Warren Haynes was 16 and already a professional guitarist when the Band staged its fabled farewell concert, “The Last Waltz” in 1976. Two years later, the Martin Scorsese-directed concert film was released around the time Haynes finished high school and hit the road.
Four decades down that road, after a quarter-century run with the Allman Brothers Band, collaborations with various Grateful Dead-derived projects, and 22 years and counting with his own Gov’t Mule, Haynes is still a huge fan of the Band.
“The Band’s music is better now than it was when they were making it,” he said during a recent phone interview. “And ‘The Last Waltz’ is better now than when they were making it.
“Some things lose their luster through time. Neither The Band’s music, nor ‘The Last Waltz,’ are in that category. It sounds less dated than ever. It sounds even more timeless now.”
If The Band were to stage “The Last Waltz” today, “you would hope it would sound just like that.”
Haynes will test that philosophy next weekend at the Saenger Theatre. On April 29-30, he’ll anchor the house band for “The Last Waltz New Orleans: A Celebration of the 40th Anniversary of ‘The Last Waltz.’” Tickets range from $69 to $550 plus service charges through Ticketmaster.
The Band’s original “Last Waltz” was Nov. 25, 1976 at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Special guests included Dr. John and southwest Louisiana songwriter Bobby Charles. Allen Toussaint wrote the horn charts, which is why next weekend’s tribute concerts are also being billed as a salute to Toussaint.
“The Last Waltz New Orleans” is a production of Blackbird Presents, a New York-based firm that specializes in unique, all-star events. Blackbird and founder Keith Wortman produced “The Musical Mojo of Dr. John: Celebrating Mac and His Music” at the Saenger during the 2014 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and “Nevilles Forever: A Celebration of the Neville Brothers and Their Music” at the same venue during the 2015 Jazz Fest.
In addition to Haynes and co-musical director/bassist Don Was, the house band for “The Last Waltz New Orleans” includes country singer-songwriter Jamey Johnson and an array of first-call New Orleanians, including guitarist Dave Malone of the Radiators, bassist George Porter Jr. of the Meters, trombonist Mark Mullins of Bonerama and drummer Terence Higgins of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
Haynes has admired and worked with most of them for years. The Radiators performed at his 1997 wedding. Higgins is the drummer in Haynes’ eponymous solo band. And Porter was one of the substitutes who stepped in after the 2000 death of original Gov’t Mule bassist Allen Woody.
“Porter is one of the people that helped keep Gov’t Mule alive,” Haynes said. “It was a critical time, as far as us deciding whether we were going to continue to be a band or not.”
Using New Orleanians for “The Last Waltz New Orleans” suits the style of the Band. “Those guys suit any music just fine, but The Band’s music, absolutely,” Haynes said.
Growing up in North Carolina before the advent of DVDs and Netflix, he was more familiar with the live album drawn from “The Last Waltz” than the film. “But I did see the film quite a few times back in the day. It was amazing to be able to put the music and the visual together.”
For next weekend’s concerts, “We’re not adhering strictly to the film or album — we’re taking it from the concert itself. It was such a long show, we’re deciding what would be the most effective night of music based on the actual concert.”
They’ll also showcase some songs that weren’t included in either the album or film. “There’s a cool Wikipedia page that tells you the entire set list, and what made the film and what made the record and all that stuff.”
Haynes is a veteran of numerous Blackbird-produced events, including concerts dedicated to Gregg Allman, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Levon Helm. He also contributed to the 2014 Dr. John tribute.
But “The Last Waltz New Orleans” is the first time he’s stepped up as musical director. He, Was and Wortman “had multiple conversations about trying to make it a unique celebration of something historical.”
Note-for-note recreations are not the goal. “I don’t think we would ever do note-for-note anything, especially something as interpretative and loose as The Band’s music,” Haynes said. “We’ll have some sort of roadmap of what’s going to happen. At rehearsal, that will change. And it will change again at show time.”
The set list will vary from night to night, as will the special guests. “I expect there to be a lot of impromptu happenings. The proper way to celebrate something and pay tribute to something is to take what was there and interpret it with your own personality. Myself, and all the people that I gravitate toward and tend to work with, share that philosophy.”
The “Last Waltz” shows, and the rehearsals that precede them, will conclude a busy week in New Orleans for Haynes. Friday, he and Gov’t Mule will close Jazz Fest’s opening day at the Gentilly Stage with a 5:25 p.m. set.
Gov’t Mule “is our laboratory to do whatever we collectively want to do. We all have such varied tastes individually, but we do tend to agree on so much music. The chemistry we have is undeniable. It’s a wonderful opportunity for us to keep expanding our own horizons.”
A desire to expand horizons explains in part why Haynes and co-lead guitarist Derek Trucks decided to leave the Allman Brothers Band in 2014. With their departure, the Allman Brothers called it a career.
“Not only was it one of my favorite bands of all time, but one of the greatest bands of all time,” Haynes said. “I think we all miss playing together and playing that music and hanging together. I’m sure we’ll do all those things again in varying degrees and incarnations. Everybody really enjoys what we’re doing individually. But any time you stop doing something like that, you’re gonna miss it.”
Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.