When I first heard of the concept, I scratched my head a little bit. Warren Haynes of Southern rock band Gov’t Mule teamed up with funk musician and producer Don Was to assemble a group of musicians to recreate the setlist of The Last Waltz, the concert film that captured the last performance of The Band.
The more I read about it, the more sense it made. But when I actually saw it, I wondered why I ever questioned it at all — it worked! The music of The Band came alive through this big group of soulful, funky, jazzy musicians, including Warren and Don as well as the legendary Michael McDonald, country singer-songwriter Jamey Johnson, avant-garde jazz artist John Medeski, and New Orleans drummer Terrence Higgins.
The supergroup originally convened to play The Last Waltz at Jazz Fest in New Orleans in 2016 to mark the 40th anniversary of The Last Waltz. That went so well that they took the show on the road in a tour that ended at MGM National Harbor on Saturday.
Jamey, Warren, and Michael traded lead vocals, each lending the experience and perspective of their individual voices. Set on stage left, Jamey lent his twang to “Up on Cripple Creek” at the start of the concert while he strummed along on his guitar. The other band members harmonize during the chorus, and the entire show comes together quickly rather well.
Set in the center of the stage, Warren and his guitar tackled an earnest rendition of “Stage Fright” two songs later, and his folksy sincerity easily sells the song about conquering your fears. Warren’s friendly countenance and laidback style are well suited to the storytelling approach of the song. Next, Jamey is back on vocals for the instantly recognizable classic by Hoagy Carmichael, “Georgia on My Mind.”
Other highlights in the first half of the show include Ivan Neville and Cyril Neville of The Neville Brothers joining the ensemble for an ambling double dose of New Orleans power in The Band’s “Down South in New Orleans” and Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love?” The Nevilles were gone immediately, leaving the nearly sold-out audience in The Theater at MGM National Harbor suitably impressed with the collective amount of raw talent that occupied the stage.
It takes a while, but Michael McDonald eventually fires up his tremendous, soulful voice to take lead vocals on some numbers, including “King Harvest (Has Surely Come).” His voice soars while Jamey offsets him with a low refrain in “King Harvest has surely come,” creating a nice balance. Michael is seated on stage right on keyboards throughout the show, with the Last Waltz Band’s impressive horn section standing behind him. The collective wrap the set with Jamey’s impressive vocals on “The Night They Drove All Dixie Down.”
Throughout the show, Terrence adds snappy punch from his drums at the back of the stage. I cannot help but smile at the sight of Don Was, looking every bit a blues sideman on bass, standing behind Warren and playing in time with him. And John Medeski looks positively the mad musical genius from his station on synthesizers at rear left, bringing harmonious depth to every song he touches.
In my brief recap, you can see one of the most wonderful aspects of this unique concert experience: There are so many rabbit holes that you can go down, following the lead of each individual musician contributing to the greater sound, that you could likely see the show several times over and still pick up new and different nuances every time. It was an absorbing, rock-n-roll experience, the likes of which we were truly impressed to see. Hats off all around, gentlemen.
Here are some pictures of the musicians in The Last Waltz Band performing at MGM National Harbor on Feb. 4, 2017.