By Paul Robicheau
To hear a 13-piece ensemble of this caliber, doing justice to these great songs, was simply hard to beat.
The Last Waltz retains mythical status. The Band’s 1976 farewell performance became a star-studded event that lives on as arguably the greatest concert film ever made, since director Martin Scorsese spliced together its delicious sprawl.
It’s impossible to recast the magic of the original five-hour Thanksgiving show that graced San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. The Band’s not around to anchor any resurrection and such high-wattage guests as Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Eric Clapton aren’t about to reprise their roles either.
However, The Last Waltz 40 Tour that lit up Boston’s Orpheum Theatre on Sunday (with chandeliers and faux windows nodding to the original staging) delivered about the best approximation possible with a thoughtfully assembled production. It only roughly followed the 1976 setlist in trimming the show to three hours, sporting largely the same cast as the 40th anniversary tour that also hit the Orpheum in January 2017.
Warren Haynes (Gov’t Mule, the Allman Brothers Band) centered a solid front line with country outlaw Jamey Johnson and newcomer Lukas Nelson from Promise of the Real (Neil Young’s backing band of choice) to trade lead vocals and guitar turns. And the backline boasted vaunted producer Don Was on bass, New Orleans ace Terence Higgins on drums, standout John Medeski on keys, and a robust four-man horn section.
However, the sum equaled more than the parts during an hour-plus first set that begged for parts of the well-balanced ensemble to take more assertive roles. The opening salvo of “Up on Cripple Creek” seemed like a reverent warmup. The first resonant moment arrived a few songs later with Johnson’s hickory-thick croon through “Georgia (on my Mind),” which included the night’s first incisive guitar solo – not from anticipated hotshot Haynes but from Nelson. Nelson co-wrote songs for the remake of A Star is Born and played in Bradley Cooper’s fictional band, and much like Lady Gaga wowed in that film, Nelson continues to wring dynamics and emotion from most every lick or lyric he delivers to unsuspecting audiences.
Cyrille Neville, sparsely tapping timbales and cowbell, and Radiators guitarist Dave Malone joined for the horn-carved groove of “Down South in New Orleans” and a brooding, extended take on Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?” that became the set’s high point once the electric guitars oozed into play alongside trombone and organ. An audience sing-along helped power “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” into the break.
The better-constructed second set began with Johnson’s solemn solo rendition of “The Marines’ Hymn” to mark Sunday’s birthday of the U.S. Marine Corps. Then Medeski evoked The Band’s Garth Hudson, commanding an organ soliloquy of ghostly genetic tones that slid into a hefty “Chest Fever,” where Haynes dug into gnarly guitar and faced off with Nelson. Haynes, who’s long covered Van Morrison in his own groups, continued to mine comfortable terrain by singing “Caravan,” cuing both musicians and fans with the song’s “Turn it up!” exhortations.
“Life Is a Carnival” and “Ophelia” lightened the ride before Johnson, Nelson, and Haynes each took a verse of Neil Young’s “Helpless.” Nelson locked into a high warble that reminded both of his dad Willie and Young, bringing the song to life, though also striking an awkward contrast to the others’ even-toned harmonies.
“Steady Rollin’” Bob Margolin (who played with Muddy Waters at the original Last Waltz) nearly stole the show when he emerged for Waters’s “Mannish Boy” with harp buddy and fellow Boston bluesman Richard “Rosy” Rosenblatt. Compared to the other guitarists, Margolin favored raw abandon, growling on both slide guitar and vocals, even stalking across the front of the stage. He roared in call-and-response with both fans and a startled Johnson. They all kept rolling with “Caledonia” and “Further on Up the Road,” where Haynes took the lead (the uncharacteristic Stratocaster he favored all night was in Clapton’s signature gray), the blues segment proving both a high point and an eventual drag on the show’s momentum.
But it was time for the home stretch, and “Forever Young” gave Nelson the urge to lift his cowboy hat (which hid his face from the lights most of the night) into the air and let howl. And when Margolin, Neville, and Malone returned to add their voices to a hearty rendition of “The Weight” and a majestic set-closing of Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” it didn’t matter that those standards have become so overplayed as covers. As the gang sang in “Such a Night” (dedicated to recently departed Last Waltz alum Dr. John), “If I don’t do it, somebody else will.” By that point, Haynes was so loose that his arms were floating as he danced to the horn break. To hear a 13-piece ensemble of this caliber, doing justice to these great songs, was simply hard to beat.
But get this: the tour’s arena finale in Nashville on Nov. 23 promises additional guests Vince Gill, Darius Rucker, Michael McDonald, Nathaniel Rateliff, Margo Price, original Last Waltz alumna Emmylou Harris and even The Band’s Robbie Robertson himself. Sounds like more delicious stuffing than a fan can handle at another sure-to-be marathon feast of Thanksgiving.
Paul Robicheau served as the contributing editor for music in The Improper Bostonian in addition to writing and photography for The Boston Globe, Rolling Stone and other publications.