Members of Yellowbirds, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Ween, Furthur/ RatDog, Antibalas, Wilco, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, The Dap Kings, Fruit Bats, Blitzen Trapper, The Low Anthem, Vetiver, The Long Winters, Apollo Sunshine, Guster, Delta Spirit and other like-minded musicians came together on November 27th at Port Chester, New York’s Capitol Theater to “re-present” The Band’s Thanksgiving 1976 farewell show, The Last Waltz. Following last year’s inaugural Complete Last Waltz at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater, this was the second annual event and the first on the East Coast.
In the wings for the rehearsals and show this year was Michael Arthur, a singular illustrator renown for musician caricatures (here’s his Bonnaroo 2011 sketches, here’s one of his drawings commissioned by La Jolla Playhouse of their Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots 2012 production). Also known as “Inklines,” Michael specializes in capturing moments with ink drawings, “real time illustrations” as he calls it: no drafts; no pencils or erasers. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, NPR, and elsewhere; and he is behind all the art in Yellowbirds’ fantastic “The Reason” music video.
“It was a great time,” Michael tells The Future Heart of illustrating The Complete Last Waltz. “I made a lot of new friends and got to watch and draw people I’ve admired for a very long time.” Michael’s illustrations are collected below along with a summary of the concert. Follow Michael on Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter and visit his website at michaeldarthur.com.
The Band’s original Last Waltz is among the most famous shows in rock history partly because the Martin Scorsese film it yielded (often hailed one of the greatest concert films of all-time), but also because the gig itself was iconic in every way. The band themselves are icons; a guiding light to an era of musicians from Dylan to the Dead, The Beatles to Elton, Clapton to Zeppelin. That this was their last show was bound to make it memorable. That they went out with poetry readings, a Thanksgiving turkey dinner for the entire audience of 5000, ballroom dancing, and their own marathon performance that ran past 2 AM makes it iconic. Not only were many of the guests they invited on stage also icons, the performances they delivered that night were – you guessed it – iconic. Dylan’s mini-set with The Band is among the most renown performances of his long, storied career; Mavis Staples has seemingly spent the rest of her life chasing this night; every self-respecting rock folklorist knows the tale of the rock up Neil Young’s nose (and incredible performance regardless); even Eric Clapton’s guitar strap coming undone at this show is famous. And speaking of iconic, there was the setlists: signature Band tunes, Dylan and Young hits, popular standards (ie “Georgia on My Mind”), ’50s rock n’ roll, blues classics, country flavors, jazz overtones.
Which is why attempting to recreate that night and its 40-song setlist is no small undertaking. Last Wednesday’s performance met the challenge and showed that musical director Sam Cohen expertly organized, arranged and rehearsed the cast of dozens. The two-set, four-hour show demonstrated reverence for the iconic concert it tributed, but also a musical authenticity that can only occur with musicians playing in their own moment. Cohen also played wonderfully, as did Nels Cline, Marco Benevento, The Dap Kings’ Binky Griptite and others. Fruit Bats’ Eric D. Johnson, Cass McCombs and Delta Spirit’s Matt Vasquez were among the guest vocalists that stood out. Ultimately it was only the audience that wasn’t completely up to task: many in the crowd fidgeted and talked throughout the show, putting a slight damper on what was otherwise a performance as remarkably ambitious as it was successful. Those not in attendance can hear for themselves: NYCtaper recorded the entire show with a four-mic rig and is offering it as a free mp3 and FLAC download.
With its rich heritage as a classic rock venue, recently renovated facilities, and ornate 1920s movie palace design – complete with baroque molding and embossed wall texturing, red velvet seats, a dome ceiling, organ wells, balconies and lavish curtains (similar to those from The Band’s 1976 concert) – The Capitol Theater is the ideal setting for The Complete Last Waltz. The Cap’s “legendary acoustics,” architecture, and history – literally a Nationally Registered Historic Place since 1984 – have been brought into the 21st century by $2 million-worth of renovations in the past two years. As a result, last Wednesday’s concert mixed a classic aesthetic both visually and musically with sights and sounds only capable from a state-of-the-art audio system and arena lighting. High-definition projectors set the mood perfectly throughout the concert (as can be seen in photographs by Greg Horowitz for Creative Solutions Music Prom here, here and here; and by Scott Harris here), and the sound was immaculate.
