UPDATE – The Complete Last Waltz will return to The Capitol Theater and be
webcast on Thanksgiving Eve 2014. More details here.
There were countless tributes to Levon Helm last year following his death from cancer on April 19, 2012. Among the more notable was “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down – A Celebration of the Life & Music of Levon Helm.” House band Dave Dreiwitz, Marco Benevento, Scott Metzger and Joe Russo joined together with members of Yellowbirds, The Hold Steady!, The Felice Brothers, Phosphorescent, Guster and others for the commemoration at Brooklyn Bowl on June 4, 2012. “There was so much raw emotion about his passing – it was just a few weeks before,” Yellowbirds Sam Cohen remembers to jambands.com. “It was an incredible, incredible vibe, incredible night. I’ve never done any kind of tribute to anything before that concert and it seemed like an amazing reason to go do one. I’m a huge fan of The Band and Levon Helm specifically, so it was an honor to be a part of and I feel like everyone brought a lot of genuine emotion and their positive baggage to that concert, so it was really special.”
The same core group, fleshed out by Yellowbirds Sam Cohen and Josh Kaufman, Jeff Chimenti (from Bob Weir and Phil Lesh’s Furthur), Alecia Chakour (Warren Haynes Band) and the Antibalas horns, became the house band for a more ambitious tribute last Thanksgiving weekend. Dubbed The Complete Last Waltz, it wasn’t intended to specifically commemorate Helm, though after his passing it inevitably became such a tribute. “This idea has been a long time coming,” the show’s organizer Ramie Egan told Glide Magazine. “While it might seem like this was sparked by Levon’s passing, it wasn’t. It’s been in the works for over a year. It was born out of a ‘wouldn’t it be awesome to see this show’ type declaration.” As with June’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” a portion of the profits from The Complete Last Waltz were donated to the ‘Save the Barn’ fund to save Levon Helms’ home, barn and studio, and to continue his popular Midnight Ramble Sessions.
Held at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater on November 24, 2012, The Complete Last Waltz was exactly what its name claimed: all 40 songs from The Band’s legendary Thanksgiving 1976 farewell concert, including those cut from Martin Scorsese’s famed film. Dreiwitz, Benevento, Metzger and Russo know a thing or two about covers: they also homage Zeppelin under the moniker Bustle In Your Hedgerow and The Grateful Dead as Joe Russo’s Almost Dead; and Russo is also the drummer of Furthur. Similarly, versatile side-projects are the norm for Yellowbirds. Kaufman was musical director of Weir’s Bridge Session in March 2012 featuring members of The National, Walkmen organist Walt Martin, many Dead tunes and Sam serving as surrogate Jerry. That summer Sam and Josh tributed Garcia at his all-star 70th birthday Move Me Brightly concert, Sam serving a musical director. And this summer Yellowbirds performed double duty on tour with Fruit Bats as both the opening act and the band behind Eric D. Johnson. “Sam’s just one of those one degree of separation kind of linchpin guys that not a lot of people out in the world have heard of, but everyone in a band has crossed paths with him,” Eric tells jambands.com. “Plus, he’s such a sick guitarist.”
For 2012’s The Complete Last Waltz the Yellowbirds/Almost Dead house band were joined by many guests, often taking turns singing lead: Wilco’s Nels Cline, Dr Dog’s Erick Slick and Scott McMicken, Nada Surf’s Ira Elliot, Cass McCombs and many others (members of Fruit Bats, Low Anthem, Antibalas, Gomez, Vetiver, The Long Winters, more). The original concert’s poetry were recited by Mad Men’s Michael Gladis, Two Broke Girls’ Beth Behrs and House of Cards’ Mike Kelly. Photos from the event are here.
“Every artist I’ve ever known was greatly influenced by this concert,” Egan told Glide Magazine. “Not just The Band. This concert. In whatever format they encountered it. Beyond that, there was a lot of great music and interesting readings that happened that night that people don’t know. Now they will.”
