On Saturday night at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco, a group of mostly indie-rock artists from Brooklyn – and their friends and heroes – all converged on stage for a three and a half hour tribute to the Band’s swan song, The Last Waltz, which originally took place on Thanksgiving 1976, also in San Francisco. Dubbed The Complete Last Waltz, the evening featured all 41 songs performed at the original concert (only some of which made the final cut for the accompanying, famed concert film) complete with special guests, such as Wilco’s Nels Cline performing the role of Eric Clapton. The original concert had more than a dozen such cameo appearances from marquee artists including, in addition to Clapton, Bob Dylan, Dr. John, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters and Neil Diamond.
It was precisely those moments with the special guests that provided so many of Saturday night’s highlights, be it Scott McMicken from Dr. Dog invoking Bob Dylan (“Forever Young”), Marco Benevento giving his hair-raising version of Dr. John (“Such a Night”) or Eric Johnson from the Fruit Bats doing his best Van Morrison (“Caravan”).
“I knew Johnson would kill the Van Morrison stuff,” musical director Sam Cohen of the Yellowbirds told Rolling Stone during a rehearsal day earlier in the week. “He has this one melodic turn that always reminded me of Van Morrison, and I asked him about it one night. He told me that it wasn’t intentional but that it was completely in his DNA. This was before there was talk of doing this concert or anything.” Well . . . it worked.
And of course, having Nels Cline perform as Eric Clapton also worked. He didn’t struggle with his guitar strap, as Clapton is caught doing in the film, but as all the musicians have stressed, this wasn’t supposed to be a recreation. It was a living tribute. So, for Clapton’s “All Our Past Times,” Cline led the band through a slightly rearranged version of a song that Clapton originally led the Band through.
“To be blunt, it’s not really the greatest song and it’s not like the greatest stuff got played on it, either,” Cline told Rolling Stone, during rehearsal. “Robbie [Robertson] tries to do his thing and Clapton kind of takes his turn, but he was feeling really laid back or whatever. We’re going to do a slightly different take on that song. . . . These guys are not going to be super reverent to the point where we’re going to do some kind of weird Xerox of the music and the event. It has to have a life of its own.” And that it did.
Jocie Adams of the Low Anthem took a turn as Joni Mitchell and also performed on Neil Young’s “Helpless.” It was a moment that really captured the American spirit of the Band while demonstrating how to play without replicating, how to pay tribute without ripping off and how to honor something old by making it something new.
Throughout the evening’s many turnovers, which included Cass McCombs (“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”), Ian Ball of Gomez (“Rag Mama Rag”), Trixie Whitley (“Who Do You Love”) and Jason Abraham Roberts of Norah Jones’ band, the core house band proved heroes in their own right, featuring Cohen and Josh Kaufman from the Yellowbirds, Dave Dreiwitz (Ween), Joe Russo (Furthur), Marco Benevento, Scott Metzger (Wolf!), Alecia Chakour (Warren Haynes Band) and the Antibalas horns – along with others weaving in and out in fluid motion, perpetually, throughout the evening. All in all, it was mostly a group of Brooklyn buddies – working-class musicians, really – going for it on a working-class classic that they all grew up on.
“It was a beautiful night,” Furthur’s Joe Russo told Rolling Stone afterwards. But of course he’d say that; Not only did he get to perform the music that inspired him, but he got to do so in the role of one of his all-time heroes – Levon Helm – while another hero of his – Nels Cline – shared his mic on “I Shall Be Released.” That song, used during the encore, featured a reprise of the entire ensemble – with the entire audience singing along. Beautiful, indeed.