Band Geeks: A Live Tribute to The Last Waltz

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Manley, Pulley, and Whalen - BLAKE BILLINGS
  • Blake Billings
  • Manley, Pulley, and Whalen
On Thanksgiving Day of 1976, one of the seminal groups of the ’60s and ’70s, the Band, held their farewell concert at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, two musicians who had been previously backed by the Band, were brought on board as special guest performers, and from there, the guest list swelled, growing to include Neil Young, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, the Staples Singers, and others. Robbie Robertson, the Band’s guitarist, recruited Martin Scorsese to film the event. The show included poetry readings, ballroom dancing, and even turkey dinners, which were served before the concert. The whole thing was called The Last Waltz, and it’s been regularly popping up on lists of the greatest concert films of all time ever since the its release in 1978.

Some fans of the Band might contend that the film focuses too much on Robertson, that the group’s break-up seems contrived, and that the performers and filmmakers were out of their minds on cocaine, but even the detractors would have to admit it’s a damn good concert film. And on Saturday, November 25th, Memphis-based space-rockers Glorious Abhor have assembled a group of musicians that includes HEELS and Chinese Connection Dub Embassy to pay homage to the Band with their second annual Memphis’ Last Waltz concert at the Hi-Tone.

“I booked the stage a year in advance,” Josh Stevens Glorious Abhor’s guitarist and vocalist says of 2016’s inaugural Memphis’ Last Waltz concert. Stevens had been toying with the idea of an homage show, tackling an entire album by a band, when he fell down a deep hole of Band music and lore. He immediately contacted the Hi-Tone and booked the venue, opting for Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, rather than holding the show on the holiday of gratitude and gravy itself.

Stevens’ plunge into the music of the Band was precipitated by an encounter with the Band’s former drummer, Levon Helm, who continued to tour and record until his death in April 2012. “I met him at Bonnaroo. I almost knocked him off the stage,” Stevens says. He was working sound production at the middle Tennessee music festival, and despite nearly ending the set before it began by causing an untimely tumble from the stage of the lead performer, Stevens says he was transfixed by Helm’s set, which sent him down the path of discovery that lead him to the Band.

Though Stevens is a somewhat late-in-life — if fervent — convert to the Church of the Band, not all his bandmates were as late to the show. “Jason [Pulley] is a wealth of music knowledge,” Stevens says of GA’s keyboard player and vocalist — and confirmed lifelong fan of the Band.

“I’ve grown up with the music of the Band and The Last Waltz since I was a child,” Pulley says. “The songs are a part of my DNA at this point, and Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson have had a big impact on my playing style.” That lifelong familiarity with the songs of the group has come in handy as Pulley, Stevens, drummer Taylor Moore, and bassist Mitchell Manley arrange the songs of The Last Waltz to be performed by a rotating cast of Memphis musicians that includes members of all three headlining groups, as well as some special guests. And Stevens says “we’ve almost doubled the set [from 2016].”

Whalen and Stevens - BLAKE BILLINGS
  • Blake Billings
  • Whalen and Stevens
Stevens wants to keep the set list under wraps until the show, but he says that at one point “in true Last Waltz fashion, we’re all going to be on stage at the same time.” And when it came time to pick the other performers, both in 2016 and for this year’s show, Stevens didn’t have to struggle with his deliberations.
“HEELS was a no-brainer,” Stevens says of the band led by vocalist/guitarist Brennan Whalen and drummer/vocalist/comedian Josh McLane. “I loved Glorious Abhor’s performance from start to finish,” Whalen says of last year’s show. But when it comes to highlights, the singer quickly mentions playing with an expanded band. “Josh and I hadn’t played as a full band for a while last year, so it was really fun playing with a couple guitars and harmonicas going.”

The Band’s use of different instrumentation and musical styles throughout their catalogue was one of their defining characteristics, and in Memphis’ Last Waltz, the audience can expect guitars, harmonicas, mandolins, and other instruments to change hands as the performers on stage adapt to try to conjure, for a night, the magic of that Thanksgiving in 1976.

“The songs don’t need anything,” Whalen says. “They just need to be played.”

Memphis’ Last Waltz featuring Glorious Abhor, HEELS, Chinese Connection Dub Embassy, Saturday, November 25th, at the Hi-Tone, 8 p.m. $10.


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