Written and Photographed by Eric Sperrazza
On September 25th of 1994, a much younger me arrived at Cooper River Park in Pennsauken, New Jersey, to attend the WYSP Be-In Music Festival. There, I would stand with my family and see The Band perform every song I had ever heard played in our home. “The Weight,” “Forever Young,” “Up & Cripple Creek,”and “Atlantic City,”all vibrantly in living color and just a few feet away from where I stood. Looking back, it’s relatively easy to point to that night in my fledgling musiciophile days when that particular sound spoke to me. Today, bands like Marcus Young, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band & The Dead South live in my audio collection in direct lineage to that moment.
And although that first experience was special to me, it paled in comparison to the first time I sat down and watched the 1978 release of Martin Scorsese‘s documentary of The Band’s swan song, The Last Waltz. The concert that the documentary chronicled took place at the Winterland Ballroom and was not just a goodbye to the members of The Band but a goodbye to the passion in which Folk, Americana, and even good ol’ fashioned Blues-y Nashville Rock were consumed by the mainstream. More importantly, it is the single most perfect concert experience ever on recording, a platform often imitated but never duplicated. Well, almost never.
Much like everything else in the City of Brotherly Love, the Philadelphia music scene is a tight-knit and fiercely protective community. In fact, it’s less a ‘scene’ and more of a congregation in a sense, supporting & cheering each other on while sharing passions in song. And much like congregations are wont to have, Philly had anchors embedded in the community. And if Fergie Carey sat at the heart of it all then Bryan Dilworth surely lived in its soul. Dilworth was not only a Booker Extraordinaire but the driving force behind one of the most incredible showcases of Philly Music. In 2013, Dilworth recreated the famous Last Waltz concert, artist for an artist, with Philly Music Mainstays, Rising Talents & Legends. He even got Garth Hudson of The Band to appear as the proverbial papal blessing to the show. It was such a spectacle that he did it again at The Underground Arts in 2018. Regarded as the highlight of his career, Dilworth would not live to do it again, as he passed away in 2020 at the devastatingly young age of 51.
Enter Kristin Thomson, musician, former co-owner of the record label Simple Machines & wife to the late Bryan Dilworth. Thomson, with the help of Get The Led Out‘s Andrew Lipke, Philebrity.com‘s Joey Sweeney, and even the great Fergus “Fergie” Carey, was able to realize a dream…one more Waltz. Together they would once again assemble a cavalcade of Philly talent at Franklin Hall, the original Electric Factory where Dilworth’s legacy echoed from shows booked and gone by. The night was billed as a tribute to Dilworth and as a charity event for Former Eagle Connor Barwin‘s nonprofit, Make the World Better Foundation, of which Dilworth sat on the Board. The metaphorical stage was set to be a grand night of music, memories, and celebration of Dilworth’s sheer love for the music community of Philadelphia.
Walking into Franklin Hall feels more like walking into a time capsule for a song and a drink than a run-of-the-mill venue. The history of all the memories and sounds created within those walls is palpable, and no better place to fill the air with the music of The Last Waltz. With that, the chandeliers were hung and lit over the stage, and the night began with Connor Barwin introducing the work of MTWB. The West Powelton Drummers would set the pace and officially kick off the show.
The House “Band” consisted of Andrew Lipke alongside musicians Freddie Berman, Andrew Napoli, Matty Muir, and Adam Flicker, with Hailey Brinnel, Matt Cappy, Jay Davidson, and Sean McCusker on horns. With the same seamless precision of the source material concert, special guests transitioned on and off stage and put different sounds and styles on display.
There were some truly mind-blowing performances of note. First, Low Cut Connie‘s Adam Weiner tore up “Who Do You Love?” while flying off the stage, into the Media Pit, over the rail, and into the fans, while not missing a note. His high-energy stage presence turned up the crowd for a long night of artists, setting the bar for everyone else ahead.
Chelsea Mitchell of the band, Dirty Dollhouse, gave a rendition of “Coyote” that could not have been any better had Joni Mitchell stepped onstage with her. Mitchell’s Americana vibe and her resilience in her musical projects earned her the nickname “The Queen Coyote.” In no small way did her contribution to The Last Waltz galvanize that.
