In the Spirit of the Last Waltz: Levon Helm tribute concert
by Sarah Bryant
When multi-instrumentalist and actor Levon Helm lost his battle to cancer in April 2012, fans and fellow musicians mourned the loss of “one of the greats.” Helm was best known for being the drummer and frequent lead vocalist of critically lauded and highly influential Americana group The Band.
“The Band are one of those acts that are full of great musicians that musicians love. They wrote songs that were high energy, passionate, and timely,” said David Herbert, director of the upcoming film documenting Bellingham’s own tribute to Levon Helm and The Band, called The Spirit of the Last Waltz.
Herbert, who hails from Vancouver B.C., along with local Bellingham musician and friend Stephen Ray Leslie were the main brains and fuel behind the project. The pair gained their main inspiration from The Band’s now classic concert documentary directed by Martin Scorsese, The Last Waltz, which captured the band’s farewell concert in 1976 and had countless guest appearances from Bob Dylan to Van Morrison to Muddy Waters.
“The Last Waltz is still one of the best concert documentaries of all time. There were so many incredible performances,” Leslie said. “David and I had been talking for a few years about trying to do a tribute to the Last Waltz and Levon (Helm) dying was the push that we needed.”
Leslie and Herbert’s idea for the tribute was to invite local musicians from the Bellingham and Vancouver music scenes to celebrate the life of Helm and the music of The Band. More than 30 musicians participated in the tribute show on Sept. 22, 2012 at The Green Frog.
“We wanted to get a ton a different artists like the Last Waltz but we didn’t want to get stuck into just doing The Last Waltz,” Leslie explained. “We didn’t follow the setlist song for song from the documentary. We let some of the musicians perform originals songs and classics they love. That’s why the film is called In the Spirit of the Last Waltz. We aren’t The Band. We’re celebrating them.”
The show was a huge success, selling out during its presale and had an energy to the night that Leslie described as magic and a fitting tribute. Bellingham folk hero Robert Blake even dressed up in a purple leisure suit similar to the one Van Morrison wore for the original Last Waltz film. In the Spirit of the Last Waltz contains highlights of the two and a half hour tribute concert as well as interview portions with Herbert and Leslie discussing what went into organizing the show and their thoughts about The Band.
“If anybody accidentally directed a documentary, it’s me,” Herbert admitted with a laugh. “We weren’t even planning on filming the show until about a week before it was supposed to happen, and we found a guy to film and a guy to record audio just for our personal reasons so we could remember it. We had no intention of making a documentary.”
Once the two reviewed the audio and footage from the show however, they said they knew they wanted to do more with it. Herbert took over the director’s position for the documentary, helping with the editing process and writing the interview sections. The documentary also touches on the unique Canadian-American, cross-border music scene between Vancouver and Bellingham.
“It’s as much a documentary of our Bellingham-Vancouver music scene as it is a documentary about a tribute concert,” Herbert said. “It’s about the characters and the performers in our scene celebrating one of their heroes and the musical exchange between our two cities.”
In the Spirit of the Last Waltz will premiere Sunday, Nov. 24 at the Green Frog, where the tribute concert was filmed. Three showings of the documentary will be held at 6 p.m., 8 p.m. and 10 p.m.