CAMBRIDGE -- Ask any knowledgeable rock fan about their favorite rock film, and Martin Scorsese's "The Last Waltz" -- about the Band's last concert with all its members intact -- is near the top of the list. Such an elegant, elegiac swan song. (Never mind the subsequent bitterness between Robbie Robertson and everyone else and the tragic deaths of Richard Manuel, by suicide, and Rick Danko, after hard living.)
Recently, a lightbulb went off over acoustic guitarist-singer Gene McAuliffe of the local rock quintet Woodpile: Let's play the whole "Last Waltz" concert, and, just as the Band did with its pals Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, and Bob Dylan, let's invite our friends to join us onstage. The rest of the band, recalled singer-electric guitarist and bandleader Holt Hopkins, said, "Why not?" (It's not uncommon for Boston musicians to undertake this kind of project; tributes to Brian Eno and albums by Alice Cooper and Jethro Tull have been played here.)
A sold-out crowd at the Lizard Lounge braved Thursday's arctic chill to hear Woodpile take on "The Last Waltz" from start to finish, with one set break. There was a little more than two hours of music and a vibe that put you right into the comfort zone of what one would now term Americana -- a vibe pretty darn close to the real thing conveyed by the Band and friends Thanksgiving night, 1976. (Or so the movie suggests.) Hopkins even joked about the infamous Neil Young incident in which Scorsese looks at the footage of Young and the Band playing "Helpless" and sees a highly visible rock of cocaine wedged up one of Young's nostrils. As singer Vykki Vox and violinist Meredith Cooper came up to play, Hopkins noted Young had "a certain substance up his nose" but "none of us have done that -- now." The song was gorgeous, with rich and desolate harmonies drifting into the night.
The Band had a rootsy, authentic sound, with blues and country at its foundation, which Woodpile re-created. The Band always emphasized swelling, sometimes churchy, organ riffs and, naturally, that played a big part on this night with T Powers handling that end. Woodpile excelled with "Up on Cripple Creek," (with lead vocals by guest Ben Jones), "The Weight," and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" -- thoughtful, midtempo songs of bonding and loss. Guest Jim Fitting came up and did Paul Butterfield proud with his harmonica work on "Mystery Train" and did Muddy Waters even prouder with his boisterous "I'm a Man." They all tore into Clapton's "Further on Up the Road," with blistering guitar work from Sean Staples and gritty vocals from Jim "Jimmy the Throat" McAuliffe.
The night ended with Dylan's "Forever Young" -- as wistful a plaint as any baby boomer could hope for -- and "I Shall Be Released" with most everyone onstage. All told, well done and sung from the heart. Hopkins said they may stage it again, and they should.
Woodpile and friends
Performing the music of the Band's "The Last Waltz''
At: The Lizard Lounge, Thursday night