When the 1978 concert documentary The Last Waltz was released, a then-unknown Don Was and his nine-months pregnant wife watched the film in a Detroit theater. The loud music put her into labor and his first son, who grew up to become a drummer, was born the next day. It was one of a number of chapters involving The Band that would come to be part of Was’ musical life that has most recently culminated with The Last Waltz 40 Tour.
The idea behind this string of live music dates that commemorates the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame quintet’s farewell concert appearance was born out of conversation between Was, Warren Haynes (Gov’t Mule/Allman Brothers Band) and concert promoter Keith Wortman (Blackbird Productions).
“We were trying to figure out something cool to do at JazzFest last year. So we figured we’d play The Last Waltz,” Was recalled. “As we rounded out the personnel, just the idea of having Michael McDonald and Jamey Johnson as part of a three-part harmony stack—I had to hear it. It was really unexpected and it could have been a trainwreck between it being a lot of different people with a lot of different styles. But it just gelled from the first rehearsal, where there was a really nice chemistry. We knew it would be a good show, but what we didn’t anticipate was the audience response. When you looked out at the first 10 rows, everybody is standing up and singing along to every song from the first bar, really. I’d forgotten how deeply ingrained these songs are in the American psyche.”
Along with Was, Haynes, McDonald and Johnson, the touring band will include guitarist Bob Margolin (Muddy Waters) keyboardists John Medeski and Ivan Neville (Dumpstaphunk), drummer Terence Higgins (Dirty Dozen Brass Band), guitarist/vocalist Dave Malone (The Radiators) and Mark Mullins and the Levee Horns playing the original horn arrangements of the late Allen Toussaint. Was promised that concert-goers will be treated to respectful and soulful versions of these Band songs, with a couple really standing out for him.
“Jamie sings ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ and it’s probably the most emotional moment of the show. It’s really weird how that song resonates and it doesn’t have anything to do with the Civil War or geographically where you come from,” he said. “The highlight for me, to be honest with you, is Michael McDonald singing ‘Helpless.’ I get chills every time he’s done it—even in the rehearsals. In the rehearsals, I have it on a playlist and I just like to listen to it. He should really cut it.”
The preparation for the tour was definitely a labor of love for Was and his musical compatriots. And while he hasn’t heard directly from surviving Band members Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson, both of whom are friends, the secondhand feedback he’s gotten has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s made for a very rewarding experience that is lending itself to a West Coast second leg and the Michigan native wishing they could “…play 300 more dates.”
“I’ve tried to find the definitive versions of the songs so I can play the parts respectfully, but they were different every time The Band played them. And they were different from the original record. Improvisation is kind of written into the schematic diagram of these songs,” Was said. “It’s primordial stew that [The Band was] cooking with. When we talk about Americana music, times like the 1860s come up. But I think it goes back 10,000 years—just the intervals and harmonies. There’s something universal about it.”