There were countless tributes to Levon Helm 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 to celebrate Helm at Brooklyn Bowl on June 4, 2012. “There was so much raw emotion about his passing – it was just a few weeks before,” Sam Cohen – Yellowbirds main man at the time – remembered 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 together with Cohen, his Yellowbirds bandmate at that time Josh Kaufman, Jon Shaw, Alecia Chakour and the Antibalas horns, reconvened five months later to become the house band for a more ambitious tribute on Thanksgiving weekend 2012. Dubbed The Complete Last Waltz, it wasn’t intended to specifically commemorate Helm, though in the wake of his passing that year 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: a one-night-only performance of every song from The Band’s legendary four-hour-long Thanksgiving 1976 farewell concert, including those cut from Martin Scorsese’s famed film. It was a success, so they brought the event east the following year to Port Chester, New York’s Capitol Theatre. With its rich heritage as a classic rock venue, “legendary acoustics,” recently renovated facilities, and ornate 1920s movie palace design – literally a Nationally Registered Historic Place since 1984, complete with baroque molding and embossed wall texturing, red velvet seats, a dome ceiling, organ wells, balconies and lavish curtains (similar to those iconically used at The Band’s 1976 concert) – The Complete Last Waltz found an ideal home in the Cap. 2013’s show was another success (read a song-by-song recap of the 2013 Complete Last Waltz and download the full concert here).
Quickly becoming a Thanksgiving tradition, The Complete Last Waltz returned to the Cap in 2014, the first year it was streamed live (watch the full webcast here). Though The Complete Last Waltz went on hiatus last year, it’s returning in 2016 for the 40th anniversary of The Band’s original marathon all-star concert. Tickets are still available here, and nugs.tv is offering a webcast here. This year’s line-up is listed below:
- Sam Cohen (formerly of Yellowbirds and Apollo Sunshine)
- Jeff Chimenti (Dead and Company, formerly of Furthur and RatDog)
- Joe Russo (Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, formerly of Furthur)
- Dave Dreiwitz (Ween, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead)
- Scott Metzger (Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Phil and Friends)
- Marco Benevento (Joe Russo’s Almost Dead)
- Jon Shaw (Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Bob Weir, Shaky Graves, Cass McCombs)
- Josh Kaufman (Bob Weir, formerly of Yellowbirds)
- Alecia Chakour (Tedeschi Trucks Band, Warren Haynes)
- Nels Cline (Wilco)
- Eric Slick (Dr Dog)
- Eric D. Johnson (Fruit Bats, formerly of The Shins)
- James Petralli (White Denim)
- The Antibalas Horns
- Binky Griptite (The Dap Kings)
- Steve Marion (Delicate Steve)
- Jocie Adams (The Low Anthem)
- John Roderick (The Long Winters)
- Matt Vasquez (Delta Spirit)
- Ryan Miller (Guster)
- Jeremy Black (formerly of Apollo Sunshine)
- Natalie Prass
- Langhorne Slim
- The Parkington Sisters
- Kenny Siegal (Johnny Society)
- Matt Trowbridge (RANA)
- Rayland Baxter
- Nicole Atkins
- Curtis Harding
Playing tribute to The Band’s farewell concert around Thanksgiving is not unique. Every November for the past dozen years Colorado musicians have gathered for The Last Waltz Revisited. For the past six Thanksgivings New York’s “Leave a Lasting Mark” benefit concert series has hosted a Last Waltz night at the Bitter End. There’s similar Last Waltz benefits in Seattle and elsewhere. Occasionally one will stand out from the pack, such as the 2013 tribute at Philadelphia’s Trocadero that featured a founding member of The Band: Garth Hudson. Among the tributes this year there was one in Nashville, a separately run benefit also in Nashville, another in Alabama, and others in Illinois, Washington DC, the aforementioned Seattle and New York events, and more. This Friday – the fortieth anniversary of The Band’s original concert to the day – Arcade Fire’s Tim Kingsbury will lead a tribute in Montreal. Bob Weir and Lucinda Williams marked forty years of The Last Waltz at AmericanaFest NYC in August, and this past spring the anniversary was commemorated in New Orleans with a tribute concert by guitar hero Warren Haynes (Allman Brothers Band, Gov’t Mule), bassist Don Was, keyboard virtuoso John Medeski, country star Jamey Johnson, The Meters’ funk bass pioneer George Porter, Jr., The Radiators’ Dave Malone, and others. Haynes and Was announced last week they’ll tour their tribute this winter. “The Last Waltz is one of the greatest rock music moments in history,” Haynes tells Rolling Stone. “When we did it in New Orleans, it was so much fun. We were able to honor what came before and still come up with a different take on the original with a very unique blend of musical personalities.”