Theme From The Balcony
The above-mentioned architecture, history and equipment was unmistakable from the opening notes: Yellowbird Josh Kaufman on mandolin leading a folk string trio (completed by auto-harp and fiddle) through “Theme from The Last Waltz” in the spotlight of an otherwise dimly lit stage. They were joined by horns from Antibalas on the stage right balcony. Using just one microphone, it was an understated but striking intro, both musically and visually (as shown in the above photo from thewaster.com’s excellent gallery of Complete Last Waltz photos by Mark Dershowitz; click through to see a close-up of the balcony horns and the trio on stage).
Gears abruptly shifted as the stage lights blasted on, revealing Sam Cohen – as sketched above – leading the house band through an electrifying rendition of “Up on Cripple Creek.” As Jambase noted, “Cohen’s voice isn’t southern-tinged, but does accentuate the end of stanzas like Levon did.” Likewise, drummer Joe Russo (of Grateful Dead off-spin Furthur and numerous other bands) nailed Helm’s distinctive sense of groove. It was a powerful start that gained yet more momentum with Alecia Chakour (from Warren Haynes Band) – and much of the audience for that matter – singing along on the chorus. See for yourself in this fan youtube video.
Trading Places and Special Guests – Alec Ounsworth, more
The next segment of the concert saw a rotating cast of lead vocalists changing from one song to the next with the supporting players also trading places. First up, Johnny Society‘s Kenny Siegal sang lead on “The Shape I’m In,” joined in the refrain by backing vocalists and the Antibalas horn section (lead by Stuart Bogie, also of Superhuman Happiness). The ensemble played with overt confidence and joy, particularly Sam: he laughed, put a bit of dance in his steps and prefaced the recurring keyboard solos with his bluesy gitfiddle. Stream it below via NYCtaper:
Guster’s Ryan Miller came out for “Life Is a Carnival” (as photographed by Mark Dershowitz here). The band’s arrangement differed a bit from The Band’s: horns predominated, the guitar shined, and busy drumming rooted it all; though Ryan’s stage presence and herky-jerky movements were the center of attention.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah frontman Alec Ounsworth was next to join the group, leading them through a jazzy take on “W.S. Walcott Medicine Show” marked by trombone and trumpet parts and Kaufman on lap steel. See photos of Alec by Dershowitz here, Greg Horowitz here and here, and Scott Harris here and here.
As pictured in the sketch above, Alecia belted out a soul-stirring rendition of “Georgia on My Mind” with an elegant string arrangement played by the Parkington Sisters and Robert Randolph & The Family Band’s Jason Crosby (click links for photos). As pictured below, Kaufmann switched to banjo for “Ophelia,” fronted by Scott Metzger (from Wolf! and Almost Dead) who also showcased his six-string chops.
Despite the revolving doors of musicians, there was a sense of comradery throughout the night, especially noticeable during “Ophelia.” It was audible in the horns locking with the rhythm section, and visible when Yellowbird bandmates Josh and Sam locked eyes and laughed with each other throughout the song. Watch a fan youtube video here.
Americanarama: “Rag Mama Rag” and “King Harvest”
Singing and playing acoustic guitar, Marc Black lead the band through the next two numbers: “Rag Mama Rag ” and “King Harvest (Has Surely Come).” The former was given a full-out Americana treatment – Kaufman on mandolin, gritty horns with a trumpet solo, fiddle – and climaxed with a break-down into a solo piano rag coda. Ryan Miller returned to help on “King Harvest,” as Apollo Sunshine drummer Jeremy Black swapped in. This was another highlight of the night, particularly Sam’s ripping guitar solo.
’50s Classics with Matt Vasquez of Delta Spirit
Filling the role of Paul Butterfield from the original Last Waltz, Delta Spirit’s Matt Vazquez sang and played harmonica through a distorted microphone for a rowdy cover of ’50s standard “Mystery Train.” Though Sam’s acoustic guitar rooted the arrangement, Matt’s frantic energy raised the performance to another level entirely – a compelling contrast. Matt yelped and yelled, shrieked and shouted, while kicking his legs dancing like a man on fire and taking both the audience and the band behind him by surprise (Sam’s face lit up with laughs, as did bassist Dave Dreiwitz, also of Almost Dead and best known from Ween). Vazquez delivered a similarly spirited lead to “Who Do You Love?” Rooted by Black’s snare figure galloping along like a runaway train on a one-way track, Matt yowled and howled, then lead a dynamic call and response with the audience. Watch it here.
