The opulent and ornate Orpheum Theater located in the original theater district of downtown Los Angeles played host to a very special concert, Thursday night April 13. The Last Waltz 40 Tour, billed as a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Last Waltz concert by The Band, was originally meant to only be a one-time tribute concert in New Orleans. But the event garnered so much praise and interest it became a national tour and recently added a second leg of shows.
The show features a nine-piece core band of Southern rock and New Orleans jazz veterans. The band was fronted by Gov’t Mule and Allman Brothers guitarist extraordinaire Warren Haynes and Country rock singer-guitarist Jamey Johnson. The rhythm section was composed of legendary music producer Don Was on bass and New Orleans monster funk drummer Terence Higgins. Gov’t Mule keyboardist, Danny Louis rounded out the five-piece core rock band. They were joined by a four-piece all-star horn section led by Mark Mullins.
The nine-piece jazz-rock powerhouse opened with two of The Bands classic hit songs, Up on Cripple Creek and Stage Fright. The horn section kicked in on the third song, a cover by Hoagy Carmichael, Georgia on My Mind. That would set the pace of the evening's marathon two-set performance. Classic songs by the band would be interspersed with covers played at the original Last Waltz. The final concert by the original Band, became a major documentary film hit. That show featured some of the biggest names in pop music joining the band's swan song performance. The show Thursday featured two more songs by the core band, a cover of Van Morrison’s Caravan and another Band classic It Makes No Difference.
At this point in the show, the first of a long parade of very special guests began to appear on stage. The first guests included two New Orleans legends, Dr. John on piano and Cyril Neville on percussion. Dr. John was one of the original performers joining The Band at their Last Waltz. The raspy-voiced John opened with his original song Such a Night, leading the band with a bright honkytonk piano sound. He followed with another Band classic Down South in New Orleans. Cyril Neville took over lead vocals for the next song, a cover of the Bo Diddley classic, Who Do You Love? Dr. John then retired from the stage far too early for fans of the jazz funk rocker. The core group continued with another Band classic Rag Mama Rag, bringing the crowd in the packed theater to their feet. The master of all music that is Blues, Taj Mahal, took over lead vocals for the next Band cover, The Shape I’m In, which kept the crowd on their feet. The Blues innovator brought his 50 years of musical experience to bear and became the most prolific guest for the rest of the concert, singing, playing guitar and harmonica. Another New Orleans music veteran, singer-guitarist Dave Malone of Radiators fame took over lead vocals, ending the first set with the stirring Southern classic, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. As the band took a break, an enthused crowd headed to the bar.
While the first set was superb, the second set proved to be even more magical with more surprise guests and last nearly 30 minutes longer than the scheduled end time. The core group opened with another Band classic and was quickly followed another Band tune with Taj Mahal returning to the stage. Mahal then shared vocals with Dave Malone as they led the group in two very different cover songs, including the old Eric Von Schmidt classic Baby, Let Me Follow You Down and the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young rock masterpiece, Helpless. After several more songs, Malone shined on a cover of Little Junior Blue Flames, Mystery Train.
Singer-guitarist Bob Malone joined the jam next, turning in one of the most explosive blues-drenched performances of the concert. The former guitarist for Muddy Waters band, he also played at the Last Waltz and shared fascinating stories with the crowd between songs. He spoke about how Bob Dylan and Keith Richards organizing a jam session back at the hotel after the historic concert that lasted until sunrise. Malone played a stirring cover of Muddy Waters, Mannish Boy, and several other blues classics. At one point, he sang in a screaming blues voice while writhing on the floor of the stage like a possessed James Brown.
Just as the concert seemed to have reached a crescendo of fever-pitched energy, the show took on a whole new meaning and tone as one of the only two surviving members of the original Band, Garth Hudson appeared. It was a bittersweet moment as the long white haired keyboardist looked frail and old shuffling onstage. But once he began to play piano it was clear that his musical magic was intact. A brilliant piano solo segued into the Band classic, The Weight. Hudson has been lauded as one of the best keyboardists ever to play rock music. But it is his mastery of the Lowrey organ that made him an innovator far ahead of his time in electronic music.
The original Band may have been the most influential group in early American rock music. The four Canadians and one American created a traditional American rock sound that is emulated in pop music to this very day. I first saw the Band as a freshman in college in 1974 with Bob Dylan. That concert tour, the first in 8 years for Dylan featured four alternate sets highlighting each groups music and then jamming together. The magical show was made into a two-album live recording featuring the remarkable vocal skills of Dylan and The Band at the time. In 1975 I again was fortunate to see the Band, this time in the third row of the inexplicable less than full Greek Theater in Los Angeles. On a college budget, I had purchased tickets for my girlfriend and myself in the back of the amphitheater, but inexplicably when we picked up the tickets at will call, we were upgraded to third-row tickets. Elton John was sitting in the row in front of us. In past interviews, John has credited Garth Hudson as being one of his biggest musical influences on keyboards.
The group ended the second set of the Orpheum show with a rousing cover of the Bob Dylan hit; I Shall Be Released. After a standing ovation that lasted several minutes, Hudson returned to play a searing solo on his prized Lowrey organ, on the Band classic Chest Fever. Then he was joined by all the players of the evening sans Dr. John and an additional guitarist, Jimmy Vivino. The Los Angeles guitarist led the group including Hudson on a final Band cover of Chest Fever. It was nearly midnight when the band took their final bow at this historic tribute.