The Complete Last Waltz is different though. With its all-star guest roster and dedication to playing the full four-hour set list – not just highlights as is typically the case – The Complete Last Waltz distinguishes itself among the many tributes. They’ve even booked Chris Edwards – formerly Levon Helm’s sound engineer – to guarantee their performances sounded incredible; and they’re the only one to webcast the shows.
Not too many concerts bear their own tribute concerts, let alone annually, in multiple cities. To what can this myriad of homages (and The Complete Last Waltz in particular) be attributed? The Band were never the most fashionable group but their impact on peers was undeniable and their influence has persisted through the decades. “The Band has had a huge influence,” Fruit Bats Eric D Johnson, formerly of The Shins, told jambands.com. Johnson – who returns every year to The Complete Last Waltz to sing Van Morrison’s numbers – continues, “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.”
So to what can all these Last Waltz tributes be attributed? Maybe to a widespread sense among musicians that they weren’t just a band, the were The Band – icons or an era in their own understated way. The time came for generations of singers, songwriters, roots-rockers and jammers to celebrate the paths The Band paved and the most obvious way to do so in a live setting is with tributes to The Last Waltz, one the most famous shows in rock history both because of the Martin Scorsese film it yielded (often hailed among the greatest concert films of all-time) and the iconic nature of the gig itself. “Every artist I’ve ever known was greatly influenced by this concert,” Complete Last Waltz organizer Ramie 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.”
That The Last Waltz was The Band’s final 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 made it iconic. The who’s-who guestlist – Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Ronnie Wood, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters, The Staple Singers, Paul Butterfield, Emmylou Harris, Ronnie Hawkins, horns arranged by Allen Toussaint – and the performances they delivered were similarly iconic, as was was the setlist. Ranging from Band originals to popular standards, ’50s rock n’ roll, blues, country and jazz to a closing mini-set by Bob Dylan, The Last Waltz had it all. See for yourself with the Music Vault’s complete four hours of footage from the original concert above, and a few stand-out performance scenes from the Martin Scorsese film below.
As for The Band themselves they’re marking the fortieth anniversary of their most famous concert with a 54-track, deluxe edition four CD box reissue of The Last Waltz that include rehearsals, outtakes and a blu-ray of the film. There’s also a limited collector’s edition with a reproduction of the 300-page book Martin Scorsese used to shoot the film and a six LP vinyl box. Robbie Robinson discussed the super deluxe package, specifically the significance of the book, in the interview below:
The Complete Last Waltz pays tribute so well in part because at its core is a group of Deadhead, classic rock aficionados that know a thing or two about covers. Dreiwitz, Benevento, Metzger and Russo homage Zeppelin under the moniker Bustle In Your Hedgerow and The Grateful Dead as Joe Russo’s Almost Dead. Complete Last Waltz house band connections to the Dead are numerous. In the house band from 2013 on, Jeff Chimenti – formerly of Bob Weir and Phil Lesh’s Grateful Dead spin-off Furthur, and since 1997 Weir’s RatDog – also played at the core four’s much-hyped Fare Thee Well 2015 reunion concerts, and in Dead and Company since.
