It was 40 years ago last Thanksgiving that the Band threw itself a farewell concert at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. "The Last Waltz" was a sprawling, legendary affair lasting more than five hours, featuring guest appearances from Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison and Eric Clapton. It would spawn a three-LP soundtrack and a 1978 film directed by Martin Scorsese, considered the best concert documentary of all time.
Last April, a group of musicians led by Gov't Mule/Allman Brothers guitarist Warren Haynes and bassist/producer Don Was assembled during Jazz Fest in New Orleans for a 40th anniversary celebration that expanded to a nationwide tour, which rolls into the Chicago Theatre on Sunday.
Haynes, Jamey Johnson, and Michael McDonald stand in for the Band's trio of vocalists, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, and Richard Manuel; (Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson, who has performed at several recent anniversary dates, are the only members from the lineup still alive).
One of the things that made "The Last Waltz" so great is that no one knows what made it so great, says Was. "I don't know that anyone really knows the answer to that. It was an incredible cast of musicians, and they just rose to the challenge. Everyone was great, and I suppose that doesn't always happen."
In separate phone interviews, Was and Haynes talked about the challenges involved in resurrecting one of rock's most historic nights. The following are excerpts from those conversations:
On their earliest exposure to "The Last Waltz"
Don Was: I saw it in the theater when it first came out, and my wife was nine months pregnant. And the low end, the music was so loud that she went into labor during the movie, and my oldest kid was born the next morning. It's a deep emotional attachment on a whole other level. He's a drummer, by the way.
Warren Haynes: I just remember that everybody had the (soundtrack), the triple record. It was such an important part of rock history. I think I heard the record first before I saw the movie. I was a teenager when that happened, and very impressionable, and there was this excitement with the music and the film. All those people together under one roof, and there was nothing flawless or perfect about it.
On the haphazard nature of the 1976 concert
Haynes: There was no way to rehearse as much as you'd probably think you need to with all those special guests, it would take forever. But that kind of music benefits from spontaneity. That's one of the things that makes that music timeless.
Was: I played bass on Ringo's album last week, and I told him we were doing "The Last Waltz," and he kind of looked at me blankly, and I had to remind him he was there. I think it was very wild, and none of the musicians I've talked to really remember much about it.
On whether they felt pressure to faithfully re-create the original show
Haynes: No, because we're not trying to re-create it. We're honoring it in our own way. I can't imagine there would be someone in the audience questioning the motivation behind it.
Was: I was very nervous before the New Orleans show, to be honest with you. We didn't factor in people's attachment to the music, we just thought it'd be a fun show. Once we hit the opening line of "Up on Cripple Creek," everybody was up, and we knew that something different was happening, and all fears were erased.
On whether they should even try to faithfully re-create the original show
Was: I think it's a big responsibility, and we took it quite seriously. For me, I could never play exactly like Rick Danko, nobody could. He played the songs differently every night. I've done a lot of research into it, and the Band was like a jazz group, they approached it differently every night. You kind of learn the fundamentals of it.
Haynes: It was never like, "Let's play the songs the way they did it." It was, "Let's do what feels right."
Was: Those songs mean a lot to folks, and you don't get to hear them. McCartney's off doing Beatles songs, the Stones are off doing Stones songs, but no one's playing that repertoire.
On whether they got Robertson's blessing before embarking on the tour
Was: Well, I didn't go ask for his hand in marriage or anything, but I heard that he dug the idea, and maybe he'll show up and play with us. He's aware of it, and he digs it. I've known him for a long time. How can he not like it?
Haynes: No. (One of the show's organizers) spoke to Robbie and says that Robbie's really happy we're doing this, but I haven't talked to Robbie.
Does he believe the legend of a backstage squabble between Neil Diamond and Dylan at the 1976 show?
Haynes: I've heard those rumors, and have no way of knowing. Don doesn't think it's what happened, and Don is someone who's worked with both of them, so he has more insight into that than me.
Was: No (laughs). Neil's a pretty sweet guy, and he loves Bob Dylan. Really, I don't believe that happened, but there was a lot — it was good that they didn't drug test people that night. Anything's possible.
Revolution Come. Revolution Go
Rock & roll has always been a reflection of the times, and the new Mule is no exception.