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Interview: Last Waltz Ensemble 

Atlanta group pays tribute to the music of Dylan, The Band and more

ON NOVEMBER 25, 1976, The Band —a legendary rock group made up of Canadian and American musicians who cut their teeth on the U.S. “chitlin’ circuit” before backing bluesman John Hammond, Jr. and collaborating with songwriting icon Bob Dylan during one of his most fertile creative streaks— decided to call it quits.

Citing the stress of life on the road, the brazenly unfashionable group, with the help of famed concert promoter Bill Graham, threw themselves an over-the-top send-off at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom featuring catered Thanksgiving dinner for 5,000 and a marathon, career-spanning concert that found the versatile, eclectic roots-music combo joined onstage by more than a dozen invited guest musicians — including Dylan, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison and others.

Captured for posterity on 35mm film by director Martin Scorsese, The Last Waltz is often hailed as perhaps the finest concert documentary ever made.

However, that’s due in great part to the majesty of the show itself, which in hindsight has provided the blueprint for virtually every other star-studded rock and pop event held since. Three decades on, The Band’s reputation as pioneers of the Americana genre continues to grow, fueled in no small part to that film and its accompanying soundtrack.

No one recognizes the impact of that once-in-a-lifetime gathering of musical talent as much as Kris “Jellyroll” Gloer, an Atlanta-based singer and guitarist who turned his passion and respect for The Band into one of the fastest rising tribute bands on the U.S. club, theater and festival scene today.

The Last Waltz Ensemble is a talented, eight-piece touring unit which uses that 1976 concert as a springboard for celebrating the shared musical legacy of Dylan, The Band and their extended musical family. Far from a slavish recreation of that group’s signature sound, Gloer and company pay tribute to The Last Waltz by putting their own respectful spin on the songs performed that fateful night, as well as related material by the key participants.

And, in a nod to the communal vibe of the original event, they often welcome guest musicians to join them onstage for certain songs, adding an air of unpredictability and excitement to many of their road gigs. (In a simple twist of fate, yours truly will sit in at this Thursday night’s Savannah show.)

Gloer spoke with us by phone from his Atlanta home. Read the complete interview at connectsavannah.com.

Who came up with the idea for this band, and what actually spurred its formation?

Kris Gloer: Back in 2004, some friends and I threw a Thanksgiving weekend tribute to the songs of The Last Waltz. It was designed to be interactive and involve some other guest musicians. We chose 14 songs from the movie and gave a few to each guest. So many folks came out we did it once more in 2005 in a much bigger venue. We sold out that room as well, so we booked six shows in places like Athens, Raleigh, Charleston and Chattanooga. Four sold out, and these days our lives are kind of consumed by this project. We averaged about 100 Last Waltz Ensemble shows in each of the past two years.

Are you starting to get a little sick and tired of The Last Waltz?

Kris Gloer: (laughs) Well, we quickly realized we had to expand the setlist. Now we have about 50 songs — including ones by The Hawks (the earliest incarnation of The Band, which backed Toronto rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins), Dylan songs he did without The Band, and songs they’ve both covered. This keeps things fresh. So, we’re not tired at all, because there’s a wealth of material tying into the concept.

How would you describe what made The Band so unique to someone who’s never heard them?

Kris Gloer: When you look at the songs Dylan wrote during that time, you immediately realize they were the original exploration of what became known as alt.country. I’d say it’s the most fit and finished music you’ll find — especially lyrically.

You’re celebrating an event that gathered musicians from a couple generations. That gives you guys a hell of a lot more material to work with than just Dylan and Band songs.

Kris Gloer: The songs we’ve most enjoyed adding to our set were played at the original concert, but didn’t make the final cut of the movie. The full show went on for five hours! Dylan played songs like “Hazel” and “She Acts Like We Never Have Met”. I’ve always been open to us learning more songs written by guests from the original show. In that way, our concerts could expand into something like a rock & roll version of A Prairie Home Companion — a revue of Americana music from that era by massive group of influential artists.

Without the convenient name recognition of The Last Waltz, do you think this band would have been as much of a success?

Kris Gloer: A lot of people respond to our group because of the name. They get immediately what it implies. But there are fans of Dylan or The Band that don’t really know much about The Last Waltz. I’ve been surprised we’ve turned a lot of casual fans on to the history of the concert and the movie. There’s a large group of people out there who’ve always wanted to hear these songs live on the same night. We’ve just put as many into one show as we can, and people seem to have a blast.

You’re not trying to duplicate or copy the group’s sound, correct?

Kris Gloer: Right. Some of our arrangements are really true to the originals, but some are great departures. We don’t claim to be a reenactment of any sort or to play specific roles on stage. We leave the whole thing open to experimentation.

How much farther could this group go?

Kris Gloer: I don’t know. It’s still growing. We’ve had a lot of milestones in a relatively short span of time. When you look at Dark Star Orchestra, which plays the music of the Grateful Dead, I think our show is much more expansive and easier to relate to by a wider group of people than say, Deadheads. However, Deadheads are the best fans in the biz! They’re great to have on board, but we appeal to people from 18 to 65 across all kinds of demographics. Families can see us and old Deadheads can too, and both groups will find a lot to enjoy. As long as we keep approaching this with a creative zest, it’ll remain interesting.

Have you met anyone yet at one of your shows who claims to have been at the real Last Waltz?

Kris Gloer: Our show brings out private memories from people. Hundreds of folks have e-mailed me their personal stories about Dylan or Band shows they attended back in the day — or pilgrimages to Big Pink (the house in Saugerties, N.Y. where Dylan and The Band secretly recorded 1967’s fabled Basement Tapes). The hair is standing up on my arm as I tell you this, because I’ve heard so many heartwarming tales. That just goes back to our conditioning as humans and our need to share the things we admire and respect and love.

So, if this group decides to stop playing live, will you throw your own “last waltz” and invite all sorts of musicians who’ve influenced and worked with you over the years?

Kris Gloer: Yeah. That’s be great! Maybe Martin Scorsese would be available. I don’t know, though. I hear he’s been a little busy.

Well, maybe you could find a young director who idolizes Scorsese and wants to do their own filmic tribute to his directorial style!

Kris Gloer: (laughs) That’d be amazing! (laughs) That would be the ultimate example of life imitating art imitating art imitating life. Or something like that. (laughs)

Where: Live Wire Music Hall When: 10 p.m., Thurs., May 1 Cost: TBD Info: myspace.com/lastwaltzensemble, myspace.com/livewiremusichall
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