Kaufman was musical director of Bob Weir’s Bridge Session in March 2012 featuring Sam Cohen, members of The National, Walkmen organist Walt Martin and Weir himself. That summer Sam and Josh tributed Jerry Garcia at his all-star 70th birthday Move Me Brightly concert, and both joined The National’s house band for many tracks on this year’s mammoth Day of the Dead (with Jim James, Grizzly Bear, The War On Drugs, Courtney Barnett, Kurt Vile, Bon Iver, Lee Ranaldo, The Flaming Lips and dozens more). Josh was also musical director of Weir’s band for his most recent tour, and co-produced his latest album, Blue Mountain, which Sam also plays on. Alecia Chakour doesn’t have a direct connection to the Dead, though she’s best known for singing in the solo band of Warren Haynes (who has toured with both Phil Lesh & Friends and The Dead).
Sam Cohen and Josh Kaufman, former bandmates in Yellowbirds, also have connections to many of the guests that front the house band for The Complete Last Waltz. In 2013 for instance Yellowbirds served double duty on tour with Fruit Bats as both the opening act and then 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 explained to jambands.com. “Plus, he’s such a sick guitarist.” For Cohen – who served as The Complete Last Waltz music director its first three years – paying 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.”
For the first Complete Last Waltz in 2012 the Yellowbirds/Almost Dead house band were joined by many guests taking turns singing lead and complementing the band: Wilco’s Nels Cline, Dr Dog’s Erick Slick and Scott McMicken, Nada Surf’s Ira Elliot, Cass McCombs, Vetiver’s Andy Cabic, among them. 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 and video from the 2012 event are here.) It was a tall task for Sam Cohen to organize as musical director the inaugural Complete Last Waltz 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.” That said, some artists did clearly rely on the 1976 performances as a template for their own, particularly The Long Winters’ John Roderick who borderline parodied Neil Diamond for “Dry Your Eyes.”
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. “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.” (Snippets of the initial rehearsals can be watched at these links: “Don’t Do It” and “Carnival”.)
So how did they choose which musician would fill which role?
“I knew [Fruit Bats’ Eric] Johnson would kill the Van Morrison stuff [“Tura Lura Lural (That’s an Irish Lullaby)” and “Caravan”) 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.”
Just as Marco Benevento pulled off Dr. John’s “Such a Night” with aplomb and The Dap-Kings Binky Griptite adeptly both tributes and deviates from Muddy Waters blues mastery, The Low Anthem’s Jocie Adams was a perfect fit to 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,” enthused Nels Cline – who backs Adams on “Furry Sings the Blues” – before the 2012 concert. “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.”
Subsequent years have brought more artists into The Complete Last Waltz fold, among them Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s Alec Ounsworth, Dr. Dog’s Toby Leaman, Delta Spirit’s Matthew Vasquez, Heartless Bastards’ Erika Wennerstrom, Delicate Steve, and Kevin Morby (formerly of Woods and The Babies). There’s subtle differences from year to year – Twin Shadow sang “Ophelia” in 2012, Scott Metzger since; Cass McCombs sang “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Stage Fright” in years past but is not participating this year – but overall The Complete Last Waltz performances are surprisingly consistent (considering the revolving door nature of its guest lists). That’s testament to the musicianship of the house band that returns annually and Cohen’s job as musical director for its first three years. Perhaps the biggest differences from year to year is which artist leads the Bob Dylan section of the show: Dr. Dog’s Scott McMicken in 2012; Blitzen Trapper’s Eric Earley in 2013, Elvis Perkins in 2014. This year Matthew Houck, better known as Phosphorescent, will be taking on the Dylan role (reason alone to attend or watch online).
“I’ve never taken on something that big,” Cohen recalled of his first year as musical director. “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.”
“The Complete Last Waltz is awesome,” Eric D Johnson enthused to jambands.com in 2013. “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.”