Thanksgiving is a time for tradition and perhaps a new one was born on Wednesday night in Albany. Coming together in grand fashion family, friends and fans of The Band convened at Lark Hall on Thanksgiving Eve for a memorable evening billed as The Last Waltz on Lark Street; a stellar tribute to one of the most celebrated concert performances in rock history.
For anyone not familiar, The Band are about as close to music royalty as it gets in New York State, particularly in the Capital and Mid-Hudson Regions where the group famously lived, partied and wrote music together under the roof of a ‘Big Pink‘ house near Saugerties. Often referred to as just “the band” by Bob Dylan (with whom they often backed), the name stuck and over the course of 16 years, The Band — Rick Danko on bass, violin and vocals; Levon Helm on drums, mandolin and vocals; Garth Hudson on keyboards and saxophone; songwriter Richard Manuel on keyboards, percussion and vocals; and guitarist, songwriter and occasional vocalist Robbie Robertson, would go on to write some of the most timeless songs and albums in American music history.
As the story allegedly goes, after burning out from the demands of the touring lifestyle, it became clear the dynamic that had made The Band so special and unique had changed, the brotherhood and comradery had faded a bit and it was starting to reflect in the music. Then in 1976 it was officially announced they’d be playing their final show; one last chance to dance and it was to be held on Thanksgiving Day at the legendary Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. What took place that night, as famously documented in Martin Scorsese’s iconic film of the same name, The Last Waltz, would go down as one of the greatest star-studded, ground breaking concert celebration spectacles of all time. The film itself would later go on to be selected by the Library of Congress to be forever preserved due to it cultural and historical significance.
Now some 45 years later, the magic made and songs played that night are still being talked about, still influencing and still being played by a whole new generation of New York based musicians and for one close-knit group of Capital Region players and friends, an idea that sparked from a brainstorming jam session somehow serendipitously snowballed into reality and perhaps simultaneously became the next “can’t miss” pre-Turkey day musical meet-up for those who call the surrounding Albany area “home”.
To do this properly and with any sort of ‘relative’ justice, of course, was no easy task and with so many moving parts, variables and logistics to the show, it would also require a bit of help from friends, the good natured people behind the scenes and well, a little luck too. Those obstacles aside, here’s a ‘not-so exclusive’ scoop for the NYS Music reading faithful: never doubt the heart or talent that dwells within the 518 area code. If anyone was up to the challenge, it was the bunch who dared to dream to put this event together in the first place.
With 2021’s incarniton of The Band not finalized until the very last minute, the one-time-only line up ultimatley consisted of 18 players; a ‘who’s who’ of capital region musicians that featured members of The Wheel, The NolaNauts, Eastbound Jesus, Dead Man’s Waltz, Sarah Sippely and Brian Lapointe and the Joints.
Albany’s newest venue, Lark Hall hosted the event. With full support of Jennifer Miller, the visionary proprietor of Lark Hall, the recently renovated, historically preserved venue has quickly made a name for itself, largely by hosting nights like this; unique one-off collaborations and themed performances in a comfortably intimate, church-like setting that’s already earned the praises of nationally known artists like Keller Williams, The Futurebirds, Carl Bromel, Liz Cooper, and legendary Phish lyricist The Dude of Life. All hype and anticipation aside, the time for the inaugural Last Waltz on Lark Street had finally come.
Piped in over the PA system, the performance began with an orchestral rendition of “Theme From the Last Waltz” as the core members of “The Band” gradually filled up the stage. All tuned up and ready to go, the celebration kicked off with ‘Up on Cripple Creek’ into “The Shape I’m In.” The set would begin to stray from its familiar order when our first guests of the evening, NolaNauts horn section Bill Ringwood and Brian George, joined in for a crowd pleasing ‘Ophelia” and “This Wheel’s on Fire.” Mike Coleman would then switch out with Brian Bean on bass for “Further Up the Road” and “Who Do You Love” before the spotlight would shine on Rick Rothermel, The Wheel’s burley multi-talented keyboardist with a voice of gold who arguably had the most challenging role of the evening in filling the legendary shoes of Garth Hudson. After nailing “Chest Fever,” Rothermel handedly made a believer out of anyone in attendance not already having fun. The Nola horns would return once again for “Caledonia Mission” and an upbeat version of “King Harvest”. Following an inspired rendition of “It Makes no Difference” that featured the lovely talents of Sarah Sheppeck on lead vocals, “Life is a Carnival” would bring the opening set to a close and send fans to intermission with huge smiles and lots to talk about.
With the fuse already set for a party following the wickedly fun opening set, somehow this collective ensemble of talented musicians made of varying ages, sexes and backgrounds that came together with little time to rehearse, followed it up with an even more epic second set. It was the kind of thing capital region music fans have been dreaming of, really.
Kicking off with Brian Bean back on bass was “The Same Thing” followed by the iconic song “The Weight” which had everyone in The Hall singing along. Now that everyone was friends here, it really started feeling like a family affair when Bryan Gautie and Jill Gautie (along with Dr. Pete Andriakos of The Wheel) took over the stage to perform the only acoustic song of the night, “Coyote.” Sarah Sheppeck would then join them for another classic, “Long Black Veil” and remain on stage as Eastbound Jesus mandolin player Andrew Lynch and fiddler Jessica Bowen then got in on the fun with another highlight on the evening, “Atlantic City.” The strings would stick around for the next number Tom O’Connor introduced as a personal favorite, “Rag Mama Rag.”
Ratcheting up the ramble to a raunchy new high was “Mystery Train” which featured the talented Brian Lapointe on a screaming harmonica. “Across the Great Divide” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” came next, followed followed by “Caravan.” Now with all of the musicians who had participated on the night on the stage, the sentimental set closed with a family-jam style singalong version of “I Shall be Released.” Following pleas from the enthusiastic and appreciative crowd, “Don’t Do It” was selected as the lone encore, bringing the first ever Last Waltz on Lark Street to a celebratory close.