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The Last Waltz Tribute Band at the Fitzgerald Theater in St.Paul. Photo by Jill Fisher.
When is a “cover band” not your ordinary weekend bar entertainment? This was the weekend to find out with three musical tributes happening within that number of days.
The first I was privileged to witness was the 18th Annual Tribute to The Last Waltz at the impressively ornate Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul on Friday, Jan. 27.
For those who aren’t familiar with The Last Waltz, it was a concert held on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 25, 1976, at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, intended to be the final performance of the legendary rock group, The Band.
My friends and I were able to secure front-row seats in the first balcony, which gave a great view of all the on-stage action. I only wish we had brought some opera glasses to get a better look at the performers.
The three-plus-hour show was performed by numerous Twin Cities musicians, some of whom have played here in Duluth (at Sacred Heart Music Center during Dylan Fest). It recreated a selection of tunes from the original concert with attendant impersonations of the guest performers and their signature songs.
We’re talking 14 individual rock stars – Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Neil Young, Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell, Paul Butterfield, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Emmylou Harris, Van Morrison, Ronnie Wood, Ringo Star and, most importantly, Bob Dylan – along with the Staple Singers.
I noted the lack of anyone taking on Levon Helm!
Of all of these, the two most compelling imitations were by Reed Grimm singing “Dry Your Eyes” as Neil Diamond and Wain McFarlane singing “I’m A Man” as Muddy Waters.
Terry Walsh came on late in the program as Van Morrison, convincingly capturing Morrison’s soulful sound, probably because he has been doing this as the lead singer in the Belfast Cowboys band, which has been covering Van Morrison hits since 2002. Four of the horn section from that band were also on hand to provide the same driving sound people have come to expect from that group.
Pretty much every song was well performed, though two were particularly well received –“The Weight” and “Ophelia” – that had the entire audience on their feet and dancing.
The rest of the time, most of the attendees were rather sedate. Of the few women musicians included in this performance, the three hot vocalists who portrayed the Staple Singers stood out. And of course they saved “Bob Dylan” (played by Adam Levy) to the end, singing “Forever Young,” and “Baby Let Me Follow You Down.”
All the musicians took the stage to sing the finale, “I Shall Be Released” as well as a two-song encore (“Don’t You Break My Heart” and “Life Is A Carnival.”)
I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the opening act for this show, the Dire Wolves Trio, comprised of Vinnie Amico, Al Schnier and Mark Joseph. These guys played some good old roots and country tunes, including “Big River,” “Stealin’ Back To My Same Old Used To Be,” “Mama Tried” and “Deep Elem Blues.”
But the best song they sang was “Freight Train” which is associated with The Grateful Dead but was actually written by a Black woman, Elizabeth Cotton, when she was but a teenager. Sharing salient bits of her life, Schnier explained how she was born and raised in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and spent much of her life working as a domestic in Virginia, then later in Washington, DC, for the Seeger family.
As the nanny, it was she who fostered Pete Seeger’s interest in folk music. Later he persuaded her to begin performing in her 60s, including at the Newport Folk Festival. Check her out on YouTube!
The second tribute of the weekend was the Duluth Does Pink Floyd concert at Sacred Heart Music Center on Saturday, Jan. 28. Unfortunately I was out of town and missed the live performance.
However, I was able to catch it on SHMC’s YouTube the next afternoon. It isn’t an ideal way to enjoy a concert, but it does introduce one to artists that may not yet be on one’s radar since the Duluth Does series is as much about showcasing local musicians as sharing the music of the selected performer/band.
One such performer was Laurie BoeDee, a newcomer to the Northland hailing from Austin, Texas. (That gives an indication of how vital the music scene in Duluth has become.)
Backed by Janie & the Spokes, she launched into the instrumental “Marooned” from the album The Division Bell with total commitment, displaying both expert picking and slide guitar work.
Another group with which I was unfamiliar is The Centerville All Stars, comprised of Kyle Inforzato (bass and vocals), John Heino (keyboards and vocals), George Zissos (guitar) and John Zissos (drums). This group is originally from the Duluth-Cloquet area but now splits its time between the Twin Cities and Duluth. They performed a rockin’ version of “Comfortably Numb.” I will have to keep an eye out for when this band plays in the Zenith City again.
Other performances I particularly enjoyed included “Breathe” by Born Too Late, “The Great Gig in the Sky” by #The Indian Head Band and “Eclipse” by the Trash Cats.
The finale, with all the musicians playing “Brick in the Wall,” was alright – they all looked like they were having a great time with this sarcastic song.
The third tribute concert was Todd Eckart’s Buddy Holly and the Music of the '50s show at the Clyde Iron complex in Lincoln Park on Sunday, Jan. 29.
MCed by Dan Hanger from Fox 21 News, it was a benefit for the Duluth Armory Arts & Music Center’s Music Resource Center, a free after-school program for students in 6th to the 12th grades.
The first of these Buddy Holly shows to benefit the Armory project occurred in 2014 with a two-year hiatus in 2021 and ’22 due to COVID.
Folks were evidently eager to see it again – the place was packed (300 tickets sold, the most ever). The audience was made up largely of retirees very familiar with Buddy Holly songs, providing Eckart a shot at telling agist jokes (Geritol, 9 pm bedtimes, etc.).
But before that, the opening band, Born Too Late, covered some golden oldies by the likes of Patsy Cline and Everly Brothers. “Mustang Sally” with Taylor Shykes dusting it up on bass guitar and a medley of Elvis hits got some of the dancers in the audience going.
With a backdrop of Buddy Holly photos projected onto a large screen, Eckart took a basically chronological approach to his performance, leading off with hits from the 1950s: the Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up Little Susie,” Elvis’ “Don’t Be Cruel,” and others by Johnny Cash, Rickie Nelson and Roy Orbison.
In the second set he led off with “Teenager In Love,” before moving into hit songs by Ritchie Valens (“La Bamba”) and the Big Bopper (“Chantilly Lace”).
A dance contest shooed many shy folks from the dance floor before a costume break for Eckart.
During the break we got to hear a couple of great instrumental numbers by the backup band, consisting of Jimi Cooper (guitar), George Ellsworth (electric bass) and Matthew Groom (drums).
Then it was finally on to the promised Buddy Holly tunes; you can probably guess which ones. Lovely slow songs (“Everyday,” “Words of Love” and “True Love Ways”) were interspersed with up-tempo numbers such as “That’ll Be The Day” and “Maybe Baby.”
By the end of the show, many were in the aisles dancing and happy to be headed home before 10 pm. We’ll look forward to another visit to our musical past next year.