’s feet in motion and the keyboard on notice. His performance on this song alone cemented his status as one of the best keyboardists in the game today. One could not help but focus on him as he played.

Following this run-through, the Palace crowd was treated to an appearance from the first of two original The Last Waltz performers in “Steady Rollin'” Bob Margolin. Accompanied on harp by Chris O’Leary from Levon’s Barn Burners, Margolin introduced himself as someone who performed with blues legend Muddy Waters at the original. He told a story of an after-show jam session at the hotel with Ronnie Wood, Levon Helm, Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan, where they performed a series of Robert Johnson songs. O’Leary then broke into his harp intro to Robert Johnson’s “Kindhearted Woman Blues” as Margolin laid some old school blues on the Palace crowd. He then broke into a stomping version of “Further on Up the Road,” performed by Clapton in the original, with Haynes on vocals. The 68 year old Margolin displayed more energy than just about anyone on stage during this performance, frog-hopping towards the front row while wailing away. Those who didn’t know him prior, took note this night.

Following Margolin’s electric performance was the part of the night everyone was anticipating. Original member of the Band, Garth Hudson gingerly approached the stage to a standing ovation, decked in a wide-brimmed black hat to hit the keys for “The Weight.” Johnson kicked off the vocals, followed by Haynes and then McDonald, providing that Doobie bounce to one of the Band’s signature songs. O’Leary and Margolin remained onstage for this one.  O’Leary provided the “Wait a minute, Chester” portion with a bouncing spirit that had the crowd bouncing along as well.

A soulful rendition of “I Shall Be Released” was delivered with aplomb by Johnson accompanied by a classic Hudson keys solo. Unfortunately, he wasn’t very visible behind the keyboards, aside from his wide-brimmed hat, however the sounds coming from the keys were unmistakably Hudson.

The entire band left the stage following “Released,” leaving Hudson alone at the keys with the spotlight on as he performed his signature improv “The Genetic Method,” a nearly five minute piece inspired by Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” that accompanies “Chest Fever.” This one featured vocals by all the leads including an especially soulful take from McDonald. Each musician on stage was admiring Hudson’s work throughout smiling at the legend as they performed. Haynes’ solo was particularly inspired in this one.

“Don’t Do It” closed the night on a high note with inspired vocals from O’Leary and McDonald with a pop from the horns that left the audience dancing in the aisles with smiles on their faces.

The Last Waltz and the Band are American (and Canadian) treasures. Forty years on and the music that was created is still celebrated and inspirational. The audience in attendance was a mix of those who saw the Band in their heyday as well as those who have been influenced by the artists influenced by them. The music is still as relevant today as it was when it was originally performed and yet sheds a light on the history of American music. This tour was a celebration of that legacy but also a continuation of it. As the years go by musicians will still perform these songs and the legacy will still be celebrated. Here’s to more of that. Thank you to Don Was and Warren Haynes for providing us with this celebration, which will no doubt continue at least until the 40th anniversary of the movie’s release in 2018.

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