Four photos of men in band put together in one block, top left a white man with a brown beard playing a guitar and signing, top right a black man in a hat and goatee with plaid shirt and brown jacket leaning away from a mic while singing, bottom left a white man with grayish hair mouth wide open at mic and bottom right a bald man playing a guitar at a mic

Clockwise from left to right, James Wooster, Willie Phoenix, Eric Nassau, Matt Monta, PHOTOGRAPH CREDIT TO JOHNNY POLANSKY

On November 26, 1976, legendary Canadian-American rock group The Band performed their final concert at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. In addition to Rick, Robbie, Garth, Richard and Levon, the show featured a who’s who of rock royalty including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and others. The performance was filmed by Martin Scorsese, and subsequently was released as the concert film The Last Waltz. It is probably the greatest rock film of all time, and subsequent controversy makes it even better.

On November 17, 2017, Columbus put on its fourth annual tribute to the Last Waltz at the Newport Music Hall. As was the case with the original, a core group performed the role of The Band itself, playing 15 or so tunes featured in the movie and/or the soundtrack. In addition to these duties, they backed up a series of individuals impersonating the guest stars from Winterland. They were troopers for sure – I would think they were on stage for at least three and a half hours.

The event pretty much filled up the Newport, which is impressive at $19.00 a ticket. So much for my fantasy world where only I and a select group of initiates own the Music from Big Pink album. Or maybe there were so many guest stars that their family members alone were enough to pack the place.  Either way, it was a nice showing for Columbus. 

The band playing the Band (I know it’s confusing) had the classic setup of organ, piano, bass, drums, and guitar, with the only deviation being an extra guitarist. Both keys players used expensive, versatile, great sounding, and bright red Nord Keyboards, which presented a somewhat jarring visual on the left side of the stage. C’mon guys, if there was ever a time to schlep in a real piano and organ this was it. Richard Manual used to insist on a full grand piano, you could at least have dialed up a Yamaha. Or even a black sheet over your stand so the ladies don’t lust over your shapely kneecaps.

Tacky keyboards aside, it was great to hear these guys chewing through classics like “Cripple Creek,” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” It was even better when they hauled out the horns for a couple of tunes, including a nice rendition of “Ophelia.” It really is some of the best music ever written, and for these guys it was obviously a labor of love. 

There were some memorable guest stars as well. Bill Clark came up for an outstanding impression of Dr. John singing “Such a Night,” nailing the vocals, the feel, and the blues piano. Erica Hughes did a great version of Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote,” a criminally underappreciated song which isn’t easy to play or sing. Although he didn’t adopt the understatement of Muddy Waters’ original, I’d be lying if I told you that Willie Phoenix’s version of “Mannish Boy” was anything less than totally badass. Poor Eric Nassau got stuck with the godawful Neil Diamond tune “Dry Your Eyes,” and did the best job that anyone could possible do with it. 

The` best performance of the night was from Zach Whitney, who absolutely smoked “Who do you Love” as Ronnie “the Hawk” Hawkins. He killed it from the moment he yelled out “big time, big time!” stalking the stage like a cat and coaxing the band into their most ferocious playing of the night.

Not everything clicked. An anemic performance of Bobby Charles’ “Down South in New Orleans” missed out on the exuberance of the original. The guitarist playing Eric Clapton was both virtuosic and tedious on “Further on up the Road” (which, come to think of it, is pretty much what I think of Clapton himself). There was a desultory soulful version of “Georgia on My Mind,” which caused mandatory respectful silence. Someone near me took the opportunity to fire up a joint. 

There was some weirdness, including a guy with a lanyard and a tucked-in shirt performing what appeared to be an interpretive dance for five or six songs. There may have been a marriage proposal on the stage.  In fact, I’m pretty sure there was a marriage proposal on the stage. What the fuck, am I at a Blue Jackets game?  But whatever, you take the crunchy with the smooth.

Towards the end of the evening, both the band and I seemed to be running out of gas – I mean, these guys had been onstage for a long flipping time. Tribute shows tend to veer into the self-congratulatory at the end, so I took off before what I assumed would be the grand finales of “I shall Be Released” and “The Weight.” Seconds before I passed the no reentry point, I realized that I may have missed someone playing Dylan on “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” and maybe even Emmylou Harris on “Evangeline.” Goddamit -- maybe next year. 

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