The Last Waltz Ensemble "King Harvest" from recent live demos
Few moments in music history are more ethereal than Joni Mitchell echoing Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, and Levon Helm on the chorus of Neil Young's "Helpless" from backstage at The Band's farewell concert, "The Last Waltz," on Thanksgiving Day, 1978. Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, and Dr. John were among the other sonic visionaries who lent their hands and voices to that legendary night, perhaps the most viewed concert in the world. The concert is the subject of the Martin Scorsese film of the same name.
Robertson and Helm continue to perform. Danko and Manuel have since passed on. The music still finds new ears, thanks in part to the efforts of the Last Waltz Ensemble, a quasi-rotating troupe of Atlanta-based musicians dedicated to sharing the spirit of The Band well into a new century. Led by Kris "Jellyroll" Gloer on guitar and vocals, the Ensemble includes saxophone, Hammond B-3 organ, and touring members of Captain Soularcat and Tishamingo. From Col. Bruce Hampton to Zach Deputy and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band's E.T., the band draws their friends and fellow Band lovers onto the stage, much like their predecessors.
For this Friday's performance at the Pour House, they're bringing Oliver Wood with them, half of the folk rock-harmony duo The Wood Brothers (the other half is Medeski, Martin & Wood bass player Chris Wood), who captivated a packed crowd at the Pour House only a few months ago.
"Kris Gloer and I have known each other for a long while from the Atlanta music scene, and a few years ago he asked if I wanted to come sing a few songs with them," says Wood, on the phone from a studio in Atlanta. "I was really getting into the music of The Band, and it inspired me to learn a few of their tunes."
The Ensemble's MySpace page includes a download of Wood leading them in sing-along favorite, "I Shall Be Released," one of his favorites to perform with them, along with "Rag Mama Rag" and "Ophelia." Wood explains that the Last Waltz Ensemble is different from a typical cover band because they're more concerned with conveying the spirit of the songs than trying to duplicate a sound.
"They don't dress up like Rick Danko or Levon Helm and play the parts of the people in The Band," he says. "They just get up there and play the music, improvise, and give a lot of freshness to it, so you don't know what's going to happen. It's partly about the repertoire, but it's less about the specifics of the music. These are songs anybody can play."
"You can really be yourself when you play this music and do it your own way," says Wood. "It's about putting your own soul into it. And that's what was so cool about the Last Waltz concert — the camaraderie of all these iconic people, being themselves but putting their touch on these songs."