Thursday, June 14, 2007

In The Spotlight

The Last Waltz Ensemble
State Theatre
Falls Church, VA
June 10, 2007

On November 25, 1976 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, Martin Scorsese directed the filming of the last concert by the original members of The Band. Known as The Last Waltz, he captured their now legendary performance with seven state of the art 35 mm cameras manned by some of the best cinematographers in film. On June 10, 2007 at the State Theatre in Falls Church, VA, I attended a performance by The Last Waltz Ensemble, armed with a four year old Canon 3.2 mega pixel digital camera, paper and pen, and an increasing excitement to witness some of my favorite songs performed live in concert.

On that fateful Thanksgiving night, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel were joined on stage by some of the greatest musicians and singers in rock n’ roll history, many of whom they had befriended over the course of their short historic career, including Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, and Joni Mitchell. The ensuing live album and concert movie, which were recorded that night in San Francisco, have gone on, along with the studio album ‘Music From Big Pink’, to become the standout artifacts from The Band’s musical output. It has amassed and inspired countless fans and musicians. This includes the members of Atlanta-based, The Last Waltz Ensemble. Much like Dark Star Orchestra has done for The Grateful Dead, The Machine for Pink Floyd, and The Fab Faux for The Beatles, performing the songs of another artist without the stereotypical “tribute band” baggage, these musicians prove on a regular basis that they have the talent to bring in fans both for the songs they interpret and the tremendous musical talent they bring to the table themselves. The Last Waltz Ensemble does this for The Band. And their formation is highly welcome by me and, once word spreads about how good their live show is, countless other Band fans who will soon be lining up for the same opportunity.

As someone who never got to see The Band live, I was more than excited to read that The Last Waltz Ensemble was coming to the State Theatre. Having discovered The Last Waltz film upon viewing it for the first time on VHS in 1997, and at this point after many viewings, I would consider myself to be more than a fan and more than knowledgeable about its songs and history. I arrived last Sunday night ready to be critical of this band’s performance, but more so, I was ready to enjoy these songs that I’ve heard so many times performed in front of me for the first time.

With the pre-show music of Dr. John fading down and a crowd of people anticipating the start of the concert, the Last Waltz Ensemble walked out to their places, introduced themselves as being from Atlanta and introduced the first song as being by Bob Dylan. They began this first set with his “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” and I was instantly smiling, tapping my foot, and nodding my head in approval. For those of you scoring at home, this song was not performed at The Last Waltz. Despite their moniker, they do not only perform songs from The Last Waltz (although it is their primary pool of songs to choose from) and they do not perform every song from The Last Waltz each night. According to their website, they do have the entire night’s songs in their repertoire, but they pick and choose for each of their performances, which for me is just fine since I was not able to predict what their next song would be. On this night, featuring three guitarists, a bassist, a drummer, and a keyboardist, it was quickly evident that The Last Waltz Ensemble was highly proficient musicians and great fans of the music they were playing. They were enjoying being on stage just as much as we were enjoying the concert from our tables in the crowd. I got the feeling that they would have had just as much fun and played with just as much passion if they were playing for each other in a garage. Highlights from the first set include Dr. John’s “Such A Night,” featuring keyboardist Jason Fuller’s spot on vocal impression of the Doctor’s raspy Cajun drawl, The Band’s own “The Weight” featuring four-part harmony from the Ensemble, and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” featuring a passionate solo by guitarist Benji Shanks.

After a short set break, the band returned to the stage and nailed one of my Last Waltz favorites, “Stage Fright.” Ensemble leader Kris “Jelly Roll” Gloer, in the Rick Danko role, sang this number eliciting the same vocal passion that is the song’s trademark. Jason aided with some nice piano fills and Benji stepped up again for a searing Robbie Robertson-like solo. This set also included a Last Waltz Ensemble original number that was surprisingly not out of place amongst the well known hits. It featured an organ-led intro, a well executed wah-wah guitar solo, and a catchy sing along chorus that was certainly inspired by Dylan and The Band. This set also contained the highlight of the show in “King Harvest.” Not featured in The Last Waltz movie, this song is one of my favorites in The Band’s catalog. Benji pulled out the slide for this tune, channeling Warren Haynes throughout, and the group closed out the song with an Allman Brothers-worthy climax and outro. The second set was completed with The Band’s best love song, “It Makes No Difference” and Little Richard’s “Slippin’ and Slidin'.”

While the group left the stage prior to the encore, the now raucous crowd was cheering, hollering, and calling out requests for those songs that we all knew were not yet played. “Mystery Train” got the most shout outs, but it would be “Don’t Do It” and “Caravan” that would get the nod. Guitarist Mark Kramer took lead vocals on this closing Van Morrison number, put in the needed energy, instructed us on turn up our radio, but inexcusably left out Van’s famous punctuating kicks! However minor, I consider this to be one of the lone faults of the entire performance. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Last Waltz Ensemble’s fully capable rhythm section in bassist Eric Reed and drummer Kevin Rutschman.

All in all, this ensemble met my expectations and then some.

Set 1:
Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You
Time To Kill
You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
Further On Up The Road
Such A Night
The Weight

Set 2:
Stage Fright
Caledonia Mission
The Shape I’m In
?? (Last Waltz Ensemble Original)
Up On Cripple Creek
King Harvest
It Makes No Difference
Slippin’ and Slidin’

Don’t Do It

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