There are few phenomena in the rock world stranger than the tribute band, an enterprise in which the parties involved are dedicated to quashing their own personalities and creativity in order to “become” another, iconic act.
The Last Waltz Tour 2019, which came to the Orpheum Theatre Sunday evening, was not that. It wasn’t a carbon-copy replication of an artist, but an homage to an event: the famous farewell concert performance by the Band 43 years ago on Thanksgiving Day 1976, an event whose fame was amplified by the triple LP and the Martin Scorsese film that followed.
Call it, then, a third cousin to the tribute act. Some of the trappings of the original concert were there, including a stage set that evoked its predecessor, complete with three chandeliers hanging overhead (no turkey dinner for attendees, though). The show opened and closed with the same songs, “Up on Cripple Creek” and “Don’t Do It” (the last song the original incarnation of the Band ever performed). And there were “special guests” in the form of Cyril Neville, Dave Malone, and Bob Margolin, to represent the multitude — Ronnie Hawkins, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, to name some of them — who joined the Band onstage four decades ago.
It wasn’t a song-by-song reiteration of the 1976 performance, however; that would have required adding at least a couple more hours to the three hours of music the audience heard on Sunday. Rather, it was a salute to the spirit of ’76, played by an all-star band that had the chops to do it: Warren Haynes, Lukas Nelson, and Jamey Johnson playing guitar and sharing vocal duties, John Medeski on keys, Don Was on bass, and Terence Higgins on drums, joined for most of the evening by an absolutely killer horn section, the Levee Horns.
Not surprisingly, Band songs played more-or-less the way the Band played ‘em was the dominant motif of the affair, from (of course) “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Stage Fright,” and “Life Is a Carnival,” to a rumbling “Chest Fever” (with the song’s famous mad-scientist organ intro echoed by Medeski) that led off the second set and an emotive “I Shall Be Released” that ended it. This band, like the Band, boasted three lead singers, with Haynes, Nelson, and Johnson trading off on some, Johnson standing in for Levon Helm on such fare as “Cripple Creek” and “Dixie” and Nelson’s reedy tenor taking the lead on “The Shape I’m In,” “King Harvest (Has Surely Come),” and others.
Songs played by that Thanksgiving Day guest roster received due recognition as well, via a suitably rollicking version of Van Morrison’s “Caravan” and a “Helpless” that saw Lukas Nelson channeling Neil Young’s quaver. But Sunday’s show also went off-script at times, mainly on its recapitulations of some of the other selections that the guest artists joined the Band to play. Sunday night, Cyril Neville of the Neville Brothers and Dave Malone of the Radiators turned Ronnie Hawkins’s relatively straightforward version of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love” into an eerie, swampy slowdown, and went New Orleans on the ’50s chestnut “Mystery Train.” And after playing Muddy Waters’s “Mannish Boy,” Bob Margolin — who, since he was on the Winterland Ballroom stage playing that song as a member of Waters’s band, constituted a direct link to the 1976 show — led a fine version of Eric Clapton’s “Further On Up the Road” that leaned bluesy. Those performances added a few wrinkles to an otherwise faithful, and joyful, re-creation of what the Band wrought.
Stuart Munro can be reached at email@example.com.
THE LAST WALTZ TOUR 2019
At the Orpheum Theatre, Nov. 10