Grandeur and a star-filled cast, along with soulful ballads, New Orleans-style funk, and plenty of raucous blues and rock abounded in the ornate, 2,800-capacity Fox Theater in Oakland, Calif., as a 29-song, three-plus-hour production of The Last Waltz Tour 2022 wrapped up its two-night residency on December 3. The show and tour, performed under an elegant trio of chandeliers, played reverence to the original Last Waltz, which took place a bit more than 46 years prior, on Thanksgiving 1976, at Winterland in San Francisco, 13 miles from The Fox. This tour, which wrapped up on December 4 in Los Angeles, was the latest Last Waltz tribute tour, which began in 2016. And, like the original Last Waltz, guesting musicians fluidly came on and offstage, performing songs that suited them best. Sometimes more than a dozen people were onstage.
One of the hallmark events in rock ‘n’ roll performance history, The Last Waltz was (at that time) the final performance by The Band, which featured its quintessential lineup of Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel. The culminating event capped a 16-year career in which the group proceeded through several eras, including a) as The Hawks, in which members of The Band backed rock/rockabilly personality Ronnie Hawkins through 1963; b) backing Bob Dylan on record and on tour in 1965-66; and c) when the world stood up and took notice upon release of The Band’s first record, “Music From Big Pink,” in 1968. That album, and The Band’s homespun appearances and honky-tonk rock sound were quite unlike any other popular music of the day. Dozens of their songs remain some of rock music’s favorite compositions of the second half of the 20th century. It is important to note that, after a several-year hiatus, The Band again performed, without Robertson, between 1983 and 1999. Only Robertson and Hudson are still with us, following the passings of Manuel (1986), Danko (1999), and Helm (2012).
Here at The Fox, the core band consisted of Warren Haynes (Allman Brothers, Gov’t Mule, others, on lead guitar and vocals), Jamey Johnson (outlaw-county singer/songwriter on guitar and vocals), John Medeski (Medeski, Martin, & Wood, The Word, John Zorn, on keyboards), Don Was (Was [Not Was], legendary record executive and producer, on bass), and Terrence Higgins (Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Ani DiFranco, John Scofield, Swampgrease, on drums).
In addition, Anders Osborne (roots rock singer/songwriter on guitar and vocals), and Kathleen Edwards (alt-country/folk singer/songwriter, on fiddle and vocals), played strong supporting roles. Mark Mullins and The Levee Horns – Mullins, Bobby Campo, Matt Perrine, and Ward Smith, completed the stage assemblage, dishing out brass arrangements similar to what Allen Toussaint brought forth at the original Last Waltz.
As the house lights dimmed, the show opened with a recording of the “Theme From the Last Waltz” heard through the sound system as the band members took to the stage. Once in place, Johnson, with a drawl that was reminiscent of Levon Helm’s soulful voice, led a spirited version of “Up on Cripple Creek,” which also opened the original Last Waltz. The group gelled immediately, with the three guitar players (Haynes, Johnson, and Osborne) nicely complementing each other, and the drums/bass combo delivering a Band-reminiscent bottom end. The set list did not match exactly the performance order of the original concert, which included 50 songs. Yet, The Last Waltz Tour 2022 was a laudable production achievement by any standard.
Osborne next took lead on a passionate rendering of “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” a song written by Dylan but first recorded by The Band. Surprisingly, that tune was not performed at the original Last Waltz, but completely fit in with the context of the evening (this was the only tune performed that was not carried out at the original event.) Warren Haynes next took vocals on “Stage Fright,” the Robbie Robertson written, Rick Danko-sung classic. Haynes, who delivered all sorts of guitar treatments during the evening, easily handed vocal selections that embraced Danko’s (and others) impassioned vocals.
Three ballads followed: Johnson’s vocal version of the almost-100-year-old “Georgia on My Mind,” originally sung by Manuel, was a beautiful gem. The sweet vocals continued, as Edwards, Haynes, and Johnson harmonized beautifully on the Band’s beloved, hymn-like, “Acadian Driftwood.” Edwards followed that up with Neil Young’s “Helpless,” on which Young and Joni Mitchell harmonized in the original Last Waltz.
Louisiana-flavored swamp-rock then ensued. Edwards and Osborne departed, temporarily, and Haynes told the audience, “The spirit of New Orleans is in the house tonight,” as he invited to the stage Cyril Neville (The Meters, Neville Brothers, on congas/drums and vocals) and Dave Malone (Radiators, on guitar and vocals). Raucousness ensued, with Malone taking vocal lead on “Down South in New Orleans,” which Dr. John sang at the original Last Waltz, and Neville singing the vocals on an extended jamming rendering of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?” which Ronnie Hawkins sang at The Last Waltz.
After Neville and Malone departed, Haynes and Johnson co-led The Band’s “Ophelia.” Next, Taj Mahal entered stage-right, playfully shuffling his way in with the beat and having a seat at center stage. The now 80-year-old blues master and his growling, big-party vocal style led the ensemble in The Band’s “The Shape I’m In” and “Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” a song by Eric Von Schmidt, first made famous by Dylan, on which Mahal sang and played harmonica. And on it went, with a round-robin of performer comings and goings, and the 15-song first set ending with an upbeat version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” with Johnson again reviving the vocal essence of Levon Helm.
The 13-song second set, in which the band stretched out the jams a bit more than the proceeding set, opened with the following: Medeski rekindled Garth Hudson’s swirling organ sounds on the instrumental, “The Genetic Method,” which actually, is and was, a long intro to the crowd-pleasing “Chest Fever” (sung by Haynes, Johnson, and Osborne). Later, after Haynes took vocal lead on Van Morrison’s “Caravan,” Malone, Neville, and Mahal reappeared, with Mahal leading Dr. John’s “Such a Night,” and Malone and Neville taking the reins on “Mystery Train.” The second set also included an appearance by Bob Margolin – the only performer who also played in the original Last Waltz – who led harmonica-infused interpretations of Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” and the classic “Caldonia,” both of which Waters performed at the Last Waltz in 1976. The closing sequence of Dylan’s “Forever Young,” sung by Edwards, “The Weight” (perhaps The Band’s most enduring composition), and Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” provided a wonderful cap to the evening.
Intro: Theme From the Last Waltz; Set 1: Up on Cripple Creek, When I Paint My Masterpiece, Stage Fright, Georgia (On My Mind), Acadian Driftwood, Helpless, Down South in New Orleans, Who Do You Love?, Ophelia, The Shape I'm In, Baby Let Me Follow You Down, It Makes No Difference, Life Is a Carnival, King Harvest (Has Surely Come), The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. Set 2: The Genetic Method, Chest Fever, Rag Mama Rag, Evangeline, Caravan, This Wheel's on Fire, Such a Night, Mystery Train, Mannish Boy, Caldonia, Forever Young, The Weight, I Shall Be Released. Encore: Baby Don't You Do It