Bob Weir, Lucinda Williams, Dr. John & More Help Levon Helm Band Celebrate ‘The Last Waltz’: Review, Photos & Videos

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Words by: Scott Bernstein

Images by: Adam McCullough

The Last Waltz 40th Anniversary Celebration :: 8.6.16 :: Damrosch Park :: New York, NY

View Adam’s photo gallery after Scotty’s recap.

When it comes to grand finales, The Band sure did it right. Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel ended their career with a marathon, guest-filled concert they called The Last Waltz at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom on Thanksgiving Day 1976. With the 40th anniversary of The Last Waltz approaching, many tributes to one of the greatest concerts in rock history will be held. The bar was set high on Saturday night at Damrosch Park in New York City, where Helm’s longtime band was joined by an impressive array of guests to honor The Last Waltz.

Saturday’s concert was part of the long-running Lincoln Center Out Of Doors program in collaboration with the Americana Music Association and began with a set from one of the genre’s brightest up-and-coming stars – Parker Millsap. The Oklahoma native and his band impressed with their throwback sound and Millsap’s effervescent stage presence. All of the AmericanaFest NYC concerts were free, unticketed affairs and Damrosch Park filled to the brim during Parker’s set. It was an interesting mix of Deadheads looking to see what Bob Weir would contribute, The Band fans and Dylan freaks who seemed to be in a contest for who could wear a t-shirt with the most obscure reference to Bob’s music.

The house band for the main event was The Midnight Ramble Band, a group of musicians who backed Levon Helm for a period that spanned over a decade. Musical director Larry Campbell was The Band drummer’s closest collaborator during the final act of his legendary and often turbulent career. Campbell, his wife Teresa Williams, keyboardist Brian Mitchell, guitarist Jim Weider and a horn section that included Steven Bernstein, Howard Johnson and Erik Lawrence backed Levon hundreds of times both at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock and at locations across the globe. This is all to say no one is better suited to play the music of The Band in 2016 than The Midnight Ramble Band.

Despite the infamous animosity Levon held towards The Last Waltz, The Band’s finale is most certainly a concert worth celebrating. Helm’s issues mostly stemmed from the business side of the performance and a feud with Robbie Robertson that would last until Levon’s last days on this planet. Musically, outside of the addition of Neil Diamond, even Levon had to acknowledge it was a momentous occasion and was filled with way more magical moments than duds.

While the original Last Waltz featured over 40 songs, Saturday’s tribute was a more truncated affair which included 18 of the best tunes played on Thanksgiving ’76. It was an all-killer, no-filler version of The Last Waltz. Campbell led the Midnight Ramble Band for a string of “This Wheel’s On Fire,” “The Shape I’m In” and “Life Is A Carnival” to kick off the set. Drummer Shawn Pelton impressed in a tough role standing in instrumentally for Levon. He gave the music the verve and energy that helped separate The Band from the rest of the pack back in the late ’60s and ’70s. What also stood out were Allen Toussaint’s horn arrangements, which sound as fresh and original as they did when The Band unveiled them at the Rock Of Ages and Last Waltz concerts.

Guitarist/vocalist Buddy Miller was the evening’s first guest as he led The Midnight Ramble Band on both “Up On Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” The former was powered by Mitchell’s funky clavinet work, while the latter showed off Miller’s dynamic singing. British singer-songwriter Teddy Thompson, the son of Richard and Linda Thompson, displayed impressive pipes on a rousing “Ophelia” before Patti Griffin stepped into the role Emmylou Harris played 40 years ago on “Evangeline.”

One of the standout moments of The Last Waltz tribute came when young singer-songwriter Anderson East fronted The Midnight Ramble Band on “Caravan.” East has the frenetic energy that Van Morrison had 40 years ago and the 28-year-old vocalist won himself many new fans on Saturday night. It was then time to turn the spotlight on one of two musicians performing at the event who took part in the original Last Waltz – Howard Johnson. Campbell talked about HoJo’s close relationship with Levon and how the pair remained collaborators for over 40 years. Johnson’s tuba was brought out front for a raucous “Rag Mama Rag” that had even the most staid concertgoers on their feet.

Lucinda Williams received one of the biggest cheers of the night when she came out to sing “It Makes No Difference.” Her distinctive voice made for a vastly different version of the tune than the Danko-sung original. Campbell then took to the mic to say, “looky here, it ain’t none other than Bob Weir!” With that, Bobby emerged from side stage, large D’Angelico guitar in hand, for “Further On Up The Road.” There was lots of discussion among fans before the show about what role Weir would fill, but no one predicted he’d take the Eric Clapton song. However, Bobby filled the role perfectly, barking the lyrics with passion and throwing in his signature weird rhythms underneath Campbell’s fierce leads. Larry and Bob shared vocals on the tune.

The other musician on hand Saturday who performed at The Last Waltz was Dr. John. Mac may have moved slowly as he took his place on stage to a huge roar from the capacity crowd, but he hasn’t lost a step when it comes to his singing and piano playing. The good doctor reprised the “Such A Night” he performed at The Last Waltz and absolutely nailed it. Miller then returned to lead The Midnight Ramble Band on “Down South In New Orleans” before “Long Black Veil” showcased Teresa’s singing and “Genetic Method” > “Chest Fever” showcased Campbell and Weider’s guitar work. The evening came to a close with a pair of grand finales as everyone but Dr. John came out for “Forever Young” and the doc joined the fray on “The Weight.” The two-hour concert went by incredibly quickly thanks to the perfect pacing of the setlist. If Helm, Manuel and Danko were watching down from the great beyond even they must have been impressed with a tribute worthy of one of rock’s greatest nights.

Photos by Adam McCullough

Videos (Captured by LazyLightning55)

[Further On Up The Road]

[It Makes No Difference]

Setlist

Set: This Wheel’s On Fire, The Shape I’m In, Life Is A Carnival, Up On Cripple Creek (w/ Buddy Miller), The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (w/ Buddy Miller), Ophelia (w/ Teddy Thompson), Evangeline (w/ Patti Griffith), Caravan (w/ Anderson East), Rag Mama Rag, It Makes No Difference (w/ Lucinda Williams), Further On Up The Road (w/ Bob Weir), Such A Night (w/ Dr. John), Down South In New Orleans (w/ Buddy Miller), Long Black Veil, Genetic Method > Chest Fever, Forever Young (w/ everyone but Dr. John), The Weight (all)

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