While their friend Marty Scorcese looked on—and in—The Band created quite possibly the greatest concert film of all time.
James Wooster and his friends took one night of homage at little old Rambling House in SoHud and have turned it into one of the city’s greatest rock and roll tributes.
The Last Waltz is starts anew this month, the fifth straight year for the tribute in Columbus—the second time at the historic Newport Music Hall.
And just like the members of The Band, the crew backing Bob Dylan’s electric sojourn and perhaps the unknown authors of the American genre, Wooster and his 10-person, 12-guest crew crew have quietly amassed an impressive oeuvre—one that’s required to recreate the spectacle and spectrum of The Band’s final concert, Thanksgiving Day 1976, first revealed to the rest of the music world’s 1978 Scorcese film.
In the 40 years since The Band’s full lineup last Drove Old Dixie Down, their contribution and presence to music culture still hasn’t quite peaked. Here’s hoping Wooster and his crew still have plenty of more years left to ramble.
Isn’t weird having an event that reoccurs every year, in honor of something that was signaling an end?
Huh, I’ve never thought of it that way! I suppose it is weird, I honestly never think about that intention for it to be the finale. Maybe because almost all the members of The Band continued to play as “The Band” for quite a few years after The Last Waltz. It was certainly the end of a significant chapter of The Band.
Do you think The Band is the most famous band in the history or rock and roll to not be “Uber famous?”
I would agree that some of their songs are more famous than The Band. More people probably can sing at least a verse of “The Weight” than can recognize them from a picture. They had the unique lack of a designated lead singer, which takes some of the spotlight off of the celebrity aspect of a band.
How did this actually come together? And I don’t mean, how did you all know the songs, but I mean a production of this magnitude takes some work.
It started off as a very modest attempt and we’ve built on it with each year. Year One, we had no horn section, only a couple guests, and we omitted a bunch of songs. Year Two, we added the horn section, and with each year at least a song or two have been added to the set, still all in the Last Waltz cannon. Thankfully there’s a lot of material there to pull from that isn’t in the film. I’ve also been fortunate that for the third year we’ve partnered with QFM-96, which has allowed us to get the word out about the show to a larger audience in Central Ohio. They’ve been really cool to work with, totally hands off on the production side of things, and totally supportive of continuing this great event.
Quite a transition from Rambling House to the old Agora, huh? Does playing in a place like The Newport, with all of its history, add to this show, rather just playing it in a bar somewhere?
It absolutely does. Playing at The Newport is a thrill. Obviously it is a landmark, maybe even a beacon for maintaining some sliver of character on High Street. I couldn’t think of a better place to host this show. The show definitely benefits from the nostalgia of the building, and the memories that Columbus music fans bring with them from all the shows they have seen over the years.
It also adds some pressure to a very fun thing. I also thought that about the original: like, my god, you’re trying to enjoy your last concert ever, but it’s hard because you’re sitting in with Muddy Waters and Neil Young. Do you feel that way up there?
What’s funny about The Last Waltz is, as an actual concert, it was kind of a sloppy affair. The songs that featured the guests were mostly hastily rehearsed. It has a loose, “jam session” type feel to it. I wouldn’t be at all shocked to find out that Levon Helm had never heard “Dry Your Eyes” prior to Neil Diamond walking on stage that night. None of that really matters, what is important is that the spirit of the show is a celebration. It feels like a special occasion for us, to have 25 or so friends all gather in one place to play music together, it’s amazing.
In a tribute show, what’s the line between doing it your way, and how people may be familiar with the material or the movie? It’s a pretty tall order to ape essentially half the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame…
We definitely take pride in playing songs very similarly to how they were played in concert. I think half of the fun is nailing down all those small things. Many of our guests recite the on-stage banter that were said in concert. It is a lot of fun for me to “cast” the special guests. Columbus is deep with musicians and it’s often times difficult to include everything you want to.
What is it about this town that makes it such a great scene for tributes? Can you tell me some others you’ve been to in town that you love? Maybe it’s our perfectly crafted neutral Midwestern-ness that makes it a great canvass for imitation?
It’s a great scene for being a music fan and/or musician in Columbus. The musicians I know simply love to play music. Sometimes preparing for a tribute show can divert the attention you normally use for writing and practicing your own music, but who cares because it’s a hell of a good time! The Beatles Marathon is an amazing achievement in musicality, organization, and kind of a freak of nature when it comes to the physical aspect of performing. I’m amazed by that each time. I’ve enjoyed playing in a few tribute shows over the past couple years that only came to be because of a tragic loss. The David Bowie Tribute that I played in with The Bloodthirsty Virgins remains one of my favorite times playing music and I’m reminded of how emotional it can be.
Do you remember the first time you saw the film? Do you have parts that give you goosebumps no matter how many times you’ve seen it?
I have to give my lovely wife credit for introducing me to The Last Waltz. When we moved in together, she had both the DVD & the boxed set on CD. That year both of us were unable to come home for Thanksgiving (we were living in North East, Maryland at the time). However, a local band was playing a tribute to The Last Waltz nearby, so naturally we went. It was a lovely show and took some of the sting out from being away from our families. Without a doubt, my favorite moment in the show is “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” I don’t think there’s a better recording of that song anywhere else.
Have you been surprised by the ages of the people at the show?
Not yet! So far I don’t think anybody has been rolled in on a hospital bed. I am grateful that the music speaks both for the younger generations and of course for folks who lived in the hey-day of The Band. For the two years we played the show at Park Street Saloon we did have to creatively address the significant lack of seating, an effort spearheaded by the Baby Boomers of the family. #bringyourownpatiofurniture
Scorcese couldn’t have cast a better set of characters himself for The Last Waltz, and when it comes “casting” his own version, Wooster gets to have a little fun “casting” himself. Here are his favorite moments in the Last Waltz canon:
Van Morrison’s high kick in “Caravan,” expertly recreated by Cliff Starbuck
The soft horn section intro to “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
Ronnie Hawkins trotting around stage in “Who Do You Love.” Zach Whitney does a fantastic job bringing the fun energy to the stage!
Eric Clapton’s guitar strap failing; mid-solo his guitar strap slips off the guitar and he throws the solo over to Robbie, setting off a solo shootout.
Not the Scorcese film, but search “The Last Waltz Full Concert” on YouTube. It’s four-hour, 20-minute video. Black & white from one camera in the back of the house running continuously. So cool to get a different perspective on what the concert actually looked like.