NOTE: As of Monday, March 27, the Houston date of the Last Waltz 40 Tour has been cancelled and no reschedule date has been announced. Refunds are available at point of purchase.
For those who follow the music biz or are inveterate liner-note readers, Don Was is an insanely accomplished guy. As a performer with his ’80s group Was (Not Was) and a sideman. As a producer of a slew of records for major artists like Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Brian Wilson and Willie Nelson. And as the current president of historic jazz label Blue Note Records.
But last year at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Was and fellow musicians Michael McDonald, Warren Haynes and Jamey Johnson, plus concert coordinator Keith Wortman, wanted to do “something cool” to commemorate the 40th anniversary of The Last Waltz.
That noted Thanksgiving Day 1976 marathon concert was the swan song for the original lineup of The Band, who brought along a bunch of famous friends to send them off in style. A full holiday meal was even served before the show, and the subsequent Martin Scorsese-directed rock doc is usually cited as one of the greatest concert films ever. It also received a lavish anniversary box-set treatment in late 2016.
After their Jazz Fest discussion, Was and company played a set that recreated the show, which went over so well that a “Last Waltz 40 Tour” was created; that in turn went over so well that the tour’s second leg stops in Houston next Friday. Was, Haynes and Johnson will anchor the show, along with Dr. John, Bob Margolin, Cyril Neville, Dave Malone (The Radiators), Terence Higgins, Danny Louis, Mark Mullins and more. There will also be drop-in guests, and the show will feature Allen Toussaint's original horn charts.
“You don’t expect these musicians to blend, but they did. And from the first song, everybody was standing up and singing along,” says Was, calling from a stop during a bike ride near a Los Angeles beach marina. “We knew then there was something larger at play. And The Band is so much part of the American musical psyche. The response has been overwhelming. You wait a long time as a musician to get that kind of communication with an audience. And no one is out there playing songs by The Band.”
During his talk, loud boat noises and PA announcements can be heard in the background of the marina. “Are you there, Bob?” Was laughs. “Good thing this isn’t a radio interview!”
The revival tour doesn’t follow The Last Waltz by strict chronology, nor do the same performers do the same numbers either by the group or the original guest stars each night. As the group’s bass player, Was says the highlight for him is plunking strings for a swampier take on “Who Do You Love?”, the Bo Diddley tune performed by Ronnie Hawkins in the film.
Was knows he has big shoes to fill in playing Rick Danko’s parts, though he’s not interested in doing a “karaoke” take on them.
“If you listen to the live recordings, the thing about Rick is that he never played the same way twice,” he says. “It’s not like of you play ‘Something’ by the Beatles, you have to play that bass exactly right! My thing is to try to get into [Rick’s] head and conjure up the spirit of what he was doing. The thing that I can relate to is at the core, he’s an R&B bass player. And me growing up in Detroit with soul and Motown music, there’s a relation.”
However, Was thinks the concert’s peak usually comes near the finale with “I Shall Be Released,” sung by Bob Dylan in the film. “Something really special happens when we get to that, and it’s hard to explain. It’s almost like we’re doing ‘Amazing Grace,’” he says.
“It’s got a very deep and spiritual message to it, but it’s also very impressionistic poetry,” Was continues. “And everyone in the audience responds to it. When I look out there, it’s like we’re playing in a church. It’s a moment of deep communion, with a sense of oneness.” Michael McDonald – who is not on this leg of the tour – has done the honors so far (“We made him do it!”). Was isn’t sure who will tackle it this time around.
Two performers on this tour were also on the bill for the original Last Waltz – N’awlins gris-gris artist Dr. John, and Bob Margolin, Muddy Waters’s former guitarist. And while Was says that Margolin will occasionally chime in with a memory of the 1976 show, Dr. John’s memory may be, um, challenged.
“I’m not sure that Dr. John has his memories!” Was laughs. “I was playing bass recently on Ringo [Starr]’s new record with Dr. John, and I had to kind of remind him that he was there. He has no recollection of it!”
If anything, Was hopes the lasting legacy of the tour will be a greater appreciation of and spotlight on The Band and its music, which is rarely heard live today outside all-Band cover band The Weight.
“The original was a gathering,” Was says. “I actually stumbled on [the movie] on PBS last night, and the way it was shot on film, it looks like a movie. And the stage is so intimate – everyone was so close together. And that’s what we try to do now.”
Open invitations have been extended to the two surviving members of The Band, guitarist Robbie Robertson and keyboardist Garth Hudson, to drop in at any point. Hudson has taken up the offer on several dates for the first leg of the tour, and it's been confirmed that the 79-year-old keyboardist will be on the bill for the Houston show.
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Finally, when asked if he had any particular memories of or relationship to Houston, Was takes off his Band hat and puts on his Blue Note beret.
“An inordinate percentage of our roster comes from Houston, and out of that HSPVA school under that one teacher [Dr. Robert Morgan]: Jason Moran, Robert Glasper, Chris Staves, Eric Harland, Walter Smith and other guys. It’s insane. It’s noted internationally throughout the jazz world that this one high school has had such an impact. It’s testimony to the city.”
The Last Waltz 40 Tour hits Revention Music Center (520 Texas) on Friday, March 31. Doors open at 7 p.m.; tickets range from $55-$225. For more on the tour, visit www.lastwaltz40tour.com.