Celebrating The Last Waltz

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By Brian Wise.

Brian Nankervis is the co-host of the SBS hit show RockWiz and also the MC of the The Last Waltz Revisited at Melbourne’s Art Centre on Saturday December 5. The show stars Tim Rogers,  Dan Sultan, Vika & Linda Bull, Olympia, Marlon Williams, Kevin Borich and the RockWiz Orchestra.

Originally held at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco as The Band’s farewell concert, The Last Waltz brought together rock and roll royalty to pay tribute to The Band. Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Neil Young, Eric Clapton and others performed on the night which was also filmed as a documentary by Martin Scorsese and released two years later, The Last Waltz has developed legendary status as a concert, an event and a movie.

We (rock) quizzed Brian Nankervis about the show.

In a year when there have been so many ‘tributes’ why The Last Waltz

If there is one thing that unites everyone in the music department at RocKwiz it is a deep love for The Band and a deep love for The Last Waltz … the concert, the film, the record, the event! In 2004 when we were doing the basic set design for RocKwiz at The Espy, producer Kenny Connor had the bright idea of hanging a chandelier over the RocKwiz Orkestra, a direct homage to The Last Waltz. When Levon Helm passed away a few years ago, we were in the middle of filming a RocKwiz series. We wanted to pay some sort of tribute to him, so we shot a version (in black and white) of ‘The Weight’ during rehearsals in the empty Gershwin Room at the Esplanade Hotel, with each member of the band singing a verse, along with Vika and Linda Bull. We are always discussing ideas for shows and when our friend Jon Blanchfield approached us with the broad concept we got together and nutted it out! The Arts Centre have often said we should do something together after we put on RocKwiz Salutes The Bowl in 2009.

The Last Waltz is all about a band and their relationship with artists who they’d worked with and influenced. The RocKwiz Orkestra have been working together solidly for eleven years and the guests on the night are musicians they have worked with on and off for many years. There is a great sense of trust and history and there’s always the excitement and promise of musical collaboration. I feels like a great fit!

Is the album/film a personal favourite? What is your memory of its original release? What came first for you, the album or the film?

I love the album and the film! I have the original vinyl release in all it’s glory. I’m not sure which came first. I remember seeing the movie when it first came out at the Valhalla Cinema in Victoria Street, Richmond. The last time I saw it in the cinema was at The Astor in St Kilda, maybe in the late 1990s. I remember a few of us had dinner before the show in Chapel Street (at Saigon Rose, known for their rice paper rolls and sizzling hot plates) and we sat enthralled as Paul Hester told great stories about Rick Danko. Crowded House had toured with Rick in America and Paul said he was a very sweet guy. Very friendly and full of stories. As was Paul. I can remember walking from the restaurant to The Astor and as we arrived, the first person I saw was Peter Luscombe.

 What are some of the more interesting behind the scenes stories that you know of The Last Waltz?

You probably know most of the stories … the post production work to remove evidence of white powder from Neil Young’s nostril, the last minute negotiations with Bob Dylan for filming rights, Levon’s anger with Robbie for wanting to end their touring, the backstage white room with razor blades and the white powder that seemed to be commonplace in that era, the suggestion that Muddy Waters should be dropped from the bill! Outrageous. Coupled with the seemingly strange choice to have Neil Diamond on the show (Robbie had been producing his album) is the great story where apparently Neil came off stage and said to Bob Dylan … “you’re really gonna have to go some to follow me, man, I was so great.” And Bob says, “What do you want me to do, go on stage and fall asleep?”. It’s tempting to believe it (classic Dylan) but the more I researched, the more I got the feeling that Dylan and Diamond were kidding around. I think Ronnie Wood may have started that story … check out Ronnie’s outfit in the film and you ask yourself ‘can a man wearing a dinner suit t shirt’ be trusted? Levon Helm’s book, ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’ is full of great background stories, with much bitterness directed at Robbie Robertson, his relationship with Martin Scorsese and his “long, loving close-ups” of Robertson’s “heavily made-up face” and “expensive haircut.”

How hard was it to put the whole thing together and then sell the idea to the Arts Centre?

It’s been reasonably straightforward, but a lot of work in terms of logistics, stage design, artist availability, song selection, running order, arrangements, rehearsal times, rehearsal space, horn arrangements, horn players, set, sound, lighting, catering, selling of tickets, publicity and a whole lot of other fine details. Whew … it’s a lot of work putting on a show! Also, because we love the music so much, we want it to be incredible, so there’s always the pressure to meet high standards. We’ve just come off a pretty intense period of touring our ARIA Hall Of Fame show, so everyone is tired, but that’s okay. It’s an incredible opportunity to present such amazing music in a beautiful theatre. We worked with the Arts Centre when we did the Bowl show and Peter Bain-Hogg and Kenny have done a few Melbourne Festival projects for Renegade Films and they are great to work with. 

How did you allocate the songs or did the musicians get to choose their own?

We approached it in the usual Rockwiz way … a long meeting with lots of discussion, strong opinions and excellent anecdotes. Numerous emails. Late night brain waves. Chats on buses and planes, in airport lounges and backstage areas during the tour. At 4 am in a hotel room in Perth after Ash Naylor has led us through ‘Lazy Sunday’, ‘Tin Soldier’ (with Lucky on lead vocals) ‘For Your Love’, Nashville Cats’ and ‘The Weight’. More meetings and phone calls with Kenny C, Peter B-H, James Black, Peter Luscombe and me. We put together a roughish list of songs and artists and sent our ideas out and I think everyone was pretty happy. Tim Rogers is very keen to play guitar with Kevin Borich. Ash to sing ‘Rag Mama Rag’. A duet. Quite a few songs done by the Orkestra and Vika and Linda. James to dip into ‘Genetic Method.’

What is your highlight of the film?

I have lots of highlights, but you just asked for one so I’ll give you four. Rick Danko singing ‘It Makes No Difference’ and Muddy Waters doing ‘Mannish Boy’. Dylan going into ‘Baby Let Me Follow You Down’. Van Morrison doing high kicks in a spangled maroon leisure suit.

Will you be the MC and introducing songs etc or will it just flow?

Yes, I’m going to MC the night and give some background details to the event, but there are so many incredible songs there will not be much time for too much chat. We are still playing with ideas of song introductions … we always find that lots of great ideas come up in rehearsals, so we are leaving room for things to take shape as the show evolves. I am very excited about reciting Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s ‘Loud Prayer’

I notice in the film that Van Morrison almost smiled. Who will be singing Van’s song and do they have orders to smile?

That would be spoiling the excitement, but I reckon there will be plenty of smiling!

You can find further details of The Last Waltz Revisited and book tickets at the Arts Centre, Melbourne: The Last Waltz Revisited

Brian Wise

Brian Wise was the Editor of Addicted To Noise‘s Australian site from 1997 – 2002. The site won two ONYA Awards as Best Online Music Magazine in 1999 & 2000. He has also been Editor since its reincarnation in 2013. He also presents the weekly music interview program Off The Record on 102.7 Triple R-FM (rrr.org.au) in Melbourne. It is networked to 45+ stations across Australia on the Community Radio Network and is a four-time winner of the Best Music Program Award from the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia. In 2012, it was nominated as a finalist in the Excellence in Music Programming category. Brian was also the Founding Editor & Publisher of Rhythms Magazine and is now its Senior Contributing Editor.

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