Four decades later, Thanksgiving Day 1976 remains one of the most memorable days in the history of rock and roll.
That was the day The Band — Robbie Robertson (guitar), Garth Hudson (Lowrey organ, piano, keyboards, saxophones, accordion, horns), and the late Rick Danko (bass, violin, guitar), Levon Helm (drums, mandolin) and Richard Manuel (lead singer, piano, drums) — took the stage for the final time at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, surrounded by their friends and some of the biggest names in music, including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr. And that concert, immortalized by Martin Scorsese in the 1978 film “The Last Waltz,” remains one of the most influential ever, inspiring generations even today to carry on the music captured that night.
“It was a remarkable event,” says musician-producer Don Was. “At the time, I don’t think you could put a better show together than that. It’s hard to believe all those people were ever in the same city at the same time, much less be on the same stage.”
In honor of the 40th anniversary of “The Last Waltz,” Was and Allman Brothers Band guitarist Warren Haynes thought it would be fun to re-create the concert in New Orleans.
“We thought of it just as a one-off,” Was says. “It was a way to do something cool in New Orleans.”
After all, fun is what has led Was on his wildly eclectic career. Planning for the anniversary came in between producing the new Rolling Stones album, “Blue & Lonesome,” and his duties as president of the historic jazz label Blue Note Records. And yes, he’s the Was in Was (Not Was), which had the funky ’80s hit “Walk the Dinosaur.”
Was and Haynes assembled an all-star band to perform songs from the night, including keyboardist John Medeski and country singer Jamey Johnson. “The songs are so wonderful to play,” Was says. “They just roll off your fingers. . . . We had so much fun. It just seemed like a drag to stop.”
The reaction to the shows was so strong, with fans singing along to the songs from the start, that they immediately began planning a tour, which stops at NYCB Theatre at Westbury on Feb. 3. The band that will come to Westbury will include Medeski and Johnson, as well as singers Michael McDonald and Ivan Neville, former Muddy Waters guitarist Bob Margolin, and Bonerama trombone player Mark Mullins, who will be using the original horn arrangements done by the late Allen Toussaint.
“It’s going to be such a great tour,” Was says. “Every time Michael opened his mouth we were flipping out. His voice is just so inordinately powerful.”
Was says the songs are still potent today because The Band’s songwriting was so strong. “It’s all ideas that are beautifully written,” he says. “The chords and the melodies just flow naturally and are really soulful. Analysis just starts to fail.”
He says the music captured the zeitgeist of the time, but also something timeless.
“People who score movies know that there are certain scales that induce fear or make you cry,” Was says. “The Band weren’t soulful like that. They were just soulful and they tapped into a weird combination of notes that just give you this warm feeling.”
Many trace the recent rise of both Americana music and jam band improvisation to what was seen in “The Last Waltz” from The Band, from their hits like “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Weight” to the blues of Muddy Waters, from the searing guitar solos of Eric Clapton to the country of Emmylou Harris. Members of Americana heroes Wilco, Guster, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and others showed that love when they re-created “The Last Waltz” last November at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester. (Also last November, the New York Roots Music Association played “The Last Waltz” in East Northport, with more than 30 Long Island musicians picking up all the various parts.)
Was says “The Last Waltz 40” tour works to keep the improvisational spirit alive. “The songs just inspire us,” he says. “We find ways to improvise within the framework. The songs suggest so many things.”
“We get as close as The Band got,” Was adds, laughing. “They played the songs differently every night. I think that’s what makes this incredibly interesting for the musicians involved. We listen to what the other guys are doing and are influenced by that. We get swept away by it.”
Was says that even preparing for the tour brought out great memories. “We were so deep into it,” says Was, who also plays bass in the band. “I was learning these songs and it felt like when I was practicing in my bedroom as a teenager. I can’t wait to play them for people again.”