R & B Rock wunderkind and Retro Groove Assassin Mutlu brought warmth to his rendition of “The Weight.” So much so that I was backstage talking to the publisher of That Mag, Brian Cronin, but when I first heard Mutlu utter the first few words, “I pulled into Nazareth, was feelin’ bout half past dead” I took off around the front to see what I was hearing, seemingly abandoning my literary employer. But I was taken aback by the sincerity of the delivery and was immediately brought back to a place of youth with my mom singing along while my father played this song on our rack stereo system. And I was not alone. Gen-X’ers and Baby Boomers surrounded me, and even children swayed and sang along like they were joining in with a familiar holiday carol beaming with the same kind of joy on their faces.
Let’s talk briefly about what you would expect if you knew you would see the M-A-The-Double-D, Maxx Madd D Williams, of the Philly Rap Innovators, The Goats and Black Landlord. You would not be alone if you were expecting slick bars and funky backbeats. But Williams hit you with a hard two-piece of soul & blues as he hammered out the Muddy Waters classic, “Mannish Boy.” Williams’ version had the grit & ‘seen some shit’ sprinkled on top; that is the only way that song truly can be delivered.
What do you get when you combine the power of Nina Simone, The showmanship of Tina Turner, and the fierce vibe of Mary J. Blige? You get Philly’s own, Tanqueray Hayward. Taking on the classic, Further on up the Road, Hayward exploded onstage and stayed in constant motion, corner to corner, the entire time. She made you feel that song with her whole self, emoting in a way that you rarely see or hear in modern-day artists, almost a vintage delivery of song. And when the wig was thrown off in defiance, and she hit her knees in the testimony of song, like the spirit was moving her, you had no choice but to second-guess the decision to have Clapton be the one to have covered it at the original Waltz. It was like Hayward’s sole purpose was to show the world how that song should be sung.
John Train and The Philly King of the Slide Guitar, Slo Mo, gave the audience a venerable clinic in how to perform “Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” giving it that feeling of being in a smoky & dimly lit Blues Club with a stiff drink in your hand after midnight when no one is making good decisions. Chef’s kiss. It was perfection.
The Most Badass of Poets and wife of musician Joey Sweeny, Elizabeth Scanlon, did a scorching word-for-word reciting of “Loud Prayer.” Even Fergie Carey got on stage to recite the “Intro to the Canterbury Tales.”
And just as the first Waltz came to a close, this one ended the same way. All the musicians and guests, from David Uosikkinen of The Hooters to Dan Reed, Music Director of WXPN, came together onstage to sing “I Shall Be Released.” And as the theme from The Last Waltz played on the monitors, the lights came on.
It’s tough to articulate what an amazing experience this was. In one night, the very finest in Philadelphia’s performance artists got together in one historic place to play arguably the greatest music documentary concert ever put on film, and all in tribute to one man who left the world too soon and all for a great cause. What else can you say?
The best picture I can paint is this – In my entire career of writing, I have had the pleasure of getting great photographs from press vantage points. I have interviewed some epic musicians over the phone that I personally admire and listen to. And I have seen some of the best shows anyone could see in this world. But in all this time, I have never been backstage just chatting with musicians, managers, and the crew. I have never been walked to dressing rooms and introduced to entertainers. For whatever reason, I never asked, and I never tried. Call it being simply grateful for what opportunities I had. But on this night, that changed.
I got to chit-chat with the owner of my magazine. A conversation continued into the back, where I was introduced to everyone, and I had access to new fantastical vantage points for pictures. However, as I write this now and think back on the night, my mind does not instantly go there and celebrate that. My first knee-jerk memory of reminiscing about that show goes right to hearing Chris Kasper belt out “Up on Cripple Creek.” It sent a wave of nostalgia right up my spine as memories of my parents playing this cassette (Google it, Kids.) and making me tie-dyed shirts with my cousin while seeing The Band swirled in my head. I missed people no longer with me and felt them in my heart all at once, hearing that mere music feet from where I stood once more. That’s what I remember, and that was the point.
If I have one wish, Kristin Thomson & Friends can capture lightning in a bottle and make this happen again. I’m not ready for this to be my last waltz.