In the forty years since its release, Martin Scorsese’s iconic documentary film of The Band’s “farewell concert appearance” has taken on almost mythical status as one of the greatest concert films made.
From its modest genesis at Rambling House on E. Hudson St. five short years ago, The Last Waltz Tribute has grown to become one of Columbus’ best musical tributes. This year’s show marked the second time it took place at Newport Music Hall. The annual event, now in its fifth year, is organizer James Wooster’s way of paying homage to the music of The Band.
With a wide mixture of young millennials and fans old enough to have been at the Winterland Ballroom for the original concert in 1976, the anticipation throughout the crowd was palpable on the weekend before Thanksgiving.
With the stage bathed in a deep blue glow and the scent of patchouli filling the air, the house lights went down as the strains of The Last Waltz Theme began playing. With smoke wafting across the floor of the stage, the band walked out and took their places to a loud roar from the assembled masses.
The sheer quality of local musicianship that was on the Newport’s stage that night was staggering, sounding as if they had all been playing together in one band for decades.
From the opening strains of Up on Cripple Creek, through The Shape I’m In to It Makes No Difference, Wooster conjured the memory of Levon Helm, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko (respectively) with his vocals, while putting his own stamp on the classic songs.
Zach Whitney, performing a smoking version of Who Do You Love? While staying very true to the original, Whitney portrayed a modern-day version of Ronnie Hawkins, right down to the cowboy hat and snarls.
With the crowd swaying to the beat of Such a Night, with John Turck on the piano, one couldn’t help but sing along to “If I don’t do it, somebody else will…” The horn section started the next number, while the band gave This Wheel’s on Fire an ominous, albeit upbeat, tone to the undercurrent running through the number.
The emotion was plain to see on Helpless, as Dave Buker performed a heartfelt, soulful version of one of Neil Young’s signature tunes.
When the band launched into W.S. Walcott Medicine Show, it felt as though we were transported back in time to 1976, ensconced in positive energy and nostalgia. While a few people here and there were swaying to lovely sounds to this point, many in the crowd began dancing when Stage Fright reverberated throughout the venue.
Eric Nassau played a delightful rendition of Dry Your Eyes, while Matt Monta had his harmonica sounding like train whistle chugging down the tracks on Mystery Train. Monta owned the song, making it very much his own.
Barry Chern opined “I’d like to evoke the spirits of the ancestors” before launching into Mannish Boy. With Chern and Monta both playing harmonica, they gave the song more of a “roots feel”, while keeping the backbone firmly planted in the blues.
The first set closed with playing a somewhat funky, yet soulful version of King Harvest (Has Surely Come).
The second set opened with Rockin’ Chair, a non-Last Waltz song that somehow still fit within the loose parameters of the evening’s tribute. The mellowness of the tune, coupled with Cliff Starbuck’s emotion and the band’s harmonies, set the tone for what was to unfold throughout the set.
Mark Gonzalez and James Wooster traded vocal duties on All Our Pastimes, with their harmonies cascading over the audience. Gonzalez stayed on stage for Further on Up the Road, trading lead riffs throughout the number with Wib Schneider.
With the horn section back on stage, the tuba added great depth to the raucous Rag Mama Rag, as Wooster dove deeper within the song. An almost dirge-like organ solo announced Genetic Method/Chest Fever, before the rest of the band joined in, with their excellent musicianship on full display.
Wooster said that the next song was his favorite, with the band jumping right into the upbeat Ophelia, causing the crowd to once again begin to dance around the venue.
Stephanie Rogers strolled across the stage, before giving Tura Lura Lural (That’s an Irish Lullaby) a gospel “feel” with soaring vocals that put her stamp squarely on the song. As the crowd roared its approval upon its conclusion, she remained on stage for an excellent version of Caravan. Even adding Van Morrison’s signature kick in the number, her performance brought a new dimension to the classic gem.
With their lighter’s held high in the air, the crowd sang along with the band for The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, with Wooster again channeling Helm’s raspy vocals.
As expected, The Last Waltz Suite made its appearance at this point. There were two highlights within the suite, the first of which was Stephanie Jeffreys and James Wooster harmonizing beautifully on Evangeline. The second was Stephanie Rogers coming back on stage for The Weight, with the crowd singing along loudly.
Next came the much anticipated “Dylan Medley”, with Chris Swanson getting it all started with the upbeat rocker Baby, Let Me Follow You Down. The midtempo styling of I Don’t Believe You followed, before transitioning into the slower tempo of Forever Young. Swanson’s vocals were plaintive and soulful, his voice aching with emotion that cut to your core. Playing the Baby, Let Me Follow You Down (Reprise) directly out of the previous number set up the penultimate tune of the evening.
With the ensemble of musicians that had performed throughout the evening joining them on stage, the band launched into a serene version of I Shall Be Released, with most every member of the audience singing, too. The number was punctuated with a sweet guitar solo from James Wooster, as well.
As some of the crowd began to depart the venue, the band played one final song to close out the evening. Don’t Do It is one of The Band’s tunes that resonates within me, and the assembled musicians did the song justice.
After the show, Wooster commented that this was, in his opinion, the best tribute show they had performed in the five years of performing The Last Waltz. I would tend to agree with his assessment, as there were spectacular performances by everyone involved with the production.
Of the guest musicians that performed at this fifth tribute, Cliff Starbuck and Chris Swanson are the only ones to have participated in all five annual shows. Their performances showcased why they’ve been asked back year after year.
The question now must be asked… what will they do for the sixth annual show to top the rest of the shows that came before? They keep raising the bar, proving that Columbus is full of great quality music and musicians that will give any other city a run for their money.
- James Wooster – vocals/acoustic guitar
- Wib Schneider – guitar
- Benny Coleman – bass
- Ryan Paradise – organ
- Michael Brokamp – piano
- Dave Freeman – drums
- Dave Wooster – backup vocals
- Tony Zilincik
- Tim Perdue
- Joe Loyer
- Tom Washenko
Setlist – Set One (guest artists in red)
- The Last Waltz Theme
- Up on Cripple Creek
- The Shape I’m In
- It Makes No Difference
- Who Do You Love? – Zach Whitney
- Life is a Carnival
- Such a Night – John Turck
- This Wheel’s on Fire
- Helpless – Dave Buker
- W. S. Walcott Medicine Show
- Stage Fright
- Dry Your Eyes – Eric Nassau
- Mystery Train – Matt Monta
- Mannish Boy – Barry Chern
- King Harvest (Has Surely Come)
Setlist – Set Two
- Rockin’ Chair – Cliff Starbuck
- All Our Pastimes – Mark Gonzalez
- Further on Up the Road – Mark Gonzalez
- Rag Mama Rag
- Genetic Method/Chest Fever
- Tura Lura Lural (That’s an Irish Lullaby) – Stephanie Rogers
- Caravan – Stephanie Rogers
- The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
The Last Waltz Suite (four songs)
- –> The Well
- –> Evangeline – Stephanie Jeffreys
- –> Out of the Blue
- –> The Weight – Stephanie Rogers
- Baby, Let Me Follow You Down – Chris Swanson
- I Don’t Believe You – Chris Swanson
- Forever Young – Chris Swanson
- Baby, Let Me Follow You Down (Reprise) – Chris Swanson
- I Shall Be Released – Ensemble
- ENCORE – Don’t Do It
Credit all images: Tom Bauer / MIMC