San Diego

‘The Last Waltz' Goes Belly Up

Local musicians assemble to perform the Band's 1978 concert film, 'The Last Waltz,' at the Belly Up

When a Canadian rock & roll troupe -- simply named the Band -- teamed up with a young(er), budding director named Martin Scorcese to film their "final concert appearance" ever on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 25, 1976, it would go on to spiral into an expansive (and expensive) undertaking of epic proportions plagued by contractual issues, drug use, malfunctioning equipment and unexpected technical difficulties.

However, the show (filmed San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom) not only starred the members of the Band -- Robbie Robertson (guitarist), Rick Danko (bassist/vocalist), Richard Manuel (multi-instrumentalist/vocalist), Levon Helm (drummer/vocalist) and Garth Hudson (keyboardist) -- at their peak but also featured guest performances by a cadre of rock & roll luminaries such as Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Dr. John, Muddy Waters, Neil Diamond, Van Morrison, Emmylou Harris, and more.

Upon its eventual 1978 release, “The Last Waltz” showcased the Band’s (and their famous musician friends’) legendary artistry, musicianship, live showmanship and lavish hedonism (just Google the words “Neil Young cocaine booger”). As such, the concert film (and its accompanying soundtrack) is arguably the greatest one of its kind ever made. In any case, it certainly set the bar for what one could be. 

On Sunday, Nov. 26 -- nearly 41 years to the day after “The Last Waltz” was filmed -- an assembly of San Diego musicians, led by local psych-rock jam-band aficionados Mrs. Henry, will gather together to perform the celebrated film in its entirety (along with some bonus deep cuts off its soundtrack) at the Belly Up.

“I’ve personally been a fan of ‘The Last Waltz’ concert for some time,” Mrs. Henry guitarist/vocalist Daniel Cervantes told SoundDiego recently. “I’ve been such a huge fan of the Band -- Mrs. Henry’s name, after all, is from a Bob Dylan & the Band ‘Basement Tapes’ song ‘Please, Mrs. Henry’ -- and fortunately, I’ve got three bandmates crazy enough to take on the endeavor with me who also love them.”

Belly Up Talent Buyer Chad Waldorf came up with the idea, but finding a band with enough talent, appreciation and, let’s face it, stamina to pull off “The Last Waltz” and its lengthy run time (not to mention crazy game of musical chairs) was no easy feat -- until he talked to the lads in Mrs. Henry.

“We have a hankering for doing three-plus-hour shows at spots like the Pour House [in Oceanside], sometimes on our own and sometimes with guests coming up and doing their original songs or covers,” Cervantes said, “so it didn’t seem like too far of a leap to dive into a three-hour concert of material that wasn’t ours at all.”

To do the experience justice, Mrs. Henry (which, aside from Cervantes, is comprised of keyboardist/vocalist Jody Bagley, bassist/vocalist Blake Dean, and drummer/vocalist Chad Lee) have tapped a who’s who from the San Diego music scene for the sprawling Nov. 26 concert.

“Clinton Davis for example, from G Burns Jug Band, is singing and playing mandolin on ‘Rag Mama Rag’ along with our good friend Andrew Huse on violin,” Cervantes enthused. “Both are also on ‘Evangeline’ with Nena Anderson singing the Emmylou Harris part along with Stephen El Rey and our good friend/wizard Jordan Andreen on accordion.

"We’ve got our friends from the Routine, Russell Ramo and Bryan Barbarin, coming in for the Muddy Waters set along with harp slayer Murf McRee, who f---ing rips it. Will Lerner [from the Strawberry Moons] is going total Danko on ‘This Wheel’s on Fire,’ and Anna Zinova [from Taken By Canadians] is killing the Joni Mitchell tune ‘Coyote.’ I don’t want to give them all away but everybody is hitting something that is sounding real, real good.”

Other performers include members from Trouble in the Wind, the Schizophonics, the Nervous Wreckords, the Paragraphs, the Bad Vibes, Sacri Monti, Creature and the Woods, the horn section from the Sure Fire Soul Ensemble, and more. When asked if he has a particular affinity for any one track off the set list, Cervantes gushed.

“My favorite song from ’The Last Waltz’ has got to be ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,’” he said. “That was one of the first songs that struck me. The power of that performance would crush me, especially after Levon Helm passed away. I remember listening to that song and that version again and again and it would bring me to tears.”

The Belly Up show, which will donate $1 of each ticket sold to the Rollin’ From the Heart nonprofit, may not come with the headaches or timeless celluloid glory that the Scorsese-helmed concert film enjoyed, but it promises to be quite the local spectacle in its own right -- or, as Dr. John sang during the original 1976 show, “Such a night.”

'The Last Waltz' with Mrs. Henry and Friends is at the Belly Up on Sunday, Nov. 26. Tickets are $13 in advance here, and doors are at 6 p.m.

Dustin Lothspeich books The Merrow, plays music and operates the music equipment-worshipping blog Gear and Loathing in San Diego. Follow his updates on Twitter or contact him directly.

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