Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Last Waltz - West End Cultural Centre

Those of you who know me well, know that my favorite concert film of all time is Martin Scorsese's "The Last Waltz" - a documentary of the 1976 farewell performance of The Band - and some very special friends who came out celebrate with them. I routinely give it as a gift to those I think may appreciate it at the same level I do.

Last night, I was privileged to attend a home-grown recreation of this event at Winnipeg's own West End Cultural Centre - and it was a truly musically magickal night unlike anything else I have ever experienced in my life (in music or ortherwise).

I know every song, every nuance of every performance on that film - and to watch it faithfully recreated was an experience as closely akin to bi-location and time travel as I could ever imagine. There were repeated nano-seconds through the cheering and the tearing up of my eyes where I was transported to the Winterland - and my mind often held split-screen images of what was before me, and the memories of the same moments captured on film - playing side by side in near perfect synchronization in my mind's eye.

The audience, for the most part, sang along - a multi-generational ad-hoc choir of the faithful. There were a few standing ovations for various performances, but not so many that they got in the way. There were faithful renditions from the two poets invited to The Last Waltz as well - The Intro to the Canterbury Tales was read, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti was well represented by Dominic Lloyd's impassioned delivery of The Loud Prayer.

It was a recreation, not an imitation - a true homage, not a self-conscious copy, an honoring of musical ancestors in a truly spiritual way. The musicianship was stellar - these are some of Manitoba's best home-grown musicians after all - and while obviously NOT the original performers, there was a sense that the spirit of each original performer somehow was "inhabiting" the person on stage

The Boys in The Band - gritty, roots-rock power, building a firm foundation - they proudly kept the flame burning that heated up the room with a love of music, a love of musical community, and a sense of the linear heritage that is musical influence. Dressed in slightly rough and tumble vintage clothing, with a red scarf for Robbie in the second set (and a last minute fedora) , they transformed from "a band" to The Band" as soon as the first drumstick touched down.

Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Neil Young, and Neil Diamond gave great performances. The always amazing Mark Reeves as Paul Butterfield did dynamic double duty - not only giving his own song every ounce of juice he could squeeze out, but then backing up the Man from the Muddy Waters, who declared in no uncertain terms that he, McKinley Morganfield aka Big Dave MacLean is a true blues MAN - "I spell Mmmmmm....., Aaaaaay-child, Nnnnnnnnnn. "

The Staple Singers - it takes gospel roots to truly sing a gospel song - and House of Doc (especially Matthew) took us to church with the secular hymn "The Weight". While Rebecca is not quite Mavis Staples, the passion of House of Doc's shared harmonies with The Band rained a pentecostal fire down on the crowd one song before a much needed intermission. There are two old men in Heaven - Pop Staples and "Doc" - who were smiling big looking down on us all.

It takes a certain amount of musical gravitas to "become a legend" - and if there was ever anyone born to become Joni Mitchell, Lianne Fournier is the one. With Lloyd Peterson mastering the challenge of syncopated rhythms and open tunings while seated on a piano stool, Lian sang like the Angel from Saskatchewan.

The glaringly awful exception of last night was Emmylou Harris - who should be receiving a huge apology from the woman who got up and simply sang "Evangeline" with no soul, no connection, and no emotional investment in the spirit of the event. There was no sweetness in the voice of this pretender to crown of Sally Rose.

Eric Clapton wins the "attention to detail award - right down to the guitar strap incident. Extremely solid playing - how do you impersonate God. You simply become Him.

Van Morrison stopped the show - testifying in the true Irish Gospel tradition that the Spirit of the WestEnd would live on in its new incarnation, going to a place of musical passion that made him the tallest of collected musical giants in the house, and bringing "the choir" in to share the singing of the Good News that "We Got SO-oooooo-UL" and demanded that we all turned on our Electric Light. Na -na -na -na na na na- na nah......

Dan Frechette WAS Bob Dylan. Every gesture, every facial expression, every guitar lick, every interaction with The Band. He sang in with the voice of Dylan. It was the night's most amazing "inhabitation".

The finale came far too quickly. Ronnie Woods and Ringo Star came out for the final song, and then the lights came up and it was all over but the cheering.

Who to thank for all this? the musicians? of course. Both sets - the originals AND their heirs on stage last night. But most of all - to Martin Scorsese - who captured something beautiful and magickal and powerful in amber over 30 years ago - so we could revive it and relive it at our very own West End Cultural Centre - we owe him a huge debt of thanks for his love of music and his passion for film. Has anyone told him about this event? Should we have invited him to the party - as a gesture of appreciation? Not that he would have come - but at least he would know about this gift that he, and through him, all these musicians, have given to us - that lives on in us as musicians and fans.

Long live the West End Cultural Centre. May its next incarnation be as powerful as last night's reincarnation of the Last Waltz.

1 comment:

  1. We had a wonderful time putting it together, and are absolutely THRILLED that people received it with the level of intensity and magic that we tried to put into it.

    Thanks for your great review!