Playing with ‘The Band’
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In 2012, Fort Wayne-native and longtime Indianapolis-based musician Bill Mallers sat backstage with some band and stage mates after a show and contemplated the greatness of drummer and vocalist Levon Helm, who had recently died.
Someone suggested putting on a charity concert, with proceeds going to Helm’s financially troubled music studio, The Barn.
Mallers didn’t suspect it at the time, but the resulting tribute to Helm’s renowned roots rock group The Band would eventually grow into an annual, multi-state phenomenon, not to mention a part-time job for him.
Such a Night, Mallers’ live recreation of Martin Scorsese’s star-studded concert film, The Last Waltz, will be presented for the fourth time in Fort Wayne at C2G Music Hall on Oct. 1.
The Last Waltz, widely considered to be one of the finest concert films of all time, chronicles what was then billed as The Band’s final show. It proved not to be the case.
In the latest Fort Wayne incarnation of the recreation, Kenny Taylor will appear as Eric Clapton, Dave Todoran will assay the role of Bob Dylan, Jack Hammer will channel Van Morrison, Chilly Addams will get at the essence of Neil Young, Marnée will embody Joni Mitchell, Bob Bailey will appear as Neil Diamond, Rick Barrand will play Paul Butterfield and DJ Doc West will intone as Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Mallers’ Indianapolis-based group, The Haters, will back everyone up as The Band.
West, who has had notable interactions with many rock legends, said he had an interesting encounter with the post-film manifestation of The Band at the now-defunct Fort Wayne club, Piere’s.
West approached Rick Danko after the show to get an item signed, and Danko replied, “Okay, let’s do it on the tour bus, and bring your Heineken with you.”
“The Heineken was a fresh one,” West recalled, “and he goes, ‘Hey, do you mind if I finish your beer?’ And I go, ‘No! It would be an honor, Rick. Do it.’ He guzzled it down in two seconds. Bam, bam. He handed the bottle back to me and, as he handed it back to me, the door opened on the tour bus and it was Levon Helm.”
West later found out that Danko was on rehab at the time, so he was grateful that the timing of the bottle pass was such that neither he nor Danko got into trouble with Helm.
“Caught!” he said, laughing. “It was like we were teenagers.”
This isn’t the first time West has played poet and activist Ferlinghetti, who prefaced the historic concert with an eccentric version of the Lord’s Prayer called Loud Prayer.
West said the Fort Wayne editions of Such a Night have proved to be exciting.
“There’s a lot of spontaneity to it,” he said. “Because the local musicians rehearse along with the record or the CD.”
Mallers said the very first show was never intended to be anything but the last show, because no one wanted initially to be involved permanently or semi-permanently in a tribute act.
“But when this show was over, we all sort of looked at each other and said, ‘We’re in a tribute band now,'” he said. “‘We don’t want this feeling to end.'”
The organizers came up with the plan to present the show in a number of nearby cities annually, recruiting local musicians from each. The only constant would be The Haters.
“All of a sudden, it was like, ‘What a great idea!'” Mallers said. “We can go to different towns with the core band and enlist the cast from the town, and we’ll meet new musicians and we’ll have a blast and we’ll give some money to charity in every town we go to.'”
Such a Night now happens in Indianapolis, Bloomington, Louisville and Fort Wayne.
The charity in Fort Wayne that will benefit from this year’s show is the Community Harvest Food Bank.
The reason the concert seems to resonate with performers and audiences alike, Mallers said, is the variety. Portraying The Band means that the Haters (five permanent members plus three additional horns) get to act as house band throughout. It’s a role that comes naturally to them, he said.
Mallers and his seasoned musical cohorts have spent many years as sidemen and session musicians and have gotten quite good at melding with, and complementing, performers unfamiliar to them.
“When we’re backing up other people – in a way, I think the audience gets to see us do what we do best,” he said. “Whenever people get nervous and say, ‘Boy, this is a pretty big deal,’ I always tell them, ‘Don’t worry, because we’re just going to put you in a cradle and rock you back and forth like a baby.”
Longtime media personality Chilly Addams, who will perform Neil Young’s set during the show, said the movie helped him understand what life was really like for these rock pioneers.
He cited a Robbie Robertson quote from the film about how life on the road is a school where musicians either learn how to survive – or don’t.
“To know more and understand how it was like for those that were actually pioneering rock n’ roll; it’s an amazing thing to contemplate,” he said.
“I will always do everything I can to promote music to anyone and everyone, to keep it in schools and to give those who don’t have a lot of opportunities a chance to play.”