There’s a strong vibe of nostalgia in the air as the Bay Area classic rock crowd descends on the Masonic for the final show of the Last Waltz 40th anniversary tour. The tour in honor of the Band’s farewell performance at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom in 1976 is spearheaded by renowned guitarist Warren Haynes, who first staged the retro tribute performance in an evening show at the 2016 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Haynes and company apparently had too much fun to let it go as a one-timer and put together a cross country tour behind the show here in 2017.
The original show featured a slew of all-star guests including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, and Ringo Starr and was immortalized on film by director Martin Scorsese. This elevated the Band from rock stars to genuine “Celluloid Heroes” who can never really die, as the Kinks’ Ray Davies so poetically sang in his band’s classic tribute to the power of Hollywood. The film and its soundtrack are what really turned The Last Waltz into a pop culture legend, and so it seems fitting for the music to be delivered to a new generation of fans (as well as a good number of veteran fans who look old enough to have been present at the original performance.)
Haynes is probably modern rock’s greatest chameleon, leveraging a deep classic rock background and six-string skill set that makes him adept at performing music from a wide-ranging pantheon of rock’s most influential bands. This tour adds the Band to the list and it’s clear from the opening performance of “Up on Cripple Creek” that this will be an energetic affair. Anytime one can see Haynes with a four-piece horn section is guaranteed to be a treat, and even more so here with the horns featuring the original arrangements of the late great Allen Toussaint. That’s also just the basis for the core band along with fellow guitarist/vocalist Jamey Johnson, bassist Don Was, drummer Terence Higgins, and Haynes’ Government Mule bandmate Danny Louis on keyboards.
The audience is deeply familiar with the songs. Yet throughout the two set, nearly three hour show it feels like there’s a collective vibe in the air of re-discovering the manner in which the material can move the soul. “Georgia on My Mind” and “It Makes No Difference” are such soul stirring songs in the early part of the evening, mesmerizing the audience with a deep take on the country-tinged rhythm & blues that the Band helped pioneer.
Then there are the special guests, including two of the most influential singer/songwriters ever to come out of New Orleans in the form of Dr. John and Cyril Neville. Dr. John performed at the original Last Waltz and reprises his performance here on his hit “Such a Night” and “Down South in New Orleans”. The man has always had deep mojo and that presence still comes across in a vital way. The same is true for Neville, who has been on a career resurgence throughout this decade on tours with Galactic and his own Royal Southern Brotherhood. He stars here on a quasi-shamanic blues journey through “Who Do You Love”, contributing his ace percussion skills in addition to his soulfully transcendent vocals.
Another special guest lights up the stage when the inimitable Taj Mahal is called out to front several songs. The influential bluesman sits throughout his performance, but he’s still got his mojo working too. Perhaps the most electrifying rock ‘n’ roll moment in the show occurs with “Life is a Carnival”, with Haynes and the horns leading a charged performance that moves the Masonic into a celebratory dance party mode. “Mystery Train” is another gem, with Haynes stepping up from playing more of a conductor role for much of the night to lay down some of his ace slide guitar work. The classics keep flowing when Dave Malone from the Radiators appears to contribute vocals on Neil Young’s “Helpless” for one of the evening’s most poignant moments. Then there’s more full tilt rock with “This Wheel’s on Fire” as Haynes and company show how nimble they can be.
Another original Last Waltz performer is summoned in the form of Bob Margolin, who played guitar with the Muddy Waters Blues Band and contributes his slide skills on a trio of blues classics highlighted by “Mannish Boy”. Taj Mahal stars again when he fills Bob Dylan’s shoes on the anthemic “Forever Young”, arguably the song that most captures the spirit of the evening. There’s a number of aging musicians on stage and a crowd that leans older as well, but this music seems to provide a youth-preserving elixir for the soul.
The surprise of the night follows when the Band’s keyboardist Garth Hudson appears and performs an organ solo that veers between ambient and trippy, making the Masonic feel like church. A sensational ensemble performance of “The Weight” follows, featuring one of the evening’s most sublime moments as Neville takes the third verse. When he sings, “Go down, Miss Moses, there's nothin' you can say, It's just ol' Luke and Luke's waitin' on the Judgment Day”, he puts some extra emphasis on the “Judgement Day” phrase. It feels kind of like a journalistic broadcast amidst the tumultuous assault on human rights being waged by the Trump regime, resonating with a karmic power that just seems to fit the times. If only humanitarians like Neville and Haynes could be more influential on America’s twisted political leaders. Such musicians have long been the ones to shine a light on America’s darker underside.
Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” provides another zeitgeist ensemble moment as the second set keeps digging deeper into the cathartic power of music. “Chest Fever” and “Don’t Do It” provide another double dose of high octane rock, with the ensemble winning a well-earned ovation during the final bow. It’s been a night where rock’s past and present collide to bring a piece of history into the modern era, a rare and special treat.