It was a tall task for musical director Sam Cohen to organize, with only a few months of preparation time and Hurricane Sandy striking down just as rehearsals were getting underway. “That was one of the biggest administrative challenges I’ve ever had to deal with,” Cohen remembers. “I think I got asked to do the concert in August… It took place in November, and the only thing that was really set up was that Ramie Egan, who was the producer and the guy who had the whole idea for the show and is friends with a lot of the guys who are the core band – Scott Metzger, Joe Russo… had talked to them, you know, “Would y’all wanna do something like this? I’ve got a hold on this space.” But by the time I got involved, everything else was spinning around that one constant – the date was set. That’s not really a lot of time for a concert like that. For the next 2-3 months, anyone’s got their schedule of gigs or work or whatever they’re doing planned out… if they’re not gonna be on tour that week they’ve probably got Thanksgiving plans because it was Thanksgiving weekend. So we knew finding the people we wanted was gonna be a challenge. And then who was there was constantly growing… Some people, I wanted them involved but didn’t know what I wanted them to do. Other people, I knew exactly what I wanted them to sing… so it was a lot of juggling.“
Even with months of planning time it was overly ambitious. After all, the original concert presented not just a lot of material to learn, but also star-studded shoes to fill: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, Ronnie Wood, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, and others all appeared. And at the base of it they had to face the challenge every musician that’s ever tried to cover The Band encounters: how to create the distinct feel that permeated the group’s performances.
“There is no way that one band can do what The Band did that night,” Egan says. “And we’re not trying to ‘recreate’ we’re going to ‘re-present’…a core line-up that have been practicing together already.” Cline agreed before the show, “this is not going to be some totally archival thing. It’s going to actually be a living thing.”
“People are going to be dazzled by the passion, and virtuosity,” Egan predicted. “The whole thing has kind of snowballed into “friends of friends” and beyond. Sam Cohen from Yellowbirds and Apollo Sunshine is the Music Director, and he has the herculean task of taking 30+ remarkable chefs and making one delicious dinner!“
Sam echoed Egan’s remarks. “As the pool kept growing of who was involved,” he says “we sort of shifted around who should do what. But luckily we had an amazing core band, like totally amazing core band, all great guys who live in Brooklyn. So we were able to rehearse a ton, with just the band, so we knew that could be solid. And then as we worked in the singers closer to the show, building up to it, and it all really came together in the final hours. Which it had to, because everyone wasn’t in the same location until the day before the show.” Watch snippets of last year’s rehearsals below:
The Last Waltz is so long that even though the core band had already worked up many Band covers for the Brooklyn tribute, “there was still a ton of shit they’d never played before,” Cohen remembers.
So how did they choose which musician would fill which role?
“I knew [Fruit Bats’ Eric] Johnson would kill the Van Morrison stuff,” Sam told Rolling Stone of his decision to invite him. “He has this one melodic turn that always reminded me of Van Morrison, and I asked him about it one night. He told me that it wasn’t intentional but that it was completely in his DNA. This was before there was talk of doing this concert or anything.”
For the shoes Eric Clapton filled in the original concert they relied on Wilco’s Nels Cline. “To be blunt, it’s not really the greatest song and it’s not like the greatest stuff got played on it, either,” Cline told Rolling Stone during rehearsal of “All Our Past Times.” “Robbie [Robertson] tries to do his thing and Clapton kind of takes his turn, but he was feeling really laid back or whatever. We’re going to do a slightly different take on that song. . . . These guys are not going to be super reverent to the point where we’re going to do some kind of weird Xerox of the music and the event. It has to have a life of its own.“
Likewise Jocie Adams of Americana group The Low Anthem was a perfect fit to sing Neil Young’s “Helpless” and take on Joni Mitchell’s role. “A lot of these people are in bands that have either played with Wilco or that I’ve heard – a lot of really good players,” Cline enthused before the concert to Rolling Stone. “I think that’s when I realized that I made a good decision. Because it’s not like a lot of super obvious, dinosaur people; it’s a lot of really great younger players who really know how to play this music. I feel like I am the dinosaur on the list, coming in here as the old man, as it were, and trying to rip it up on the guitar.“
“I’ve never taken on something that big,” Cohen later recalled. “One of my favorite moments was after the intro with the horns up in the balcony and we had the little combo come in on the other balcony – it was mandolin, auto harp and acoustic guitar – and then the lights came up on the stage and we went into “Up On Cripple Creek.” And that was something we never got the chance to rehearse. It was just like “Put these guys up there, those guys up there, they’ll play the thing, let the lighting guy know.” And then, hopefully it comes off. And then like the lights came up, we went into “Up On Cripple Creek,” and I saw all these smiling people, from the ground to the ceiling, with the widest eyes and their hands in the air and this roar. And it was just unbelievable. Like OK, here we go, I’m going to play this concert for the next four hours and it’s totally working. I knew at that moment that it had the potential to exceed all expectations, and it did.“
Take a listen for yourself. Download Cass McCombs leading “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and watch the sizzle reel below.
