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Columbus’ Finest Come Together for the 6th Annual Tribute to The Last Waltz

The final rehearsal for Columbus' 6th Annual Tribute to The Last Waltz

“Rock-n-Roll, yes, for sure, exactly.”
Martin Scorsese

In mid-October, as the leaves were turning color and autumn was in the air, I contacted James Wooster about covering Columbus’ 6th Annual Tribute to The Last Waltz. After catching up with each other, he asked if I would be interested in sitting in for the final full rehearsal for the show. Of course, I said yes, as the opportunity was too good to pass up.

With the show scheduled for the Newport Music Hall, I found myself driving to the rehearsal space on a cold evening ten days before the event on Friday, November 22. After retrieving all the accoutrements of my journalistic profession, I made my way up a dark alley toward the door of N8 Glass Music & Art Studio on Columbus’ Indianola Ave.

With the pavement ice covered, I nearly went ass over tea kettle before grabbing the doorknob to regain my balance. Not a very auspicious entrance, for sure. Luckily, no one was outside to witness my clumsiness.

James Wooster

Upon entering the studio, a calm feeling washed over me, as the space was more like a very large family/rec room, rather than a glass studio. I passed by a billiards table, making my way to what can only be described as a comfortable lounge area, replete with a love seat, rather large coffee table and a sectional U-shaped couch. Beyond this was a stage, with p.a. system and trussing hanging from the ceiling holding stage lights.

James Wooster spotted me as I shed my coat, walking up with the ever-present smile on his face. He’s the principal organizer of this event from its humble genesis at the Rambling House, to filling the Newport merely six years later. The tribute is based on the final concert by The Band, and Wooster brings together a collection of some of Columbus’ finest musicians.

I assuaged any trepidation he might have had about disruptions of the final rehearsal by telling him I promised to be low-key and unobtrusive. He also secured my commitment to not divulge any of the musical surprises they have planned for the show.

With musicians scheduled to be filtering in and out of the studio over the next four hours, I grabbed a cold beer from the refrigerator and kicked back in a comfortable rocking chair to soak up the music-filled atmosphere.

Stephanie Rogers

“I, like most people,” said vocalist Stephanie Rogers, “have been listening to the band since I was younger. I remember the first time I watched The Last Waltz I was 17. I was like ‘This is so cool!’, and being a musician that was very, very shy, I thought it was so cool that all these musicians got in the same room, just decided to have a party and play all of this great music. I couldn’t stop watching it and I’ve been obsessed ever since.”

Rogers took a few minutes to chat after she had finished rehearsing the songs she’ll be performing on Friday evening. This is her fifth appearance as a performer in the event, and she’s just as excited now as she was the first time she was asked to participate in the tribute.

“Any time you listen to The Band, everybody knows a song or two,” she said, “but when you really listen to all of it, it’s just such good music. The fact that they got all their good friends together to do something like this is just unheard of now.

“The first time I sang (in the tribute) it was just the Mavis Staples verse of The Weight. As time went on, I’ve gotten to do more songs.”

Rogers was superb last year, as I wrote about her performance of Caravan, “Even adding Van Morrison’s signature kick in the number, her performance brought a new dimension to the classic gem.”

One-half of the horn section

“The Band” you will see on the Newport stage is comprised of local musicians James Wooster, Wib Schneider, Ryan Paradise, Dave Freeman, Michael Brokamp, Benny Coleman and Dave Wooster. They’re accompanied on select songs during the show by a four-piece horn section, as well.

Looking up from my notebook, it struck me that the subtle, low-key lighting on the studio’s stage provided a warm, inviting atmosphere for the musicians honing their timing of the music for the show. Although this was the final rehearsal, the songs were not in the order of the original concert. Rather, they jumped around the setlist depending on which musicians were in the studio at any one time.

While there are many performers that have become staples of this tribute, Wooster is always on the lookout for artists that will add another layer of joie de vivre to the event.

Dave Buker, founder of Dave Buker & The Historians, will performing in his fourth tribute to The Last Waltz (including one summer performance). His wife, Leanna, is also performing in the show, and she was at the studio, too.

Dave & Leanna Buker
from the 2018 show

“I remember the first time I watched The Last Waltz,” Buker said after wrapping up his numbers, “and being able to pay tribute to that is just special. The other part (that’s special) is everybody who’s performing, all the people that put this together and how much work goes into it. It’s great to meet and see people we haven’t seen in a long time, and to share a stage with them. So, it’s the communal aspect and paying tribute that means something to me as a musician.”

I was curious as to whether musicians get excited to play with so many other musicians on one stage for an event such as this. His eyes immediately lit up as the question was put to him.

“It means a lot to share the stage with people that feel the same way about these songs,” he said, “and are willing to take the time to do it right, and to pay tribute in the right way.”

Zach Whitney performs “Who Do You Love?” in 2018

Midway through the evening, the assembled musicians had run through all the songs requiring the horn section, packing up their instruments before shuffling out of the studio. While they would normally do a single run-through for each song, at times they would stop what song they were working on to fine-tune small sections before moving on to the next one.

As the familiar smell of sage wafted through the studio, Zach Whitney finished his number, and then ambled his way across the space to where I was ensconced in the rocking chair. We remarked to each other that even though this was a rehearsal, the music reverberating around the room was magical.

“It’s indescribably cool,” said Whitney of participating in the show. “The level of talent that The Band brought to The Last Waltz… to think, in any way, that I’m special enough to be part of this as those guests were special enough to be part of the original, it’s humbling. You’ve got to pinch yourself. I’m so grateful to be involved.”

2019 marks the third year that he’s performed as part of the tribute, also doing one of the summer shows. In 2018 for the 5th annual show, Whitney embodied the spirit of Ronnie Hawkins from The Last Waltz, as related in my review of last year’s show. “While staying very true to the original, Whitney portrayed a modern-day version of Ronnie Hawkins, right down to the cowboy hat and snarls.”

The question was begging to be asked about who’s idea it was to have Whitney portray The Hawk on the song Who Do You Love?

“It was his decision to do it,” he said of Wooster asking him to sing the Ronnie Hawkins part in the show. “I feel like it’s a good part for me.”

Columbus’ 6th Annual Tribute to The Last Waltz

I would have to agree wholeheartedly with that statement. All the musicians participating in the show are excellent, all while paying homage to the original. You can tell they’re having fun on stage, with smiles running from ear-to-ear on everyone.

If you’re a fan of The Band, you do not want to miss this show on Friday, November 22 at the Newport Music Hall. The musicians are top-notch, the songs of The Band are wonderful, and the atmosphere is electric.

The craftsmanship and practice Columbus’ local musicians put into this event are second to none, and I would put them up with any of the myriad “Last Waltz” tributes throughout the country.

Whitney encapsulated the drive of everyone involved with one simple sentence.

“It’s something where you have to do a good job if you want to keep being asked back.”

Ed. ~ Zach Whitney joined us for our most recent podcast. Listen HERE

Part 1 of Columbus’ 4th Annual Tribute to The Last Waltz

Credit all images: Chad Kessler and Tom Bauer / MIMC

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