To hear hotshot guitarist Warren Haynes and wild-eyed bassist Don Was tell it, The Band and its final concert, The Last Waltz – a star-studded Thanksgiving 1976 showcase that Martin Scorsese immortalized in his 1978 documentary – was pivotal to each musician’s growth in its lyrical mix of American Dixieland, country, funk, soul, and rock and roll.
Now, Haynes (known for the bluesy Gov’t Mule and time in the Allman Brothers Band) and Was (cocreator of the snarky Was (Not Was), producer of the Rolling Stones, and president of the Blue Note jazz label) get the chance to prove how crucial and diverse The Band was by reliving that landmark retirement gig with The Last Waltz 40th Anniversary show at the Kimmel Center on Sunday.
Joining the co-musical directors in tribute to the crotchety Canadian ensemble are blue-eyed soul singer Michael McDonald, country crooner Jamey Johnson, nu-jazz organist John Medeski, Dirty Dozen Brass Band drummer Terence Higgins, multi-instrumentalist Ivan Neville (Aaron's son), and more.
“My brother had Band records around the house, and they were different than the stuff I was listening to as a kid, which was soul,” Haynes says about growing up in Asheville, N.C. “I began to think about them as I turned on to Dylan – songs with messages, stories. The Band, however, also had vibe. I don’t know if I was ready for 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,' but it was there, haunting me.”
As a young guitarist, Haynes learned the secret of The Band’s six-stringer Robbie Robertson and his snaky, pragmatic sound. “Robertson’s guitar parts were always a part of the fabric, necessary rather than decoration. You weren’t hearing solos in a flashy way. The Band’s music ages with you; classic in a very real way.”
As a burgeoning bassist in Detroit, Was – who, like Haynes, got into The Band through their association with Dylan as his backing group (“I bought 1968’s Music from Big Pink when it was new.”) – credits their undulating funk as the thing that provoked him to action. “The Band is real groove-based, and Rick Danko was an incredible bassist, especially when he lockstepped with drummer Levon Helm’s thick rhythms,” says Was. “They had some really R&B moves on songs that were not specifically R&B.”
Was spends most of his time behind a desk as Blue Note’s president or producing Stones albums, such as the new Blue and Lonesome, so he was psyched to show off his love for Danko and The Band’s rural, butt-bumping brand of hucklebuck country soul. “Standing behind a band is my default resting position in life,” he says. “I miss it and don’t get a chance to do it enough, so this was a nice reason to hit the boards.”
Haynes has done other tribute-concert events, including for Jerry Garcia and Lynyrd Skynyrd, and – like Was – got an invitation from Blackbird Productions to celebrate The Last Waltz at 2016’s New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
“It felt so great we wanted to do it again,” says Haynes. “When we started that conversation, the immediate goal was its three singers as The Band had in Danko, Helm, and Richard Manuel. And, in all cases, Michael McDonald’s name came up; a beautiful human being, amazing vocalist, and an artist constantly looking to stretch.”
Haynes claims McDonald is perfect for Helm’s husky, soulful vocal parts, and nu-country vocalist Johnson will tackle Manuel’s vocal lines with Haynes singing Danko’s parts. Unlike Scorsese’s Last Waltz film, in which special guests such as Neil Young, Dylan, and Joni Mitchell joined The Band, there will be no special appearances, as every moment in the Last Waltz tribute will be special.
“What you do is never imitative,” Haynes says. “You’re conjuring spirits. Whenever you’re doing someone else’s music, you’re paying respect and bringing the deepest parts of your own personality to bear. And you hope for surprises.”
Was concurs with Haynes’ estimation of tackling The Band’s music but includes the audience in his vision of interpretation. “I get up there and for me it’s like meditating for three hours,” he says. “But there is something happening to the crowds, as well -- singing, tearing up -- because you do not get to hear this body of work live with any regularity. You can go and see the Stones, [Paul] McCartney, and Brian Wilson do their best songs, but The Band busted up and stayed that way, and these songs – so deeply ingrained in the zeitgeist of who we are in this country – hearing them now is like finding a rare jewel.”
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