Last Thanksgiving was the 40th anniversary of perhaps the most important concert event in rock ’n’ roll history. The Last Waltz was promoter Bill Graham’s grandest achievement of his career. Pulling off an unprecedented pre-show Thanksgiving dinner for a couple thousand lucky attendees for what was said to be The Band’s final concert at the legendary Winterland Auditorium in San Francisco. The Band’s music has stood the test of time garnering generations of admirers. While Martin Scorsese’s famous concert film documenting the gargantuan several-hour 1976 Thanksgiving concert has been critiqued for its deceptive editing and questionable royalty distributions, the actual concert event was remembered as a blessed occasion. Some of The Band’s musical friends, including Bob Dylan, Ronnie Hawkins, and Muddy Waters paid their dues to the revolutionary Canadian/Southern rock band.
The Band’s original lineup of Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Rick Danko was only intact for a decade. Their astounding approach at songwriting presented an unlikely nostalgia beckoning the days of the American Frontier, inspired indeed by drummer Levon Helm and guitarist Robbie Robertson’s mutual exploration of Southern cultural roots and musical traditions. They were certainly a rock band, but their approach was boundless, drawing from their deep backgrounds in folk, rhythm & blues, and soul music. The Last Waltz was essentially guitarist Robbie Robertson parting ways with the rest of the group, as captured in the film as it being “the end of a decade.”
The Band’s music is untouchable. Nobody could ever duplicate that exact collaboration of style, voice, personality, and approach. Leave it to the multifarious Warren Haynes to front the first truly fitting tribute to The Last Waltz. The long-tenured Allman Brothers Band and Gov't. Mule guitarist/bandleader has executed other successful homage tours including his unanimously adored Grateful Dead Symphonic Orchestra tour. This time around Haynes enlisted the guidance of Don Was, the original musical director of the 1976 Last Waltz. Haynes handled guitar and vocals alongside Was on bass guitar with the aide of Jamey Johnson (guitar & vocals), Terence Higgins (drums), and Danny Louis (keyboard & organ). The core band performed an exquisite tribute to that legendary night of music. A four-piece horn section honored the stellar original arrangements of frequent Band collaborator Alan Toussaint, joining the core band throughout the night. A slough of impressive guests made the tours final stop fittingly in San Francisco a fine tribute of the ages.
San Francisco’s Masonic Center is a medium-sized seated venue space on top of Nob Hill in the downtown’s financial district. It was the “just exactly perfect” venue for such an occasion. Haynes and Company mixed up the original set list (per the 1976 song-for-song lineup) to make each stop on the tour unique. They did however open each show the same as The Band did in 1976 with “Up on Cripple Creek,” (after playing on the PA the The Last Waltz overture.) Fronted by Jamey Johnson, it was immediately clear his musical drive and commitment to the project. Higgins assertive shuffle-drum styling was the perfect homage to the cherished late drummer Levon Helm. The horn section emerged for the Haynes’ led “Stage Fright.” His southern rasp was a curious take on Rick Danko’s confessional regarding the apprehensions of stardom. “Georgia On My Mind” brought Johnson’s vocal talents to the forefront. Haynes take on “Caravan” was a strong-suited tribute to the Van Morrison fronted showstopper. The hits continued robustly with “It Makes No Difference,” one of the finest tunes off The Band’s final album Northern Lights, Southern Cross (1976).
The next tune brought out a very special guest with Dr. John, original alum of The Last Waltz, fronting his hit “Such A Night.” The aged Mac Rebennack still has his chops about him and was a joy to witness. Cyril Neville, a frequent collaborator of Robbie Robertson’s joined his New Orleans brethren onstage for a rearrangement of “Down South to New Orleans.” The 1976 concert featured songwriter and singer Bobby Charles in an amped-up rocking preparation. This rendition was a calypso-laced shuffle, suited closely to the spirit of NoLa music. “Who Do You Love,” also in rearrangement, featured Neville on lead vocals. “Rag Mama Rag” utilized all of the aforementioned talent for a striking rendition. The next guest was a huge surprise to all. Taj Mahal came onstage to lend his unmistakable vocals to a variety of classic tunes including “The Shape I’m In,” “King Harvest (Has Surely Come),” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
“Ophelia” and “Life is a Carnival,” showcased the phenomenal horn section, tuba, French horns, and all. Radiator’s guitarist Dave Malone emerged as the next special guest, lending his gorgeous pitch and timbre to “Helpless” (originally Neil Young fronted), and “This Wheel’s On Fire.” A true highlight came next when Muddy Waters Blues Band slide-guitarist Bob Margolin lent his talents (after an entertaining rap on blues history,) to “Mannish Boy,” “Kind Hearted Woman,” and “Caldonia.” Waters’ inclusion in The Last Waltz was insisted upon by Helm, whose steadfast commitment to representing all aspects of The Band’s history made for a historic and raunchy collaboration.
Taj Mahal lent his vocals to Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” before the biggest event of the whole occasion. Haynes welcomed onstage the elusive organist of The Band, Garth Hudson. One of two surviving original members of The Band, Hudson was the true musical virtuoso of the group, whose deep roots in Canadian folk music brought unmistakable authenticity to The Band’s instrumentation. Hudson’s inclusion was deeply embraced by the crowd. He joined in on “The Weight” (after a mad-scientist-like organ solo), into Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.”
After an uproarious encore call, Haynes and The Last Waltz 40 Tour came back out with Garth Hudson to deliver one of The Band’s most vigorous originals, “Chest Fever.” With impassioned co-vocals and blistering guitar leads from Johnson and Haynes, it was apparent that arranging this tour was also the stuff of legends. Undoubtedly the music of The Band and The Last Waltz will live on far beyond the lives of the original musicians. Thanks to this masterfully executed tribute; many who weren’t there got to experience the magic of that unforgettable 1976 Thanksgiving in San Francisco. Northern Lights were high in the sky in the Bay Area.