Cass McCombs Takes On The Band’s Standards
Cass McCombs sang three signature Band tunes, starting with “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” The Antibalas horns stood out, nailing the intro and – along with Alecia, Scott and Sam joining Cass to harmonize the chorus – made the refrain seem downright anthemic. The power of this performance – and there’s no doubt among any in attendance this was powerful – came not only from the big build in the chorus, but also its contrast with the laid-back verse sections (Josh again on mandolin; watch it here). Cass’ voice similarly fit “Stage Fright,” which also featured horns and organ solos:
Cass switched modes into the sad mid-tempo ballad “It Makes No Difference” (with harmony vocals by Alecia, Josh’s lap steel, and an earnest sax solo bringing it to a close).
Marco Benevento Does Dr. John; Vetiver’s Andy Cabic
“The man who needs no introduction, Marco Benevento” – as Sam announced – came next. Known for his impromptu keyboard wizardry with various groups (particularly Benevento/Russo Duo and Almost Dead) and touring with Phish members, Benevento provided proof that he’s no slouch as a singer either. His vocals on “Such a Night” balanced reverence for Dr. John with his own quirks.
Andy Cabic of Vetiver was the next guest vocalist, first for “Down South in New Orleans,” then on “This Wheel’s on Fire.” The latter – lead by the drums, with Sam’s presence taking command of the band – was a major stand-out, especially its organ solos and rave-up coda.
Wilco’s Nels Cline Shreds Eric Clapton Blues
Another major highlight – perhaps the major highlight – was guitar great Nels Cline’s time on stage. Before playing a note he took a moment of giving thanks (“I’m a very lucky man“), but it soon became clear the audience was quite lucky too. Nels was in rare form on “Further on Up the Road” and “All Our Past Times.” He sang – an uncommon treat in itself – but it’s his blistering blues leads that stole the show. Sans a trace of his typical jazz-indebted signature style, his playing for The Complete Last Waltz was as uncharacteristically bluesy as it was intense. A beautiful picture by Mark Dershowitz of Nels and Sam sharing the shred is here, and another by Greg Horowitz is here.
One curious note: Sam switched guitars mid-song in “Further on Up the Road.” Normally this would be trivial, though considering Clapton’s guitar strap famously broke and was swapped during this exact song at the original concert adds intrigue to what seems otherwise inconsequential.
Nicole Atkins and Jocie Adams Channel
Neil Young and Joni Mitchell
As amazing as all of this was, the crowd grew restless during Nicole Atkins and the Low Anthem’s Jocie Adams’ segment (somewhat understandable considering the show’s duration). These were among the most gentle performances of the night, and much of the audience needed a pick-up at this point, an unfortunate timing of the setlist sequence. Nicole and Jocie harmonized the verse of Young’s classic “Helpless” with Alicia and Sam adding backing vocals on the chorus.
Atkins took the lead on “Four Strong Winds,” accentuated by her graceful arm movements as well as Sam’s subtle vocal harmonies, spacious guitar fills between verses, and Neil Young-styled harmonica.
Jocie channeled Joni’s singing and strumming on “Coyote” and “Furry Sings the Blues,” the quirkiness of her voice matched by her Tinkerbell outfit (as illustrated above and and pictured here).
The Long Winters Neil Diamond Impersonation
As the show’s organizer Ramie Egan explained, The Complete Last Waltz is meant to “re-present” the 1976 concert in the present. It’s a tribute, but not a recreation. The Long Winters’ John Roderick was one exception, turning Neil Diamond’s arguably out-of-place appearance in The Band’s original Last Waltz and the way his image has unfolded in pop-culture since (ie Saving Silverman) into the night’s comic segment, the pick-up much of the crowd needed during the preceding low-key Joni/ Jocie songs. Backed by Yellowbirds band mates Sam (guitar), Josh (lap steel) and Brian Kantor (drums), John’s take on “Dry Your Eyes” was lighthearted, though not parody. His attire on the other hand almost exactly mimicked the over-sized sunglasses, blue leisure suit and 70’s-styled buttoned-down, red, wide-collared shirt Neil wore at the original Last Waltz.
