The Scene: Polytoxic‘s Annual Last Waltz Revisited is a Denver Thanksgiving tradition that was especially tasty this year. We walked into The Ogden Theatre with Levon Helm in our hearts, and it felt like the musicians did the same. The room was sold-out and filled with an energy that pulsed with love for the music of The Band as four generations of audience members sang along to songs that have become ingrained in the fabric of our lives. Most of us never had the opportunity to see the original incarnation of The Band before they broke up in 1978, but over the years we have watched Scorsese’s film about their final performance countless times and seeing the entire performance recreated by talented musicians can be a powerful experience. Parents put their arms around their children, friends hugged each other in the middle of songs, and people felt some of their favorite music in a way few get to experience.
What we have going here in Denver is special, and The Last Waltz Revisited is the crown jewel in Denver’s vibrant music scene. 45 musicians performed 32 songs over the course of four hours and well over 1,000 people looked like they were having the time of their life the entire time. That’s how we do it in Denver…and that’s how we pay homage to The Band.
The Last Waltz Revisited: After Buck Perigo performed his spot-on tribute to Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” as the crowd filled in the theater like he does every year, the “Theme From The Last Waltz” played over the PA and CR Gruver and Tori Pater, the masterminds of this monster event, emerged from the shadows to take their places at either end of the stage. Without much more than a few waves to friends and family in the crowd, they tore into a gritty version of “Up On Cripple Creek” that showed us all how seriously they take this annual event. Gruver’s fingers danced on the keyboard while Pater growled into the mic and, boy, did the crowd eat it up! From the first notes, the theater was a sea of dancing bodies as people reveled in the music and the beginning of a long holiday weekend.
Throughout the set guests came and went much like they did back on November 25, 1976 at Winterland and while everyone poured their heart into their performance, there were a few moments that shined above the rest. The first came early on when Peter Stelling took the stage to reprise his role as Eric Clapton on the bluesy powerhouse “Further On Up The Road.” Backed by some punchy horn fills, Stelling made Clapton proud as he tore into the song and made it his own. It was a delight to watch and it was clear that everyone on-stage was having a blast.
In keeping with the Blues tradition, Robbie Peoples and James Dumm were front and center for a raging take on Muddy Waters “Mannish Boy.” While the band held down the main theme of the song, the pair traded solos with Peoples blowing the Harp and Dumm shredding his Gibson SG. This year was Dumm’s first appearing in the production but, judging by the reaction from the crowd, it surely won’t be his last. There is a whole new generation of Denver musicians on the rise, and it’s great to see the Polytoxic boys giving them their due and inviting them to be in on the celebration!
As the drinks flowed and the music pumped from the stage, we were serenaded with classics like “Down South In New Orleans,” “Mystery Train” and one of our personal favorites “Rag Mama Rag,” but things really got nasty when the boys from DeadPhish Orchestra took the stage to crank out a smoking version of “The Shape I’m In” that featured Paul Murin on some searing lead guitar as Ted Tilton and Gruver shared the keyboards and traded solos. They followed this classic up with a moving version of “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down” and the crowd really got in on the action with almost every voice in the place singing at the top of their lungs.
The set closed with a great run of three songs that kicked off with “Atlantic City” and finished with “The Weight.” While Springsteen hadn’t even written “Atlantic City” at the time The Band performed their last concert, the Robbie Roberston-less incarnation of the group added it their repertoire in the late 80’s and it’s a very fitting part of the set-list each year here in Denver. Sandwiched between these two favorites was one of the highlights of the show, as it is every year, Jessica Goodkin’s channeling of Van Morrison on the legendary “Caravan.”
At set break it felt like all the big songs were played in the first set, but that was far from the truth. There was so much more material to be played, and so many classics that had yet to see the light of day. Opening up the set with “Who Do You Love,” the pace picked right up where it left off. “Big time Bill, big time. Big Time.” After playing these songs for eight years Gruver and Pater have refined many of these tunes and put their own stamp on them. Pater puts a distinctive growl into “It Makes No Difference” that is filled with passion and pain, and “Dont Do It” fits him like a glove as well.
Even though these musicians are playing “covers,” all 40 of them incorporate their own vernacular and own flavor to the music. Since not many people involved in this show are really playing these songs on stage throughout the year, there is potential for the performance to lack depth. Instead, the musicians love for this music filled the songs with life. One of the musicians who does perform this material regularly is Aaron Rose, who tours with his Neil Diamond Tribute show, “Diamonds Are Forever.” When Rose signs “Dry Your Eyes,” his mannerisms, voice and appearance will make you think Neil Diamond himself was up there on stage. Well, at least 3 hours and 4 whiskeys into the night. Seriously though, Rose nails Diamond but he wasn’t the only tribute artist on the stage as Josh Elioseff from Boulder based Bob Dylan Tribute band The Zimmermans came out for “Baby Let Me Follow You Down” and “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35.” As the assembled masses acknowledged with a chorus of cheers, thanks to Amendment 64, everybody CAN get stoned!
“Ophelia” is the song that best showcases everything we love about Levon Helm, and it seemed to be a favorite for the rest of the crowd as well. Although the night had started at 7 with pre-show drinks, and we were dragging a bit, shaking it to “Ophelia” kicked in a second wind just as the night was about over. “I Shall Be Released” closed out the epic evening, and everything came into focus. The Band is by far our favorite band of all time, and the loss of Levon Helm will affect all of us for much longer than anticipated. It’s a comfort to know that once a year, we can get together with a thousand friends on Thanksgiving eve, and we can all show our love for Levon and the rest of The Band.
– Review by Brian Turk & Tim Dwenger
Stage Presence: A
Set/Light Show: A-