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One more 'Last Waltz'

Peter Mongillo

Last year, employees at Momo's thought it would be fun to re-create "The Last Waltz," the Band's well-known 1976 farewell show that featured a who's who of guest appearances and was the subject of a concert film directed by Martin Scorsese. Expectations were low. It was a fun way for friends to play music together. Then 400 people showed up.

The huge turnout was for something that almost didn't happen because of the huge cast of more than 20 musicians needed to faithfully re-create the concert. Enter musician Kurt McMahan, who became the Martin Scorsese of Momo's just a few weeks before the event, rounding up musicians and scheduling rehearsals.

"It's a big group of musicians who are all friends," says McMahan, who plays in King Corduroy and other bands. "Everybody, whether they mean to or not, kind of wears their influences on their sleeves, and you can kind of hear who can play what."

The timing of the show, now in its second year, is no surprise. The original "Last Waltz" was famously held on Thanksgiving, with late promoter Bill Graham serving a full spread of turkey and all of the fixings to the cast, crew and audience of 5,000 people. There won't be that many people at Momo's on Wednesday, but there will be food, as well as a screening of the film before the show. (Momo's isn't the only "Last Waltz" in town, either. Last weekend, another re-creation was staged at Club DeVille as a fundraiser for the Capital Area Food Bank.)

Though it was the Band's final show, "The Last Waltz" is probably more remembered for the slew of guests, including Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. The show culminates in a final rendition of "I Shall Be Released" with everyone joining in on stage.

McMahan spent the past couple weeks inviting musicians to take on those guest spots for this year's show. A core group of five musicians, made up of members of different bands, including Wisebird and the Coveters, takes on the role of the Band in Momo's "Waltz."

McMahan organizes daily rehearsals so that the players can learn the show note for note. In addition to the challenge of rounding up more than 20 musicians, there is music — a lot of it — to learn. Some songs, such as "I Shall Be Released," are basic fare, but not everything is so simple.

"'Life Is a Carnival,' I hope we pull that one off this year," says drummer Jeff Botta, who plays Levon Helm, referring to the 1971 song by the Band. "It's hard, it's got a kind of upside-down drumbeat."

It's no surprise that the Band, a group that laid the groundwork for the hybrid of rock and country that you can hear every night in Austin, is popular with local musicians.

"I'm a huge fan, I love pretty much every song on their first five albums," says Dave Meservy, who plays the Richard Manuel part, referring to "Music From Big Pink," "The Band," "Stage Fright," "Cahoots" and "Moondog Matinee"; the first two records tend to be the most popular of the group's output.

"The Last Waltz" was Meservy's gateway drug. "I didn't really know the Band the first time I saw 'The Last Waltz,' and it was my first introduction to Dr. John," he says. "Hearing Rick Danko sing 'It Makes No Difference,' that got me, it pretty much sunk the hooks in."

The ironic thing about a bunch of friends putting on a re-creation of "The Last Waltz" is that the show didn't mark the most amicable moment in the Band's career. Helm said in his autobiography that it was a "rip-off" and that frontman Robbie Robertson and Scorsese produced the show without much concern (or royalties) for the rest of the group.

McMahan, Meservy and other Austin musicians acknowledge that, but it doesn't seem to get in the way of their love for the Band's music.

"I'm a huge, diehard fan," says Will Webster, who plays the Robertson role. "Every album has been my favorite at different times. It started with the second album, 'The Band,' and then when I heard 'Cahoots,' I couldn't believe how cool that was. They haven't done anything I haven't liked."

The Band's controversial ending also won't stand in the way of something that in one year became a popular event.

"It was huge surprise," says Jack Martin, who plays Dylan and was one of the people (along with Momo's employee Grace Meyer and musician Joe Beckham) behind last year's show. "Last year when we got here, we just looking forward to playing. We were all engrossed in the movie. We turned around and it was packed. It was a real pleasure."

pmongillo@statesman.com

The Band

Robbie Robertson: Will Webster (of Wisebird)

Richard Manuel: Dave Meservy (Wisebird)

Rick Danko: Joe Beckham (Wisebird)

Levon Helm: Jeff Botta (The Coveters)

Garth Hudson: Kullen Fuchs (Raul Malo, Clay McClinton)

Special guests

Made up of Austin musicians and singer-songwriters (partial list)

Dr. John: Nick Litterski

Eric Clapton: David Jimenez

Muddy Waters: Mac McIntosh

Paul Butterfield: Ben Balmer

Neil Diamond: Drew Smith

Van Morrison: Kurt McMahan

Ronnie Hawkins: Jon Beckham

Bob Dylan: Jack Martin

Neil Young: Guy Forsyth

Emmylou Harris: Emily Hello

Mavis Staples: Kelly Galvin

The Last Waltz at Momo's