The Last Waltz, the famous final live performance by The Band in 1976, and the locally performed re-creation bear striking similarities.
Those parallels will be especially evident this year, when the production known as Stage Fright sets up for the 10th time Wednesday at The Metro.
Both events boast name recognition. The original, which was turned into a 1978 documentary film directed by Martin Scorsese, featured a cast of Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, and the Eau Claire performance led by Billy Angell and his Rhythm Posse band mates presents a regional who’s who of highly respected musicians.
The songs will be the same, including Band classics such as “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “The Weight” as well as the hits of the special guests who appeared on that long-ago Thanksgiving night — among them Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Eric Clapton and Van Morrison.
Another reason the two concerts are alike holds true this year in particular: Just as The Last Waltz offered a chance to say goodbye, so does Stage Fright X, as there will be no such production in the foreseeable future.
To be clear, Angell said, in 2020 he and his fellow organizers and performers will do another day-before-Thanksgiving show. But that particular event won’t revisit the happenings at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom.
“We’ve been doing it so often it’s time for something new,” Angell said.
Angell and others who help with the production want to continue in some form, he said, in part because they want to keep up the fundraising aspect of Stage Fright. This year the beneficiary is Bolton Refuge House. Previously, the effort has helped food related charities such as The Community Table.
But the final bow does make it appropriate to recall the memorable episodes of years past and preview what the organizers have arranged for this year. For that purpose, Angell, Rhythm Posse guitarist Lucas Fischer and musician Andrew Liss got together for a conversation about all things Stage Fright and The Last Waltz.
For Fischer, part of the joy has been that so many bands from so many elements of the local scene get together.
“This is one show where you have original bands and cover bands,” he said. “You have original bands that are old and established, and you have cover bands that are old and established. And then we usually try to mine the new younger bands that are coming up and try to get them all in the same room together. And they at least can say hi. And they at least can hear each other and experience what these other talents can do.”
In fact, Angell said, some bands actually have formed through the interactions at Stage Fright — The Rhythm Posse among them.
Numbers also can help tell the story. As Angell noted, more than 151 unique musicians have given their talents to the cause over the years, and this year they’ll be joined by a lineup of about 40, up from the typical cast of 25 to 30.
This is also the fifth venue where the show has been mounted, with The Metro preceded by The Lismore Hotel, The Plus, Stones Throw and the now closed House of Rock.
“Oh yes sir. We’re pulling out all the stops,” Angell said. One special addition is that the organizers conducted a poll on their Facebook page for which local musicians people would like to see reprise their roles.
“So this is really a fan favorite best of,” Angell said.
For the poll, the voting for who would bring to life Eric Clapton’s rendition of “Further On Up the Road” finished so close that three prominent guitar players will share the honors: Michael Schlenker, Tommy Bentz and Josh Entzminger.
“That’s just a powerhouse,” Angell said, adding that Fischer will be adding his own sonic fireworks to the song.
To re-create the part of the concert in which the Staple Singers sang harmonies on “The Weight,” three prominent female singers from the area will lend their talents: Faith Ulwelling, Sarah Spindler and Sarah Maurer.
As Liss noted, “There are a lot of recognizable names that if people come to the show they’re going to be like, ‘Oh, I know this person from this.’ The whole lineup is full of people that this town will recognize.”
As Stage Fright has continued, it has been easier to find musicians to assist, especially after the first three years, when they moved it from Thanksgiving Day, like the original show, to the day before the holiday. Even then there are some scheduling challenges, as they’ve found some musicians have perennial gigs on that night.
Eager to help
Liss, who is not a member of The Rhythm Posse, is delighted to have helped for the past four shows, pointing out he was honored to be asked and delighted to help with the charitable endeavor.
That’s a common sentiment, as Fischer explained. “Most people go, ‘Well, around Thanksgiving? Charity? Christmas coming up? Absolutely,’” he said.
While talking about some of the year-to-year favorites, the three musicians mentioned “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” always wows the audience, in part because it features a supporting cast that isn’t seen all that often on local rock stages: a horn section and additional backup vocalists. Other popular renditions are “Ophelia” and Dr. John’s “Such a Night.”
Aside from the most recognizable songs, Angell has enjoyed finding musicians who create varied interpretations of the theme from The Last Waltz. Last year Todd Barneson played it solo on guitar. The year before that guitarist Greg Gilbertson and saxophonist Sue Orfield did their own take. This year the Weapons of Brass Destruction horn band is returning; previously they played a New Orleans-style take.
One particularly memorable incident from Stage Fright, Angell recalled, happened about five or six years ago, when Peter Phippen got the part of Ronnie Hawkins, who sang the rocking “Who Do You Love.”
Because Phippen had a regular gig that night, he hadn’t yet appeared as the time crept closer to when he was due in the Stage Fright spotlight.
“Somebody from the back of the room yells. ‘He’s here,’” Angell said. “And Peter gets out of his car, comes busting through the crowd, gets up onstage, does just a killer rendition of the song, puts the mic down, busts his way back through the crowd, gets in the car and takes off. … That’s the most rock thing I’ve ever seen ever. It was just beautiful.”
Dressed for the occasion
During the performers have added flash and color to the proceedings through their costumes.
One year when Jeff White filled the role of Bob Dylan, Angell recalled, “he sent off to England to get the purple and white polka dot shirt, and then he found the hat somewhere.”
“He found a feather for the hat too,” Fischer added.
In the first year, Angell said, Michael Rambo was cast as Dr. John, “and he didn’t have a beard so he drew one on with a Sharpie. He was 6-4, 4-inch sparkly, silver platinum shoes, he’s got the jacket, the hat, and everything. Bow tie, all of it.”
Stage Fright stays quite close to the actual order, although they make some alterations such as keeping the horns on stage to do consecutive performances rather than play for a time, leave, and return shortly thereafter, as happened in The Last Waltz.
It should be noted that Stage Fright differs from the film’s set list in that they open with “Up on Cripple Creek.” That’s the opener in the actual concert, but for the film Scorsese chose to start off with “Don’t Do it,” which actually was the final song The Band played.
For the whole family
Angell said he’s surprised to discover how many people who attend Stage Fright have never seen the iconic documentary. But maybe Stage Fright’s intergenerational appeal contributes to that, and in itself is part of the event’s attraction.
“What’s beautiful about this event is it’s become kind of a family affair,” Liss said. “So you’ll see families come out where grandparents and some of the older parents will know the documentary. The kids don’t. ... But at the same time it’s the energy of the room … I love it when you can bring old and young together. And this is that type of event.”
Fischer remembered a case demonstrating that effect.
“There’s this gentleman who’s been coming to the show for probably about six years, and it’s become his family’s tradition,” he said. “He was telling me his son goes to school in South Dakota and he called him up (recently) and said, ‘Dad, I’m not going to be home on Monday, but I’ll be there for right before we go to Stage Fright.”
Hearing that, Angell responded that he gets the greatest satisfaction from the number of people who return every year. “I don’t know if it’s a special reason or because of the show itself, but to me that’s the greatest reaction we can get.”
One possible reason for that, Liss speculated, is the broad spectrum of music – including folk, rock and jazz – performed by talented singers and instrumentalists.
“It’s a perfect blend,” he said. “You have some of the best musicians that the Chippewa Valley has to offer. You have some of the best music from that era.”
The closing song of the evening, Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” gets some of the loudest crowd responses of the night.
“One, because we get the whole cast up on stage with us,”Angell said, “and it’s one that everyone in the crowd can sing along to, and they do.”
It stands to reason that chorus could be especially impassioned this year.