BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene
The Band’s landmark final concert is preserved in rock history thanks to Martin Scorsese and “The Last Waltz.”
So who can begrudge a lineup of rock luminaries including Warren Haynes, Michael McDonald and Don Was for celebrating the 40th anniversary of that November 1976 show with an 11-date tour spotlighting The Band’s beloved catalog?
On Tuesday night, the aforementioned trio, along with singer/guitarist Jamey Johnson, keyboardist John Medeski, drummer Terence Higgins and a quartet of brass players following the original horn arrangements of Allen Toussaint, commandeered Atlanta Symphony Hall for two sets of soulful nostalgia.
Kicking off the night with one of the most familiar songs in The Band’s catalog, “Up on Cripple Creek,” the musicians instantly fell into lockstep.
Johnson, the gruff-voiced Alabama man, emoted mightily during “Georgia on My Mind,” while McDonald and Haynes see-sawed vocals on “It Makes No Difference,” McDonald’s warm, distinctive tenor an ideal complement to Haynes’ higher tone.
Throughout the show, a slender McDonald nearly levitated off his keyboard bench as he performed with fervor and in the background, Was, sporting his trademark flip-flops, anchored the groove with his steady bass and a perpetual smile.
“You guys love these songs as much as we do?” McDonald asked the nearly sold-out crowd halfway through the first set.
Considering that many stood throughout the show, swaying and twirling their hands in the air (an obvious irritant to a nearby concertgoer who repeatedly bellowed “SIT DOWN!”), the answer seemed obvious.
Performing under a trio of chandeliers and subtle lighting, the anniversary team cruised through the swampy march of “Down South in New Orleans” and, with an assist from Dave Malone of The Radiators, the rootsy “This Wheel’s On Fire” (among its many covers, the song served as the theme to “Absolutely Fabulous,” a fact not lost on more than a few women in the audience).
A screaming slide guitar solo from Haynes and a rustic coat of organ from Medeski highlighted “Who Do You Love?” before the crowd leapt skyward at the opening notes of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” No, Johnson isn’t Levon Helm, but he handled the song with admirable confidence.
The steady smack of Higgins’ snare drum ushered in the second act with another of Robbie Robertson’s classics, “Ophelia,” and for the next hour, the band romped through a series of covers from Bob Dylan and Van Morrison.
This anniversary tour was born from a commemorative performance of “The Last Waltz” during 2016’s Jazz Fest in New Orleans and has clearly been constructed with reverence and care. We already know the music holds up – but it’s gratifying that the performances do as well.