I got mad at my parents on the phone yesterday. I couldn’t help it.
“You don’t know The Last Waltz!?” I reprimanded.
Usually it’s the elders scolding the youth for not recognizing the greatness of bands, concerts, albums and times in general of the past. My brother was always the one to direct me.
“Who’s your favorite band, Jess?” he would ask when I was 6 years old.
“The one that plays “'Wrapping Paper'.”
“Give me a name.”
How the tables have turned.
At the ripe old age of 25 (kidding) I can safely say I’ve lived a life that’s put me in a different place than most of my peers and that’s reflected in my musical tastes. Part of that is the product of being the youngest of four (with 15 years between me and my sister), but part is just my natural inclination. I’ve always connected with people (and music) outside of my generation. I’m an old soul.
That being said, my innards did backflips when I first watched The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese's 1978 film about The Band mixed with footage of the group's farewell concert held on Nov. 25, 1976). It connected with me on an extreme and unusual level. I knew the music of The Band, but I didn’t know it until I saw the film. The songwriting and musicianship that I saw there fascinated me in a new way. There was something so basic and real, so human about it. It wasn’t the guests that amazed me in themselves, it was the collaboration (though there's a lot to that story--just see This Wheel's On Fire by Levon Helm and Stephen Davis, 1993, William and Morrow Company), the genius of the musicians and their natural demeanor throughout. It was in the laughs in the clips between songs. And it was Levon Helm that struck me most.
I was familiar with him, but it wasn’t until after I saw the film that I pinned him as one of my music-making idols. I remember interviewing a musician just before watching the film who had said his role model for drumming was Levon Helm because everything he did was pretty much perfect. Agreed.
I watched that film at least six times in a week. I couldn’t get enough. I raved about it in The New Times office to my editor, Molly English, who shared a similar love for the film and tossed thoughts back and forth day in and day out with my friend (and fellow music nerd), Drew.
“’The Weight’ is the best!’” I’d say.
“No, ‘Ophelia’ is!” He’d come back as we traded youtube videos.
It’s even harder to name a favorite now.
Fast forward to September 2012 when Stacey Waterman asked me to play fiddle on “Evangeline” in the Syracuse edition of The Last Waltz; my head spun. I knew the caliber of musicians on the stage would be ridiculous (because Stacey wouldn’t have it any other way) and I wasn’t wrong. She chose the local musicians who inspire me with every note they play. Musicians who have spent their entire lives honing their crafts, playing gig after gig, spending hours on the road, with years of knowledge, practice and experience accumulated in their fingers--it was intimidating. I know Kim Monroe shared that feeling as we looked around at the musicians surrounding us who had been playing for as long (or longer) than we’d been alive. But “no” wasn’t an option.
I don’t consider my role important in the scheme of the show, but simply to stand on the stage and be considered a part in any way with the production that took place on Saturday, Nov. 24, at Eastwood's Palace Theatre, continues to blow my mind. I feel lucky that I was even in the room when it happened and it’s for reasons on all kinds of levels.
Throughout the dress rehearsal on Friday, Nov. 23 I noticed (and Liz Nowak agreed) that egos were left at home. There was only mutual respect among every musician passing over the stage and beyond that, real, genuine excitement and happiness to be playing with one another. It was striking and beautiful in a pure way that fed from the inside out.
That was only amplified on Saturday when musicians watched from the balcony of the Palace wide-eyed, appreciative and amazed at the talent that was on display. At the start of the show, my friend Shannon and I were trying to guess how the crowd would respond to the music: Would they sit there? Would anyone dance? Would they move up closer to the stage?
The audience answered those questions in the best way possible--they made it an absolute party. They were rowdy, completely into the music and wildly enthusiastic for every musician that got out there to bring the music of The Band to life. Again, it was beautiful and the energy was infectious. The positive vibe was palpable.
There were no noticeable hang-ups throughout the show, (and actually, I didn’t even notice any hiccups) which is an absolutely amazing feat given the number of challenges involved--the last minute venue change (from the Westcott to the Palace), that this was all happening over Thanksgiving weekend, the limited/non-existent rehearsal time, working around the schedule of the Palace Theatre, the number of musicians involved (got that? musicians). Stacey and her staff not only pulled it off, they made it look easy despite the crazy hours they put in to make it happen. (I had busted on one of the production workers asking why he didn’t come back to Bull & Bear for a beer when I was working on there on Friday night. He was still at the Palace working at 3:30 a.m. when I was headed home. I only felt like a little bit of a jackass.)
The beauty of the event was in the spirit of it. It was in the enthusiasm of both the musicians and the crowd. It was in the smiles on the stage and those that spread throughout the theater. It was in the nods between the players and the dancing in the isles. It was in Carolyn Kelly’s voice when she delivered “The Weight” with all the soul it needs. It was in the performances of Joe Whiting and Michael P. Ryan, the blistering solos of Rex Lyons and the good-old-times that were revived with Eddie Zacholl and Willie “Tater” Mavins. It was in Tim Herron’s bubbling excitement to be Neil Diamond. It was in the mutual thrill Jason Barady (of Floodwood--CHECK THEM OUT) and Los Blancos shared to play with one another again. It was in Kim Monroe’s nailed performance of Emmylou Harris. It was in every facet, every moment of the night.
At this point, I’ve been to more shows than the typical 25-year-old (or most 50-year-olds, actually) and it’s rare that things line up as they did on Nov. 24. It’s even rarer that everyone walks away from the night not just satisfied, but still buzzing with excitement in the way they did after this show. Musicians are happy they had the chance to share the stage with one another and crowds are happy they were able to share in the night. The high-fives, hand shakes and hugs went round and round.
Music doesn’t need words to communicate feelings. Though rambles were exchanged throughout the night (Colin Aberdeen’s sense of humor had the crowd, and the band, roaring), and lyrics added messages, it’s not the words that the crowds and the players will remember. It was the feeling of coming together for a night and celebrating the legacy of a man who left the world with so much (Mr. Levon Helm), a band that gave the world songs that will never die and a local music scene that is absolutely incredible --not only in talent, but in character. I’m not from here, but I feel fortunate and blessed to be a part of this community with every passing day that I spend here and I think 600-plus people walked away feeling the same. Nov. 24 was an unforgettable gift and all those involved and present will carry it with them knowing they were lucky enough to be a part of something great.
(And don't worry--I'm buying everyone in my family a copy of The Last Waltz for Christmas.)