Well, it wasn’t Thanksgiving Day proper, such as 40 years ago at the historic Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. But many devoted fans of that epic concert braved a snowstorm on Nov. 26 to take in Crystal Bay Casino’s seventh-annual Thanksgiving weekend Locals’ Last Waltz, featuring Jelly Bread and Friends, and the 40th anniversary of the legendary last concert by the Band and its many guests, which has since inspired a cult-like following and reverence among rock ‘n’ roll aficionados and newcomers.
Jelly Bread, the powerhouse band originating from Reno, headlined, delivering its deliciously funky, slightly swampy, shredding it kind of rock that fans have come to rely on. Selecting a choice number of songs from the Last Waltz catalog, Jelly Bread and its talented guests tore it up all night long, playing and singing their hearts out till the very last epic note. Consummate musicianship distinguishes this fine quintet, from quintessentially soaring lead guitarist Sean Lehe, to bassist Errick Lewis’ fine syncopation and relaxed, Funky (capital F), grooves, and “Southern-fried singer-guitarist” Dave Berry’s commanding performance and pitch-perfect vocals. The gospel-rich, soul sanctified voice of singer and drummer Cliff Porter uplifted us with its powerful tones, while Eric Matlock’s performance on keyboards and talk box was as animated, phenomenal, and inspiring as ever. Man, can that guy boogie!
Jelly Bread opened with “Life Is a Carnival,” sultry and rocking. Moving into “Down South In New Orleans,” they morphed into “Aiko Aiko,” featuring the 45th Street Brass section from Seattle, which tours and records with Jelly Bread. Cliff Porter launched into “Shape I’m In,” projecting his powerful, honeyed voice with all his might. Berry picked up the lap steel guitar, and shared vocals with Porter, harmonizing with a perfection that satisfies the soul. (There’s a reason it’s called “gospel.”)
Guest singer Cheryl Bowers joined the band first, for a rousing “Rag, Mama Rag,” resplendent in a gorgeous outfit (perfect for New Orleans, New Year’s Eve, or a 40th anniversary party), she rocked the party: red lace, a plunging neckline, patterned black lace stockings provocatively peeking through an open-cut black dress fastened discreetly beneath Bowers’ heart. Bassist Lewis’ elegant, polka-dot bow tie also earned high praise, with more than one female patron remarking, “It’s all in the little things!” Indeed, Gentlemen! Local favorite “Samily Man” Sam Ravenna joined the burgeoning tribe onstage for “Don’t You Break My Heart,” tearing it up alongside Bowers and Berry on vocals and his guitar. Another North Shore favorite, Peter Joseph Burt, took the microphone next, crooning the blues in a funky, mesmerizing plea, accented by Berry’s sensitive, rhythmic guitar work, and showcasing Lehe’s soaring, melodic lead licks. Sensational musicianship.
Singer Emily Quinn (a Tahoe gal and frequent guest with Dead Winter Carpenters), mandolin playing Conor McAlindin (from Kings Beach), and session drummer (Jelly Bread’s recording engineer and UNR music prof) Tom Gordon joined the band next for a poignant rendition of “Evangeline,” Quinn’s voice melding in sympathetic harmonies with Berry’s. A medley of amazing artists, songs, and anthems of a generation began to cloud the set list, but I know we moved through a very satisfying “Up On Cripple Creek,” and Quinn and Bower returned to serenade us with their duet of Neil Young’s “Helpless.” Dave Lockhart (bassist with Dead Winter Carpenters) joined up to lend his harmonica to the mix (masterfully so), with yet another guitarist, Incline Village bluesman Jeff Jones, for a most manly exposition of “I’m a Man.” No doubt about it, with Jones’ deep, bellowing voice and great bluesman banter and swagger.
More songs from that great night in 1976, from “Who Do You Love?” to “Caledonia,” and the addition of guitarist Michael Quinby (Roseland Headhunters) from Portland, Oregon, to the stage, with his ferociously driving, electrifying style. The power-trio that is Groove Session joined the constantly coming and going stream of musicians for “Caravan” and “It Makes No Difference,” with the crazily articulated drumming style and balladeer voice of singer Manny Sanchez, Ronnie Sanchez grinning on bass, and the talented Sarvan Manguiat focused on guitar. They rocked it, heavily, in promise of their energetic after-party set in the Red Room.
A rollicking “Ophelia” led into Bowers returning to the stage to belt a bluesy “Mystery Train,” the old Paul Butterfield classic, followed by Michael Quinby on “Who Do You Love?” Lockhart played bass (with an injured thumb – the guy really is multi-talented) on “Forever Young,” followed by more classics like “Such A Night,” “If I Don’t Do It, Somebody Else Will,” and of course the crowd-pleasing, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (featuring Berry’s powerfully emotive lap slide guitar and vocals). Bowers came back up for everyone’s inspirational favorite, “The Weight,” trading verses among the many capable voices onstage, followed by the whole entourage returning to the stage for a sweet and heartfelt finish with Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” featuring Burtt and Bowers on lead vocals.
There’s a joyful power in music that survives this long, that now spans generations, and brings universal messages of poetic resistance, justice, love, and redemption in its lyrics embedded in some of the finest, searing rock-n-roll rhythms, arrangements and melodies ever written. There’s a reason we keep celebrating the Last Waltz every year. Hallelujah.
No one argued when the ensemble left the stage without an encore; finishing the set with the encore from 1976 was good enough for us. (Besides, we still had Groove Session in the Red Room). The snow had piled up while we’d been inside, adding to the magical feeling permeating the night.
Related story: How “The Last Waltz” at Tahoe began and the greatest rock movies of all time. LINK