Words by Jeff Nelson
Images by Rick Carr
On November 22, the Newport Music Hall was once again transported to 1976 for Columbus’ 6th Annual Tribute to The Last Waltz. The floor was almost completely bare, but as soon as the first few notes of The Last Waltz Theme came over the speakers, it was filled with people. They lined the edge of the balcony and flocked toward the stage as “The Band” took the stage.
I’d like to take a moment and talk about the people that made this night possible for the sixth year in a row, and probably six more years to come. It was not the titular band, nor the incredible local guest musicians that were peppered in throughout the evening. The real stars of the night were all the fans that filled the Newport until well after midnight on a Friday night. I took my parents to the show, because it was my dad that introduced me to The Band, and he loved it. I asked him a couple of questions after the show about his experience with The Band in general.
“I kind of got into them in the late 80s during my Southern Rock times,” he said, “back when I was listening to The Eagles, McGuffey Lane, The Allman Brothers, and The Outlaws, and to me, their sound always felt like a precursor to these bands that I loved. I found them as a result of branching out from these southern rock bands I listened to.”
I followed up by asking what he thought of the show, and how it met his expectations as a fan. “I thought the musicianship was so much better than I expected. That was definitely one of the things I was surprised by. I know that there is a great music scene in Columbus, but I really didn’t think the musicianship was going to be as good as it was. I think that part was so far above what I imagined.”
At this point my mother chimed in, letting me know that we have started a new family tradition of going to this show every year. Dad said his favorite song of the night also caught him by surprise, which was Stephanie Rogers’ incredible rendition of Caravan. He punctuated our conversation by saying “I just can’t get over how many young people are into The Band, that’s awesome.”
This brings me to a very interesting point that even caught me off guard. The average age skewed a lot lower than I expected, especially closer to the stage. There’s something cool about watching a large group of people vibe to music that was made before they were even born. Now add in people vibing to those same songs that they listened to in college and high school, that’s when you’ve got something incredibly special. I stopped to talk to a group of people around my age to get a feel for what brought them out to a tribute show for a band that stopped touring over forty years ago.
Ben Manofsky gave me a little insight on his experience with The Band. “Someone showed me the DVD when I was probably in middle school and I’ve been a huge ‘The Band’ fan since. I saw the first year and twice since then, and every year I try to convince more people to come with me. The movie has been on Netflix and Amazon Prime since they started, so it’s easier than ever to show people the movie and get them hooked, and this show just gets better every year.”
Next, I asked a young woman named Lydia what had brought her here, and she told me how she grew up with a radio DJ for a father, so she has always had a more diverse music environment. When some of her friends in local bands said they would be in the show, she had to start going. “I feel like live music is always evolving, and so I’m really excited to see how things change from the last time I saw it.”
The last person I spoke to before the lights went down and the show started was Jay Larkin, who told me he watched the Martin Scorsese movie with his family every year on Thanksgiving, but this was his first time seeing the tribute. He said he wanted to come in with an open mind and no expectations, and that he was bursting with excitement to see what the performers do with the music that has meant so much to him.
Once the music stated, the entire crowd was dancing along to every song, and they didn’t stop until intermission, if they stopped at all. Every guest that walked onto the stage was met with thunderous applause, and when the horn section added a Sousaphone for “Rag Mama Rag,” I’ve never seen so many people get so excited about a Sousaphone in Columbus outside of Ohio Stadium.
Something that multiple people mentioned to me was how much fun the people on the stage were having, and it was infectious. At one point a guest’s guitar wasn’t working, and even while trying to fix the problem, the tech crawling all over the floor with chords was smiling and singing along. This show means a hell of a lot to a lot of people.
I talked to two gentlemen during intermission that had been singing along to every song. This was their first time seeing the show, and they both mentioned how surprised they were by how great the musicians were. One of them said his dad introduced him to The Band when he was about five and he’s been a huge fan ever since, and he felt they were doing their legacy justice.
Then I spoke to Rod Ebright, James Wooster’s father in law. He told me he’s been to every show other than the first year, and how it has evolved over the last half decade. “Every year I think they can’t get any better, and they always figure out a way to top themselves.”
I met Rob and Caroline Rau, a couple who had been to the last three shows. Rob told me how important The Last Waltz has been to them. “The Last Waltz has kind of been a thread through our relationship, we came home one New Year’s Eve and it was on and ever since then that’s become a tradition for us.”
Caroline saw the flyer three years ago and told Rob they needed to go, and they’ve been coming to the show every year since then. “I feel like they do a great job of both a tribute and putting their own spin on things, you can tell the musicians love the music they’re performing, and that makes it so much more special. When we first saw them, they kind of did a recreation of the movie, and it has evolved into more of a tribute to The Band rather than just The Last Waltz.” When I asked if they knew any of the band members, Caroline told me they didn’t at first, but now they have started following local bands because of the performers in the show.
It is evident that this show means so much to every person in the venue, from the fans on the floor to the guests that come on for one or two songs. It was a very special evening, to see people of all ages coming together to celebrate the legacy of a band that stopped touring over four decades ago. I could write three more pages about how wonderful this night was, and what it meant to the people there, but I cannot stress enough, you need to experience it for yourself.
If you are free around the third weekend in November of next year, do yourself a favor, and come see The Last Waltz… even if you’ve never heard The Band, or seen the movie, or have any interest in 70s rock and roll. Because the show is more than just a tribute to The Last Waltz, and it is even more than just a tribute to The Band.
This show is a culmination of what Columbus has to offer with our local music. It is essentially a Columbus talent show where every new person that walks on stage is as great as the last. You will see no less than twenty-four local musicians just having an absolute blast on stage, and they will get you dancing and singing along within a few songs.