The most valuable perspective is often one afforded to an outsider, and few bands have ever embodied the melange of musical styles now known as Americana as well as as the four-fifths Canadian group who had the self-confidence to call themselves The Band.
The quintet from north of the border that once included one Arkansan, in drummer and vocalist Levon Helm, cut its teeth as the Hawks behind rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, and later Bob Dylan. (The group spent the summer of 1965 as house band at Tony Mart’s in Somers Point, N.J. — but I digress.)
The group’s time intact as The Band spanned less than a decade, starting with Music From Big Pink in 1968 and The Band the next year, two masterworks that communicated a soulful wisdom that made counterculture contemporaries seem frivolous by comparison.
And it all came to a close on Thanksgiving Day 1976, with the Last Waltz, the farewell concert staged at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco that’s lived on thanks to a Martin Scorsese concert film that’s a classic of the genre.
Last Waltz tributes and re-creations have become a seasonal recurrence, as days grow short and trusted traditions treasured. A world-class touring version pulled into the Tower Theater on Friday for a deeply satisfying night in Upper Darby.
Kicking off with “Up on Cripple Creek” and concluding 3½ hours later — there was a brief intermission — the show featured a 13-piece all-star ensemble with three front men.
Those hirsute guitarist-vocalists were Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule, Lukas Nelson (Willie’s son and the leader of the Promise of the Real), and Jamey Johnson, the country singer who was the most impressive leonine of the trio.
The band behind them was staggeringly good.
John Medeski of jazz-funk jam band Medeski Martin & Wood was the sole keyboard player, kicking off the second set with Garth Hudson’s “Chest Fever” organ showcase and putting pep into “Rag Mama Rag” on piano.
Trombonist Mark Mullins led a horn section that made its welcome entrance on a swaggering “The Shape I’m In.” Producer and Blue Note Records president Don Was played understated bass, and was spotted with Haynes at a preshow meal at made-famous-by-Tina-Fey Pica’s Restaurant in Upper Darby.
Was locked down the groove with expert assistance from New Orleans drummer Terence Higgins, who wasn’t the only Crescent City contributor. Percussionist Cyril Neville and guitarist Dave Malone came off the bench to provide jolts of energy, with Neville taking lead vocals on “Down South and New Orleans” and Malone firing up “Who Do You Love?” Both contributed to a Dr. John tribute encore on “Such a Night.”
Let’s see, was that everybody? Nope, there was also Bob Margolin, the former Muddy Waters guitar player, who performed at the original Last Waltz. The septuagenarian bluesman was a ham, telling stories about bumping into Scorsese backstage and an epic back-at-the-hotel jam playing Robert Johnson songs with Dylan.
The Last Waltz tour, which is co-produced by Band guitarist-songwriter Robbie Robertson, is gender imbalanced, 13 to zero. There’s nobody to cover Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote” or Emmylou Harris’ “Evangeline.” The final two shows on the tour in St. Louis and Chicago later this month do feature honky-tonk heroine Margo Price. Quick, let’s book a flight.
Standing left to right, Nelson, Haynes and Johnson all handled themselves ably, as vocalists and instrumental soloists. Can they match up with Helm, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel? No, but who could?
Nelson’s youthful energy was welcome, his nasal tone recalling his dad. He did well by Dylan’s “Forever Young” and, in particular, “I Shall Be Released.” Haynes‘ tenor surprised with its sweetness. He held his own with Van Morrison’s “Caravan.” And Johnson’s sonorous baritone stood strong on “The Weight” and the opening of Neil Young’s “Helpless.”
But this wasn’t a show about individual contributions so much as the sum of its vibe — which was communal, warmhearted, and nostalgic. And well-suited to the storied Tower, the theater that is underutilized, particularly since the grander Met Philadelphia, also booked by promoter Live Nation, opened on North Broad Street last year.
Compared with that dramatic room, the Tower feels cozier and more intimate, though its capacity for 3000 is roughly the same. It felt like the right place for commemorating the landmark, soul-nourishing concert by The Band. Here’s hoping its own last waltz won’t be happening soon.