Often voted one of the greatest concert films of all time, The Last Waltz is the ultimate going-out-on-a-high-note band documentary. Billed as a farewell show, The Band brought plenty of their friends on stage for a celebration featuring Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton and a long list of others.
Now, for the fourth year in a row, Charlotte folk-rock outfit the New Familiars gets set to pay tribute to the music of The Band and Levon Helm with a concert of their own at the Fillmore on Nov. 27. Perhaps it's only fitting then that this show is a farewell, as well. After 10 years, the New Familiars are ready to focus on other projects.
"We all plan to continue music and we're ending things for now, on a high note," The New Familiars' Justin Fedor says. "No one is saying we'll never play together again, but this seemed like the best time to give this project a rest."
Singer/guitarist Josh Daniel has been busy with the Josh Daniel/Mark Schimick project. Singer/guitarist Fedor plays bass with Ancient Cities. Bassist Pat Maholland also plays with Ross Adams. Banjo player HL Ruth is also part of The Kodiak Brotherhood. Drummer Daniel Flynn also plays for Chris Cook and Reeve Coobs. So, it's not like you won't see them around town or on tour in one way or another, but the New Familiars haven't been performing as much as of late.
"The vibe of The Last Waltz is a fun way to end 10 years," Daniel says. "With no other shows on the books for The New Familiars, we felt this was a perfect time to do it. We are all very active in various other projects and we are all friends and so it's not a sad day but a celebration of 10 years of friendship and good times."
The tribute shows started after Helm's 2011 death. The New Familiars felt the tribute concerts were a fitting way to celebrate and preserve the musician's legacy. In 2010, The New Familiars had the opportunity to open for Helm at the Knight Theater. It remains one of the band's fondest memories.
"I remember it like yesterday," Fedor says. "Highlights like that aren't easily forgotten. Levon Helm was a hero to all of us. When he came off stage at the end of the night, he was so amped up. He slapped HL square in the chest and exclaimed 'Yeah, baby!'"
Daniel agrees. "I remember just playing that night and looking over at Levon's kit and thinking we are among rock 'n' roll royalty here," he says. "I was privileged to meet him one other time in the late '90s at the Double Door, when he was in better health, and he was just so kind to his fans. This last time, he was pretty sick though. It was definitely sad to see him in poor health, but it was amazing he was still doing what he loved — playing drums, singing and making people happy. That's what music is all about, and we try to do that when we play. It's very inspirational."
Each year, for the tribute shows, The New Familiars have gathered guests and friends to join in the performance. As much as they play the hits, they'll also play obscure stuff. For the most part, it's a nine-member band that's on stage performing, though the finales can have as many as 30 on stage singing along to songs like "The Weight."
"I just spoke with our friend, Megan McCormick (Jenny Lewis, The Everybodyfields) and she'll be joining us," Fedor, who is still trying to finalize the guests, says. "We've got some of Big Daddy Love joining us as well. It's all just a really good time."
Reflections on The Band
We asked some of the participants in the Nov. 27 show to share their thoughts on what they love about The Band and Levon Helm. Here's what they said:
"Levon was a man that had his priorities straight. It never seemed to be so much about the destination for him as much as it was about the journey. Up until his death, he lived his life to the fullest; chasing the pure joy of playing music his way. I am grateful to have been able to open for him, but even more so, I am grateful for the body of work he left behind for all to cherish for ages."
— Justin Fedor (guitar, mandolin, vocals)
"'The Weight' — for me, this is The Band song that is closest to my heart. It's a timeless song that I feel I've always known... I love how it tells a story from a few different views and takes on the personality of whoever is singing their particular verse. I absolutely love the way Pops Staples sings it on The Last Waltz. When we play this, it never fails to bring the crowd together."
— Josh Daniel (guitar, vocals)
"To me, The Band is the quintessential band — a group whose sum is greater than its parts. A group that at its most basic is at its best. This is the type of band everyone wants to be in."
— Pat Maholland (bass)
"To me, The Band is as good as it gets, real players playing real music that bridges so many genres. When we opened for Levon, he was gracious enough to sit and talk with me for a bit and he was one of the most humble and down-to-earth folks I have ever met."
— HL Ruth (pedal steel, guitar, banjo)
"My favorite Band song is 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.' I love The Band for their ability to connect with and execute distinctly American-influenced songwriting while most members hailed from Canada."
— Jason Atkins (keys)
"We look forward to this tradition every year and it just keeps getting better. Being able to pay homage to Levon, The Band and the horn arrangements of the now-late Allan Toussaint is a great honor. If you love this music, you have to see this show!"
— Marcus Harmon (saxophone)
"I'll never forget seeing Levon sing 'Dixie' on The Last Waltz. He sang so passionately, and the story of persevering through poverty, war and loss was so inspirational. I am moved every single time I play that song."
— Marolyn Garo (baritone sax)
"It's just great to play with some guys who pay respect to some fun music by a great artist. Plus, being a horn player really allows me to bring out parts to the music that may otherwise be missed."
— Brandon Nater (trumpet)