On Thanksgiving Day 1976, the original line-up of The Band took its final bow at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom, inviting an all-star roster of special guests for what would become one of the most revered concert films of all time. Thirty-seven years later, the Philadelphia music community came together to re-create The Last Waltz at the Trocadero, raising money for music education programs in the city while celebrating the iconic roots-rock band’s timeless songs.
Where the original Last Waltz was a grand finale, Philly’s version was always meant to be a beginning. Plans to make the concert an annual event were scuttled by the challenges of coordinating so many busy schedules (the 2013 show boasted a lineup numbering more than 75 musicians), but five years later “A Philadelphia Tribute to The Last Waltz” is being reprised this Friday night at Underground Arts.
“I think we needed some time to pass,” says Andrew Lipke, musical director for the event and “Robbie Robertson” for the night. “The last one was really magical. There was this instant desire to do it again, but a lot of work went into it. This is going to be a revisiting of that particular evening, but it’s going to be its own thing, too.”
This year’s show will once again bring together a who’s who of the Philly music scene, though pared down to a somewhat more manageable roster of 40 in keeping with Underground Art’s more intimate space. That still allows for an impressive evening of guests, including Chelsea Mitchell of Dirty Dollhouse singing Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote,” Joey Sweeney stepping in for Bob Dylan on “Forever Young,” Ross Bellenoit essaying Eric Clapton’s guitar solo for “Further On Up the Road,” Chris Kasper as Neil Young on “Helpless,” Casey Parker reprising his showstopping Van Morrison impression for “Caravan,” and not one but three Neil Diamonds.
The idea for a Philly Last Waltz was the brainchild of Fergie’s Pub proprietor Fergus Carey, who’d long been a fan of the original Martin Scorsese film. “Imagine being part of that in 1976,” he marvels. “Of course I was 13 and living in Ireland then, but I’d always thought of re-creating it.”
Fergie enlisted veteran booker Bryan Dilworth of Bonfire Entertainment and AEG Philadelphia to help make that dream a reality, while Lipke and guitarist Kevin Hanson were enlisted to assemble and lead the band. For the 2018 edition, Carey, Lipke, and Dilworth reconvened, this time with Derek Dorsey, talent buyer for Underground Arts. Friday’s concert features a blend of returning artists and new faces, with a core band that includes Lipke, Adam Flicker, Andrew Napoli, Nate Graham, and Matt Muir.
For Fergie, getting the band (or, more appropriately, “The Band”) back together means not only a chance to give back to the community but also to once again relive one of rock’s most magical nights. “The first show was a very proud moment,” he recalls. “A lot of the musicians told me it was the best night of their lives.”
It was important to everyone involved that the proceeds from the event once again benefit music in Philadelphia schools. This time, the benefactor is a School District of Philadelphia initiative to bring modern recording studio technology into the city’s educational programs.
“We have a lot of kids that are digital natives, that grow up with smartphones and iPads in their hands,” says Frank Machos, the district’s Director of Music Education (and former classmate of Lipke’s at the University of the Arts). “Creating and composing music using digital devices is more natural to them than picking up traditional instruments. So over the last couple of years we've started to integrate recording studios into our existing music programs, becoming a hub that allows us to bring together kids with business acumen and kids that are into engineering and tech with the creative side.”
“Philly is known for lots of crazy things, but the underlying aspect to most of those is community,” Lipke says. “We stick together and we’re strong together. The Band had this loose tightness, this raucousness where everything’s right on the edge of falling apart but doesn’t. The sense is that each individual is being themselves 100 percent, and how it fits together is what makes that magic combination. I think that’s similar to Philadelphia.”
A Philadelphia Tribute to the Last Waltz