Detroit-born producer/record executive/bassist Don Was will never forget the night he saw “The Last Waltz” — the 1978 Martin Scorsese film that documented the last performance of The Band, in November 1976.
But it’s not just because of the film’s historic significance, but because of what happened at the Americana Theater in Southfield that night.
“My then-wife was over nine months pregnant, and the volume in the theater put her over,” Was said with a laugh. “My son, Tony, was born that night. From ‘The Last Waltz,’ to Beaumont Hospital.”
Was loved The Band, the Canadian-American group whose look backward to vintage blues and folk helped steer rock music in a more rustic direction in the early 1970s.
Comprised of American Levon Helm, whose raspy Delta-bred vocals defined and drove the group’s sound, along with Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel, the group had been on the road since 1961, when they started out backing singer Ronnie Hawks. The road-weary band asked Bill Graham to put on a farewell concert for them at the Winterland in San Francisco.
The concert featured a stunning lineup of that year’s A-list talent, including Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Emmylou Harris, Dr. John, Paul Butterfield, The Staple Singers, Ringo Starr and Ronnie Wood.
Scorsese’s film, more carefully filmed than most concert movies to date, helped solidify The Band’s status in popular culture, more than their musical collaboration with Dylan in Woodstock even.
Last year at the New Orleans Jazz Heritage Festival, a special set was performed celebrating the 40th anniversary of The Band’s last show. Performers included Dr. John, Was, and a cast of dozens. The reception was so enthusiastic, a full-blown tour was planned for 2017 — technically the 41st anniversary year.
The troupe brings “The Last Waltz 40” to the Fox Theatre in Detroit Friday. On the bill, along with Was, are Dr. John, original Band member Garth Hudson, Taj Mahal, Warren Haynes, Michael McDonald, Cyrille Neville and Bob Margolin, to name a few.
The bar was high for all concerned.
“It’s a pretty great movie,” Was said. “One thing that’s striking about it is that everyone sort of rose to the occasion. Nobody was walking through it. Van Morrison was awesome, Bob Dylan was amazing. His version of “Forever Young” had so much bite.”
At the New Orleans show, “We were just doing it for fun, but the people really responded — it was a surprise to us,” said Was.
“I thought it was just me, but these songs really meant a lot — maybe because there’s no way to congregate around The Band anymore, except for the odd tribute show. You can go see Bob Dylan, and there are all these other people who feel the same way you do about Bob Dylan.”
The Band broke up relatively early in their career, and that was that . Thus fans have gone for decades without being able to hear those songs performed.
Was has a favorite song to perform in the 40th anniversary set —“I Shall Be Released,” the Bob Dylan song that was featured in the original Last Waltz concert.
“I can’t quite explain it, but it’s got certain harmonic, or spiritual properties in common with ‘Amazing Grace,’ it’s a hymn,” Was said. “Maybe because it’s got enough room in it to hang your own life on. And the audience reacts to it in a really unique and powerful way, every single night. If you look at the audience, it seems like you’re playing in church. I can feel it, the musicians can feel it. It’s a transcendental moment, and you can feel the oneness between the audience and the musicians.”
A special treat for Detroiters is that Hudson, one of only two living members of The Band (Robbie Robertson is the other), will appear at the Fox Theatre show.
Hudson was born in Windsor, Ontario, and grew up in nearby London, but his career really kicked off in Detroit. From 1958-1961 he was in a band, Paul London and the Capers, that played teen hops in Detroit. The band recorded several songs produced by Detroit record man Armen Boladian. It was in 1961 that Hudson left the Capers and joined up with The Hawks, who were backing up rockabilly artist Ronnie Hawkins.
The Hawks were of course, teenagers Helm, Robertson, Danko and Manuel. And so The Band was born.
The Last Waltz 40 Tour: A Celebration of the 40th Anniversary of The Last Waltz
Featuring Garth Hudson of The Band, Michael McDonald, Dr. John, Taj Mahal, Don Was, Warren Haynes, Cyrille Neville, Bob Margolin and Jamey Johnson.
8 p.m. Friday
2211 Woodward, Detroit
(800) 745-3000 or (313) 471-6611
OlympiaEntertainment.com, LiveNation.com, and Ticketmaster.com.
Don Was wears more than one hat -- and being a musician helps him as a record executive
It’s hard to confine a talk with Don Was to any one project he’s working on -- the tireless multi-tasker is also the president of Blue Note Records, when he isn’t producing the Rolling Stones or Gregg Allman, or playing bass on the road.
Was insists that his performing career enhances his job as a record executive .
“I actually think it makes me more effective,” he said. “These Last Waltz shows remind me of what’s so great about playing music. You get so into the thing that you’re floating for three hours.
“I realize, it doesn’t have to be the president, but somebody (at the record company) needs to know what that feels like, if you’re going to deal with artists and their music. If you get too hung up in profit and loss stuff and forget about the impulse that makes music so great, then you’re going to have a (terrible) record company.”
One of his Blue Note artists was Anita Baker, who had been recording a much-anticipated album several years ago. Recently, Baker has Tweeted that she is retired.
“I really don’t know,” Was said. “Everything sort of went on hold. I haven’t actually spoken to her in a couple of years. It’s nothing acrimonious. But I believe her, if she said that (she is retiring). I’ll tell you this, she’s still got all the talent to keep going. As of two years ago, I thought she was at the peak of her powers. That doesn’t mean you want to go through all the stuff you have to go though, in this business. I respect her decision. But she’s got a real good album in the can.”