On Saturday, an all-star lineup of mostly indie musicians will come together at San Francisco's Warfield Theater to perform "The Complete Last Waltz," a tribute to the Band's marathon farewell concert. The players will include Nels Cline of Wilco, Dave Dreiwitz of Ween, Joe Russo of Furthur, Erick Slick and Scott McMicken of Dr. Dog, Ira Elliot of Nada Surf, Jason Abraham Roberts of Norah Jones' band, Cass McCombs, Trixie Whitley and Marco Benevento.
The original Last Waltz was held just across town at the now-defunct Winterland Ballroom on Thanksgiving night, 1976. That affair began in the late afternoon with a turkey dinner and ended well past 2 a.m., some 41 songs later. By the end of the night, the Band had welcomed more than a dozen special guests to help them go out with a bang, among them Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan and Neil Young. Director Martin Scorsese documented the night on film, creating one of the great rock & roll movies of all time.
"The movie is pretty ingrained in me," the Yellowbirds' Sam Cohen tells Rolling Stone. "I've watched it probably 100 times." Cohen, who will serve as musical director, says the night will honor the spirit of the original concert by keeping things loose and open-ended, with some room for spontaneity – even though the set list will stick to all 41 songs from the historic show. Turkey dinner will not be served.
For Furthur drummer Joe Russo, the evening will be a chance to perform in the role of his hero, Levon Helm. Before Helm passed away earlier this year, Russo had the pleasure of meeting and performing with him, at one of the Rambles that Helm held at his barn in Woodstock, New York. That experience, Russo tells Rolling Stone, was life-changing. "He just had this air about him that he was elevated," says Russo. "More elevated than the rest of us."
Russo says producer Ramie Egan of Golden Gate Presents had the idea for "The Complete Last Waltz" before Helm passed, and the event was designed to be a tribute to the original concert – not just the film and not just the drummer. Still, Russo says, "I think anything anybody does is a tribute to Levon at this point, regardless of if it's even a Band song. I think everybody offers up a little something to Levon every night."
Another of Russo's top musical heroes, Wilco's Nels Cline, will be on hand performing in the role of Eric Clapton. Cline tells Rolling Stone that taking on such a part is not something he would usually even consider, but something about the show just felt right to him.
"A lot of these people are in bands that have either played with Wilco or that I've heard – a lot of really good players," says Cline. "I think that's when I realized that I made a good decision. Because it's not like a lot of super obvious, dinosaur people; it's a lot of really great younger players who really know how to play this music. I feel like I am the dinosaur on the list, coming in here as the old man, as it were, and trying to rip it up on the guitar."
Cline and the aforementioned musicians will also be joined by members of the Fruit Bats, the Low Anthem, Antibalas, Gomez, Vetiver, the Long Winters, the Warren Haynes Band, Wolf!, the Lonely Forest and others. Additionally, actors Michael Gladis (Mad Men), Beth Behrs (Two Broke Girls), and Mike Kelly (House of Cards) will perform spoken word.
All the musicians who spoke to Rolling Stone during a recent rehearsal day emphasized that the show will be a tribute – but not an exact replica – of the original Last Waltz. "This is not going to be some totally archival thing," Cline says. "It's going to actually be a living thing."