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"The Last Waltz" Plays On In Nashville Thanksgiving Tradition

Thanksgiving is upon us, and that means Last Waltz season for fans of the greatest concert movie ever made. (Sorry/not sorry to fans of the excellent “Stop Making Sense.”) But why simply rewatch the Martin Scorcese classic when you can catch a great group of Nashville musicians running through the songs live?

That’s how we found ourselves at the Basement East Saturday night, singing along to one great piece of music after another and raising money for a very good cause.

The show was anchored by a typical assembly of Nashville session pros and side players, among them Bob Dylan’s touring guitar player John Jackson (seen above), and Sheryl Crow keyboardist Jen Gunderman. An excellent guest list was anchored by Aaron Lee Tasjan, Joshua Hedley, Alicia Blue and many others.

We also may have seen the future of heavy blues guitar music - a cherubic 17-year-old cross between Bonnie Raitt and Stevie Ray Vaughan named Grace Bowers (also shown above), who lit up the stage for several numbers.

Last Waltz tribute shows have been a staple of local music scenes for years. And though I’ve seen the movie more times than I can count, this was my first live show. I’m not sure why I expected the concert to follow the playlist of the film, but I did. So I wasn’t surprised when a string quartet started things off with the “Theme From the Last Waltz,” a lovely classical piece penned by the late Robbie Robertson himself. The playlist wandered after that, however, which was just fine. It also included several songs that were part of the original concert but didn’t make the movie.

I should pause for a moment to catch up any who may be new to the movie or the music. The Band was Robertson, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel. Although they sharpened their considerable skills for years as The Hawks, backing band for barroom legend Ronnie Hawkins, they gained fame as backing players for Bob Dylan in the late 1960s.

Their first two albums, “Music From Big Pink” and “The Band,” shook the music establishment with rootsy southern flavors that mixed blues, country, bluegrass and soul. This was odd, since four of the five members of the group - including Robertson, the main songwriter – were Canadian. But they had three A+-level lead singers in Helm, Danko, and Manuel, a brilliant songwriter and lead guitar player in Robertson, and a classically-trained keyboard genius in Hudson.

They’d decided to hang it up in 1976 after 16 years on the road, and they held a farewell show at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, inviting many of their friends and musical influences. Young filmmaker Martin Scorsese signed on to film the moment.

The Last Waltz is beloved for the many guest appearances from artists like Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, the Staples Singers, Emmylou Harris, Dr. John, Ringo Starr, and more. But The Band is the core, and it is impossible to watch and not be impressed by their virtuosity and power.

This makes trying to recreate the concert in a live setting a challenge. But the Nashville music community came through with flying colors, as it is wont to do.

Although King Corduroy and company did an excellent job to start things off with a strong first set, an all-star band assembled by Jackson anchored the show. Highlights included Aaron Lee Tasjen’s beautiful rendition of the Band’s “She Receives.” That song featured Gunderman on keyboards, channeling Hudson himself with swirling, soaring accompaniment.

Matthew Houck , who performs as Phosphorescent, stepped into the role of Bob Dylan with a great version of “Forever Young,” joined by just about everyone at the Basement East on backing vocals.

Kudos to Alicia Blue for raising her hand to ably play Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote,” a tricky song and another highlight of the movie. And Joshua Hedley fiddled and sang his way through “Rag Mama Rag,” a classic Band foot-stomper.

“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” has always been a bit of a head-scratcher for some. It’s a beautiful song, but when Levon sings: “Like my brother before me/I took a rebel stand,” it’s hard to ignore that the rebels were fighting to preserve slavery. At the end, however, it really is a song about the victims of war, rather than the masters. And Jamie Wyatt highlighted this, dedicating her performance to “all people affected by war,” and saying she was singing it as a “meditation on peace.” Her performance was another highlight.

But the person Mary and I are still talking about was young Grace Bowers.

The 17-year-old California native now living in Nashville turned heads earlier this year at the Newport Folk Festival, which caused Rolling Stone to gush that her “twenty-minute performance gave the distinct sense that everyone lucky enough to have attended was witnessing a star in the making."

She had the same effect at the Basement East, and had not only the audience, but the veteran players on stage shaking their heads in admiration. She has the amazing physical dexterity of a Clapton-esque blues shredder. But she also seems to know when to swing with the band. We all will certainly hear more from her.

The entire evening was held to raise money for Out of the Woods, a foundation created by Nashville musician Shelly Colvin and her husband Jeff to support the recovery of children who suffer brain and spinal cord injuries. Their 3-year-old son Judge was severely injured in 2020 when a sudden storm caused a tree to fall on him and his father while they were hiking. Both son and father have recovered, but the family relied on help from friends, including the Nashville music community, for financial support during the long rehab period. The foundation hopes to help others who find themselves in the same situation in the future. You can read more about their story, and support the foundation here.

A side note: We did not walk away from this show empty handed. Inspired by the Out of the Woods Foundation mission, and looking to keep the momentum going in Mary's song-writing efforts, I was the high bidder on an honest-to-goodness Fender Stratocaster!

Date: Nov. 18, 2023

Artists: An anniversary tribute to "The Last Waltz" featuring a variety of artists.

Venue: Basement East, Nashville

ENQ Mini-review: A great show for a great cause. Always fun to see top-notch players handling great material. We'll be back next year!

Here is a video of the first set of the show. Here is the second set.

(Editor's note about the variable quality of our pictures: We try to take decent photos at the events we attend. But we don't want to be "those people" who are constantly holding up their phones at shows. We snap one or two, then put away the device so we can more fully enjoy the moment.)

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