There are few places in this or any universe where and when one could truly replicate The Last Waltz, the famed final show played by The Band on Thanksgiving of 1976. In 2012, Levon Helm, the group’s most iconic voice, passed on to That Great Gig in the Sky. In 2015, Allen Toussaint, the New Orleans legend who arranged the horn section for the original show, passed on.
And that’s to say nothing of all the members of The Band and their special guests who are now either deceased or have aged out of regular performance.
That hasn’t stopped the music from carrying on through a 40th anniversary tour of The Last Waltz. Nor did it to do anything to dampen the spirit of the stop at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. The ornately decorated venue proved to be a perfect host for Warren Haynes, Jamey Johnson and the cast of characters who’ve criss-crossed the country reviving a rock-and-roll classic.
From The Band standards like “Up on Cripple Creek”, “Rag Mama Rag”, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and (of course) “The Weight” to blues standards and then-contemporary covers, this band breathed new life into an epic concert that, save for the fortunate few who were at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on that November night, is left to musical lore beyond Martin Scorsese‘s famous concert film.
Haynes, among the most decorated fill-in frontman for historic rock outfits, wailed with voice and axe through two rambling sets (and a two-song encore) with every bit of bravado and brilliance on display during his stints with the Dead, the Allman Brothers Band and Gov’t Mule. Johnson, a relative spring chick at 41, more than held his own belting out numbers, including “Georgia On My Mind”, and flaunting flowing locks from his head and beard. They were backed by a colorful cast of characters on horns (led by Mark Mullins), drums (Terence Higgins) and keyboard (Danny Louis).
No tribute to The Last Waltz would be complete without a stack of cameos, and this one was no exception. Dave Malone, of New Orleans’ Radiators fame, joined in for a rendition of CSNY‘s “Helpless” and The Band’s “This Wheel’s On Fire.” Cyril Neville, of the Meters and the Neville Brothers, lent his talents on percussion and vocals, even stealing the show for a spell during the Bo Diddley classic “Who Do You Love.” Taj Mahal—clad in a red shirt, black pants and a white hat—seized the stage on multiple occasions, to belt out “The Shape I’m In”, “Life Is a Carnival” and Bob Dylan‘s “Forever Young” and rip some steel guitar on Robert Johnson‘s “Kind Hearted Woman Blues.”
The crowd, which came to its feet after just about every song, got many a joyful earful from some who were on stage for the original Last Waltz. Steady Rollin’ Bob Margolin, who was then a young understudy to the aged Muddy Waters, “laid some pipe” on slide guitar during a rendition of Muddy’s “Mannish Boy” and regaled the audience with tales of late-night jams with Dylan, Helm, Eric Clapton, Ronnie Wood and Paul Butterfield. Dr. John, with the clothing and countenance of the same Crescent City eccentric he (presumably) was 40 years ago, banged away on the piano and lent his gravelly voice to Bayou favorites like “Such a Night” and “Down South in New Orleans.”
And while most of The Band has either retired or passed on, there was one member with enough juice left in the tank to join this gang on the road: Garth Hudson. The silver-haired 79-year-old needed a hand shuffling onto and off of the stage, but once he sat down at the piano, it was as if no time had passed since the original show. He tickled the ivories to perfection toward the end of the show and into “The Weight” before the group concluded Set No. 2 with Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.”
Who knows how many (if any) of the original Waltzers will be around for a 50th anniversary in 10 years? By then, with any luck, there will be a whole new generation of great musicians who are ready, willing and able to get the ghosts of The Band back together for yet another Last Waltz.
Below you can view fan-shot videos of both sets, courtesy of Pay Myers:
Enjoy the gallery below, courtesy of Brandon Weil.