For eight years now, Seattle's Tribute to the Last Waltz has celebrated the music of the Band—and the Band's iconic, all-star 1976 final performance—with a benefit concert the day after Thanksgiving. Instead of just rewatching the Martin Scorsese-directed concert film every year, as so many do, cofounders Jasen Samford and Michael Rognlie decided to produce their own celebration in 2014. That year, they rounded up a roster of talented musician friends to perform the now-famous setlist for one night only at the Tractor, with all proceeds going to charity.
Samford says they raised about $13,000 for Northwest Harvest at the Friday, November 25 show at the Neptune, bringing the grand total of charitable donations to more than $50,000 over the years.
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While I've loved the premise of Seattle's Tribute to the Last Waltz, truth be told, I've always been indifferent to the Band. I know the hits, I know their legacy, but I wouldn't call myself a fan. So I didn't know what to expect upon finally seeing the show for the first time. Would I get bored? Would I know any of the songs? Would I like any of the songs? Would I just want to go home and listen to Fleetwood Mac because somehow the Band and Fleetwood Mac have become rivals in my mind not unlike Team USA vs Team Canada in hockey in the Winter Olympics? (RIP Christine McVie, and thank you.)
Holy shit, it was so much fun! More than two dozen local musicians made guest appearances throughout the 36-song set—Eric Howk of Portugal. The Man, Aaron Starkey of Long Dark Moon, Eva Walker of the Black Tones, Robbie Christmas of RX, Kevin Charles Murphy of The Moondoggies, to name a few. Somewhere around the time Eric Martin (of Eric Blue & the Soul Revue) sang "Ophelia," the room loosened up and performances got a little wilder, a little more surprising. As the night went on, it started to feel as if musicians were trying to outdo one another.
Put it on your calendar for next year, even if you think you don't care about or much less like the Band. It's so much more than a celebration of that coked-out Thanksgiving night in 1976; it's a celebration of all the talent right here in Seattle, too. I simply cannot recall all the magical moments that happened over the course of the three-hour set—YES, THREE-HOUR SET—so, for the sake of brevity, I will just tell you about my five favorite moments.
Danny Oleson Smashing His Violin
I do not have photos, I do not have video, because I did not expect Danny Oleson of Local Liars to do anything but take a bow or wave to the crowd after singing and fiddling his way through "Rag Mama Rag," but as the song came to a close, it happened. Shards of his beautiful violin flew into the air. The body broke free from the neck, the two pieces flopping around like dying fish as they were held together only by limp strings. The crowd roared—they also hadn't expect such fury. But Oleson wasn't mad. Moments after stomping away, he hustled back onto the stage to smile, wave, and politely pick up the pieces of his mess.
Annie Jantzer Singing "It Makes No Difference"
It took just six songs for the first goosebumps of the night to shiver up my arms. Annie Jantzer—who performs under the name Annie J—took the stage to deliver one of the Band's saddest songs, "It Makes No Difference." She was doing a beautiful job most of the way through—keeping things somber and subdued as the song requires—but when she reached the song's crescendo, Jantzer unveiled her full talent. She belted out that last chorus with a rush of pain and power that made it seem as though she was feeling her heart break in half in real time, and the only way to extinguish the pain was to cry out "And the sun don't shine anymore / And the rains fall down on my door" loud enough to reach whatever God may exist. What was once a weepy, rootsy rock ballad was elevated to an entirely new emotional plane. It was not unlike hearing Whitney Houston sing Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" for the first time. Dolly is wonderful; I love Dolly! But Dolly can't do what Whitney can. Thankfully, there's room in the world to love both.
Eva Walker Stage-Diving
"The Weight" is undoubtedly one of the Band's most popular songs. It's been covered by everyone from Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan to Weezer and Panic! at the Disco. (That Panic! version is both terrible and unnecessary—don't cave in, even out of curiosity). So what does Eva Walker of the Black Tones do to cement her performance in the tune's deep history? She jumps off the stage, leads everyone in a joyous singalong while standing on the barricade, and then dives into the crowd and gets carried across the showroom floor before disappearing into the night. Fucking rad.
Steve Nagle Singing "Caravan"
In The Last Waltz, Van Morrison joins the Band to perform his 1970 hit "Caravan," and covering Van Morrison is not an easy task. His voice is in a category all its own. Gravelly but warm, worn but vibrant. Music critic Geoffrey Himes once wrote, "...Morrison uses his voice like an instrument, like a leather saxophone capable of hair-splitting nuances in tone, pitch, volume, and rhythm—capable of embellishment, solos, and improvisations." To see Steve Nagle take the stage and just fucking nail it—complete with moves more akin to James Brown than Morrison—was an astounding sight. He even wore a maroon suit similar to Morrison's outfit in the film! It was too perfect. After some post-show internetting, it all clicked: Nagle performs solo around the Northwest, but he's also the singer of a Van Morrison tribute band called Backstreet Jellyroll. Of course he is.
I need to give props to the Band band, the musicians who played all three hours of every song without a break—Jasen Samford on drums/vocals, Michael Rognlie on bass, Joe Michiels on guitar, Bill Nordwall on organ, and Leif Dalan on piano/vocals, with half a dozen horn players behind them. That said, Cameron Lavi-Jones, singer and guitarist of King Youngblood, was more than a moment—he was the MVP of the whole night.
He first took the stage to sing "Georgia on My Mind" because Stephanie Anne Johnson, who was initially scheduled to perform, was ill. But it was when he returned to sing "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" that everyone in that building fell under his spell. The shredding. THE SHREDDING! Lavi-Jones threw a guitar solo in there and then he ate that guitar solo for breakfast. And it wasn't lost on the audience that Lavi-Jones, a Black man, was singing a song about the South losing the Civil War. At the end, Lavi-Jones held his fist high in the air and the crowd roared. Victory.