Last night Warren Haynes, Don Was, Michael McDonald and company turned Boston’s Orpheum Theatre, into a working, full blown time machine; teleporting the audience back to November 26, 1976. This date of course was one of rock n’ roll’s most magical, legendary nights when at the pinnacle of their ability and at the peak of their insanity, the original members of The Band performed together for the last time on Thanksgiving at San Francisco’s Winterland.
Slightly before 8 PM, “The Theme from The Last Waltz” began playing through the house sound system as the ten piece band accompanied by a four piece horn section strode out to the darkened stage. After some brief tuning, they kicked into “The Shape I’m In”; the audience’s appreciative screams, howls, whistles and applause reached a deafening level reacting as if after forty years the music had finally been freed. McDonald, routinely referred to as a “yacht rocker” was probably was not the first person you would think of for this project, but proved the perfect fit wailing out “Stage Fright” with a blue eyed Southern Soul as he contorted around his center stage keyboard. McDonald looking thin and spry delivered all night from the Boogie-woogie blues of “Life is a Carnival,” the delicate beauty of, “Helpless” to the lyrically immortal “Forever Young.”
In the movie “The Last Waltz” the stage was transformed to a movie set with three chandeliers and three large curtains creating the illusion of large, Victorian windows, a detail The Last Waltz 40 Tour copied in Boston. The brilliance of last night’s performance was that the collective did far more then just cover the music, but also captured the intangible brilliance that made those songs come to life forty years ago.
First set highlights included Haynes’ heartfelt vocal on “It Makes No Difference”” which was beautifully blanketed at times by the angelic harmonies of McDonald, keyboardist John Medeski, and Ivan Neville. Followed by Neville’s vocal performance on the Cajun juking of “Down South in New Orleans”; the tune was extended first by a blazing Haynes slide guitar solo, and then the horn section led by the tuba on lead brought the jam back home.
On the occasions when the group seemed to stumble, losing the groove and then its way during, “Who Do You Love” the four piece horn section, playing the original arrangements of Alan Toussaint was there with a jam or a solo to pick the song back up. The only time they sounded more like a cover band than an original band was during “This Wheel’s on Fire” with the performance coming off flat with no separation or distinction in sound or melody between the verse, chorus or Coda. However, drummer Terence Higgins, increasing the meter just enough brought the audience back to where it started, shaking the one hundred sixty four year old theater to its foundation with an upbeat “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”.
Haynes opened the second set with the light-hearted “Caravan” extending the coda just as Van Morrison had done forty years ago, but while Morrison simply didn’t want to leave the stage, Haynes delivered a more intense freelance vocal. Guitarist Bob Margolin, disclosing he was from Boston and the only member to play the original “Last Waltz” as a member of Muddy Water’s band charmed the audience with his stories and turned up the heat with his fretwork. He explained how Bob Dylan with Margolin and Eric Clapton on guitar, Paul Butterfield on harp, Levon on drums, Dr. John on Piano and Ron Wood on bass, sang Robert Johnson covers for a few hours at the after party. Margolin then backed up his story first by dissecting “Mannish Boy” note by note on lead, followed by a real down home blues version of Johnson’s “Kind Hearted Woman.”
The room was electric with the crowd’s adrenaline anticipating, “The Weight” followed by set closer “I Shall Be Released” which seems as poignant today as it did forty years ago. Don Was, arguably the most influential musical director in rock and roll in the twentieth century, while also the least recognized, spent the night where he seems most comfortable in the shadows behind Haynes both playing and enjoying his creation come to life. Three hours passed in what seemed like 15 minutes, a side effect of time travel I’m told, but both band and audience delivered one last blow with the encore “Don’t Do It.”
The Band chose Thanksgiving night in 1976 to be their last live show and in retrospect “The Last Waltz” not only symbolically marked the end of an era, but most importantly the end of music for the musician’s sake. The Band really were just five artists who wanted to create and play music, which consisted of a melting pot of styles and influences molded into their unique vision of rock and roll, which as last night’s audience knew, has been seemingly lost. Thankfully The Last Waltz at 40 ensured that the music has not been lost forever.