In 1976, I was sixteen years old and living in Asheville, NC where I grew up. Thanks to my two older brothers I had been exposed to a lot of great music, starting at a very young age, which included soul music, rock, blues, and jazz, and that would eventually include music by The Band. Being too young to really “get” Music From Big Pink when it came out in 1968 (I was eight years old), I would gradually discover The Band’s music over the next few years and, as was the case with so many great bands and artists, I would work my way backwards to discover their early works.
The lyrics were coming from a place that was inspired by, and part of, a new movement of storytellers who came through the door that Bob Dylan, their former boss, had kicked down. But the musical backdrops were more ambitious and robust. Landscapes of musical styles mixed together in an extraordinarily fresh fashion and built on an uncanny chemistry and combination of elements provided a new foundation and concept for a “rock” band.
In addition to the normal guitar, bass, and drums set-up, The Band had two keyboard players which broadened the horizons of possibilities and created a whole new sound that was less guitar-driven at a time when guitar ruled the universe. Garth Hudson, who also played sax, possessed an extraordinary overall musical knowledge and added a carnivalesque sense of sound textures and melodic patterns that were often rooted in the history of, not just rock and roll, but music itself. This was the perfect foil for Richard Manuel’s more conventional but still genre-defying and soulful style of keyboard playing and the two formed a union greater than its’ parts.
The Last Waltz
The Band also had three great lead vocalists, each with distinctively unique voices, that could harmonize in a way that few bands could. Rick Danko’s clear tenor voice was a beautiful counter to Richard’s darker, more sultry pipes and Levon Helm’s gravelly, Southern twang and his bass playing was unconventional and tuba-like, often playing counter-melodies rather than typical bass lines. Levon, as the singing drummer, understood the importance of groove and tempo as only a great singer can and laid down the fattest pocket this side of New Orleans while Robbie Robertson’s words, melodies, and aggressively understated guitar style provided the centerpiece and focus that the arrangements and performances were built around. Each member brought to the table something different, and the world discovered a new style of music that, to this day, can only be described as – The Band. On Thanksgiving of 1976 they played their final show at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco where they had made their debut in 1969.
In 1978, The Band released a documentary film entitled “The Last Waltz” which was directed by legendary director Martin Scorsese and captures this historic memorable show. What apparently started out as a concert with no special guests had first evolved into a show that would include guest appearances by Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan (Hawkins being their early employer and mentor and Dylan being the one who launched their success by hiring them as his back-up band and dubbing them simply The Band) and would eventually grow into the biggest star-studded event of its time. Bringing on the legendary concert promoter Bill Graham to run point they invited – in addition to Dylan and Hawkins – Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Paul Butterfield, Bobby Charles, Dr. John, Neil Diamond, Emmylou Harris, Ringo Starr, Neil Young, the Staples Singers, and Muddy Waters (who brought along Bob Margolin and Pine Top Perkins), all backed up by The Band and augmented by an all-star horn section playing horn charts written by legendary New Orleans musician/songwriter/producer Allen Toussaint. Other luminaries such as Carl Radle and Steven Stills showed up as part of an impromptu jam that took place before the final encore. Uncannily, each of these uniquely amazing artists were not only highly revered at that time but their music would eventually prove to be timeless in the same way that The Band’s music did. The performances that transpired on that magical night were astounding and historical. This film became the template for future rock and roll documentaries and for star-studded events to come.
A few years ago, I was approached by Don Was and Keith Wortman of Blackbird Productions to see if I was interested in being part of and helping to put together the cast for an official Last Waltz tribute with Robbie Robertson’s blessing and support. Normally that’s not something I would gravitate towards – doing a whole show of someone else’s music – but given my admiration for The Band, my reverence for “The Last Waltz,” and my close relationship with Levon Helm, with whom I shared the stage many times, I considered it and accepted. As someone who was fortunate to have played with four of the five members of The Band (Richard unfortunately had died before I had the opportunity) and who has performed, at this point, as part of dozens of Last Waltz tribute shows along with special guests such as Dr. John, Emmylou Harris, Taj Mahal, Michael McDonald, Vince Gill, Nathaniel Rateliff, Jamey Johnson, Dave Malone, Bob Margolin, Darius Rucker, Lukas Nelson, Kathleen Edwards, Cyril Neville, Ivan Neville, Anders Osborne, and Margo Price, I can honestly say that The Band’s music has aged like fine wine as has all the music represented here by the amazing guest artists.
It’s very rare that music, even music that was made in its genre’s “golden era,” remains even more valid and timeless than it was when it was originally conceived but that is definitely the case here. It’s no wonder that every Thanksgiving all across the country there are dozens of Last Waltz tributes being played in all sizes of venues. As a singer who has sung those songs, as a guitar player who has played those songs, and as a songwriter who has studied those songs, my appreciation, love, and respect for that music continues to grow. I was a fan as a teenager but am a fan twelvefold as we speak. “The Last Waltz” performances and the way that night was captured stand out in my mind as being “time-capsule good.” – WH
About Warren Haynes:
Warren Haynes (born April 6, 1960) is an American musician, singer and songwriter. He is best known for his work as a longtime guitarist with the Allman Brothers Band and as a founding member of the rock band Gov’t Mule. Early in his career, he was a guitarist for David Allan Coe and The Dickey Betts Band. Haynes is also known for his associations with the surviving members of the Grateful Dead, including touring with Phil Lesh and Friends and the Dead. In addition, Haynes founded and manages Evil Teen Records. His most recent album with Gov’t Mule is Peace…Like A River.
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