“The Last Waltz” was a concert held at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom on Thanksgiving Day 1976, during which the classic lineup of the Band — the Canadian/American outfit known for backing Bob Dylan and for its own Rock & Roll Hall of Fame career — said goodbye to touring and effectively broke up.
The event featured guest stars including Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Van Morrison and Muddy Waters and was filmed by director Martin Scorsese. The resulting 1978 documentary is widely regarded as one of the finest rock films extant.
Performing a legendary concert in 1976 at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom, classic rock act the Band went out with the biggest bang possib…
Turning that long-ago happening, which was preceded by a Thanksgiving dinner served to 5,000 concertgoers, into a movable feast relevant today is no mean feat, but that was the task faced by more than a dozen musicians Wednesday night at Stifel Theatre.
No turkeys, musical or otherwise, were served.
The cast featured a core band of guitarists/vocalists Warren Haynes and Jamey Johnson, bassist Don Was, keyboardist John Medeski, drummer Terence Higgins and the four-piece Levee Horns. Over the course of three hours, the group was joined by country singer Margo Price, percussionist Cyril Neville, keyboardist Ivan Neville and guitarists/vocalists Dave Malone and Bob Margolin.
Kicking things off with Band classics “Up on Cripple Creek,” “Stage Fright” and “Ophelia,” the core group made clear that it would respect one of the Band’s trademark features — distinctive singers trading off and sharing lead vocals. But it wasn’t shy about expanding the arrangements to include long, searching solos — something Haynes (of Gov’t Mule and the Allman Brothers Band) and Medeski (of Medeski, Martin & Wood) are especially known for.
Malone (of the Radiators) joined for the heart-rending “It Makes No Difference” after which the Nevilles and the Levee Horns turned the mood around with the joyous “Down South in New Orleans.”
The group asserted itself by rearranging several songs, including the roadhouse rocker “Who Do You Love?” It was transformed into a spectral blues song by Cyril Neville. “Mystery Train” was also considerably reworked into an effective new version.
Price, a late replacement for Lukas Nelson, pretty much stole the show with an a cappella rendition of “Tears of Rage,” which led off the second set. Her riveting performance was made even more so after she said that the song had been sung at the wake for her son, who died in 2010.
The group went slightly off the standard “Last Waltz” menu for several songs, including “Georgia (On My Mind),” which was performed at the original concert but left off the album and out of the film. Johnson absolutely nailed it with his rich, deep voice.
Margolin, the only performer onstage who had played the 1976 show (backing Muddy Waters), worked the room as he sang Waters’ muscular “Mannish Boy,” joined by Springfield, Missouri, harmonica player George Hunt.
He also offered a “backstage pass to the after-party,” telling a story about Bob Dylan gathering Eric Clapton, Paul Butterfield, Dr. John and others for a post-Waltz jam session. Margolin sang Robert Johnson’s “Kind Hearted Woman Blues,” which he said Dylan had sung that night.
Not every song lived up to its “Last Waltz” predecessor, but in the case of some of them — Van Morrison’s roof-raising “Caravan” or the Band’s own “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” — what really could?
Still, some numbers left a mark. Price returned for the gorgeous, hymnlike “Forever Young,” while nearly everyone took a turn singing “The Weight.” The set-closing “I Shall Be Released” was sufficiently ecstatic that it seemed like the cast — and maybe the crowd, too — might levitate.
For the encore, Cyril Neville sang Dr. John’s “Such a Night,” noting Wednesday would have been the good Doctor’s birthday. The show wrapped — as did the original “Last Waltz” — with a funky take on Marvin Gaye’s “Baby Don’t You Do It.”
Overall, the show’s concept seems a little “new wine in old skins” odd. But the legacy of the Band is certainly worth celebrating, as are the “Last Waltz” concert and film. Maybe it will even set a precedent for other such efforts to come.
Let’s just not do Altamont, OK?