That was last year.
This Thanksgiving most of the same players are regrouping to again “re-represent” the classic concert, this time for East Coast fans. Set for November 27th at The Capitol Theater in Port Chester, NY last years regulars will return as the house band: Yellowbird’s Sam Cohen, Ween’s Dave Dreiwitz, Marco Benevento, Scott Metzger, and Furthur’s Jeff Chimenti and Joe Russo. Joining them are Wilco’s Nels Cline, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s Alec Ounsworth, Dr Dog’s Scott McMicken and Eric Slick, Cass McCombs, Yellowbirds’ Josh Kaufman, The Dap Kings’ Binky Griptite, Fruit Bats’ Eric D. Johnson (formerly of the Shins), Blitzen Trapper’s Eric Earley, The Low Anthem’s Jocie Adams, Vetiver’s Andy Cabic, Superhuman Happiness’ Stuart Bogie, The Long Winters’ John Roderick, Nada Surf’s Ira Elliot, Apollo Sunshine’s Jeremy Black, The Antibalas Horns, Nicole Atkins, Guster’s Ryan Miller, The Parkington Sisters, Ryan Bingham, Delta Spirit’s Matt Vasquez, Richard Swift, John Altieri, and Alecia Chakour. That’s not all. Chris Edwards – formerly Levon’s sound engineer – will make the night sound incredible.
Playing tribute to the Last Waltz around Thanksgiving is not unique. On November 27th Denver’s Ogden Theatre hosts its ninth annual Last Waltz – Revisited for instance. And Philadelphia’s Trocadero is presenting The Last Waltz with Garth Hudson on November 30th. The Complete Last Waltz is distinguished however by its all-star guests and full set list.
“The Complete Last Waltz is awesome,” Fruit Bats’ Eric D Johnson (formerly of The Shins) enthuses to jambands.com. “I’m really excited for people in the northeast to see it. The thing that’s really is cool about is that there are some really great names in the cast of characters who are doing it, but there’s not a huge headliner either. It’s really about the sum of the parts. It’s a bunch of people really enjoying each other’s company. It was one of the most awesome backstage atmospheres I’ve ever experienced [last year]. Everybody’s a fan of each other in that group of people. It’s going to be a lot of the same people returning which will be awesome.“
For Cohen the tribute is firmly rooted in watching the DVD of The Last Waltz with his former bandmates in Apollo Sunshine. “It totally smoked us. I just loved it,” he recalls. “I read Levon’s book and got deeper and deeper into that stuff. It’s always been a source of inspiration, that’s like a band at the ultimate level of what that concept of a band is supposed to be, this communal thing on wheels with a band house and everything. At one point Apollo Sunshine lived in a farmhouse in western Mass. Our MO of what the model of a functioning group of musicians was; was very inspired by The Band.” Likewise Cohen told Rolling Stone, “The movie is pretty ingrained in me. I’ve watched it probably 100 times.“
Sam’s opinion is widely shared. “The Band’s has had a huge influence,” Eric D Johnson tells jambands.com. “People’s perspective on The Band is them having these hits. I think the vast majority people think of The Band as this good band from the 70s. Maybe they know they were Dylan’s band. It cannot be stressed their influence on music. When you actually think back to when their records were coming out, it’s just crazy, what they were doing and how ahead of their time they were and how they kind of invented the template for rock in the 70s and beyond. Huge influence on me, I love them.“
Tickets are currently on-sale at a variety of prices. Cohen and Kaufman’s latest Yellowbirds release, Songs from the Vanished Frontier, one of 2013’s best albums is reason enough to attend this Thanksgiving Eve. Should you need more incentive, check photos from last year’s concert here and note that ticket buyers can redeem a free download of last year’s show.