The Dap Kings’ Binky Griptite Sings The Blues
Binky Griptite, best known as guitarist and emcee for Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, showcased his blues abilities growling like Muddy Waters and playing lead guitar on “Mannish Boy;” Scott added some gritty slide licks as well. Watch a fan youtube video here.
It’s “Caledonia” though that got Binky the most crowd reaction. The lively horn chart and soulful organ helped and, as on “Mannish Boy,” Kantor laid down a tight shuffle. In addition to Binky’s fun delivery, the performance was also highlighted by solos traded between guitar, organ, trombone and piano.
Fruit Bats’ Van Morrison Portrayal
Fruit Bats’ Eric D. Johnson provided another jolt to the audience, at times sounding eerily close to Van Morrison, though apparently not attempting to imitate him. First Ryan Miller returned to the stage to sing “Tura Lura Lura” as a duet with Johnson. The band gave out a full sound – as before with Antibalas horns, Alecia on backing vocals, Kantor grooving and Josh on lap steel – but it was the dynamic between Miller and Johnson that put out the most.
Johnson’s “Van the Man” “Caravan” might have been the crowd-pleaser of the night, as his similarity to Morrison was apparently lost on nobody and the band played especially well: soulful organ fills and horn blasts throughout, Josh strumming acoustic, and folk-rock guitar-isms from Sam. Their playfulness stemmed from Kantor’s bouncy drumming (note the spring in his fills and the sense of joy in his ride pattern). Musicians and audience alike joined in the celebration and by songs-end even Sam couldn’t fathom how well the band sounded (hear his enthusiastic reaction in the audio recording above, “this band is SO amazing it’s really such a treat to watch them!“).
As if forty songs weren’t enough, actor Josh Lucas and author Colin Broderick read from The Canterbury Tales and the poem “Loud Prayer” during the intermission, ala the readings at the original Last Waltz.
The Genetic Method Chest Fever Burns!
The ’70s-styled psych keyboards of “The Genetic Method,” as played by Marco Benevento and Furthur’s Jeff Chimenti (and wonderfully caught on film here), transitioned the intermission into “Chest Fever,” another highlight. Kenny Siegal returned to the stage to belt the vocals, matched by his dynamite guitar leads and a lively band arrangement lead by Antibalas horns. Chimenti is shown in the sketch above, and Siegal below followed by Benevento with Antibalas.
Parkington Sisters’ Close Harmonies and “The Weight”
The Parkington Sisters’ close harmonies on Emmylou Harris’ “Evangeline” signaled a turn into country music. Watch them sing, fiddle and accordion shuffle in this youtube video. They continued in similar style with “Acadian Driftwood.”
One of the moments everybody was anticipating, Eric D. Johnson made a welcome return to the stage to take lead on the first verse of “The Weight.” Alecia followed with verse two, Sam on verse three, Sean Aylward of Hello Echo on verse four and everybody (though mostly Alecia and Sam) on verse five. The variety of their individualistic approaches on the verses combined well with its communal refrain. Watch it here.
Blitzen Trapper “Judas”
Blitzen Trapper’s Eric Earley performed the entire Dylan mini-set-within-the-second-set, drawn largely from “Judas’s” historic 1966 tour “going electric” with The Band as his band. At times bordering on imitation, Eric nonetheless served the songs well: “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” (which also featured a stellar solo from Sam), “Hazel,” “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)” (highlighted by the organ and Sam’s melodic lead – watch it here or stream audio above), “Forever Young” (with more top-notch organ-playing, a sincere solo from Sam, and Dylan-esque harmonica – watch it here), and a reprise of “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” (with another standout Sam solo and great drumming). Finally it got to be that time of the night.
How do you end an epic 40-song concert? With an epic sing-along of course…
“You’re Still Here?”
Martic Scorsee poetically began The Last Waltz film with the encore of the last Band concert (so the beginning of his film about the end was in fact the end). Decades later the order from the original show was restored as Alecia, Sam and Scott traded vocals on encore “Don’t Do It.” In the final moments Sam let loose – presumably in celebration from just pulling off a marathon concert of iconic material and juggling a cast of dozens – and whips through a victory-lap guitar solo while flailing his legs up.
“My biggest mistake was loving you too much.” Watch it here.
Once again, see The Waster’s photo collection by Mark Dershowitz here (including the above picture from the encore). Photographs by Greg Horowitz for Creative Solutions Music Promotions are here and the official Capitol Theater collection is here. Download the entire show via NYC Taper here.