Pass the drumstick

The anti-headliner ethic of ‘The Last Waltz Revisited’

Photo © Tobin Voggesser

CR Gruver is stuck in New Orleans rush hour traffic, on the phone and wolfing down some dinner, crinkling food wrapper rustling and the occasional car honk in the background. Gruver, along with compadres guitarist Tori Pater and production manager/promoter Gayor Geller, are staging The Last Waltz Revisited again this year, at the Boulder Theater (Friday, Nov. 22) and the Fillmore Auditorium (Wednesday, Nov. 27), and even if Gruver has been a New Orleans resident for years, this production remains both a labor of love and an enduring gift to the Denver area’s music scene. 

Staged originally at the tiny Dulcinea’s in Denver in May of 2005 as a one-off, hosted by Pater and Gruver’s band Polytoxic, the event now routinely sells out the 3,000-capacity Fillmore and the more intimate Boulder Theater every year, having taken on a life of its own. Polytoxic as an ongoing franchise is well in the rearview mirror (although they still get together for gigs, each billed ironically as ‘the last Polytoxic show’), but The Last Waltz Revisited lives on.  

“It really leans on the local scene,” Gruver says, emphasizing the last word. “That’s kind of the way Polytoxic started; we became kind of the band that everyone would show up at the gig with an instrument and jam with us. We loved including everybody.”

At press time, the roster of musicians has extended to 79 or 80 (it’ll probably be more by show time), dwarfing the original Band farewell concert staged and famously committed to film by Martin Scorcese in November 1976. Standard concert preview protocol calls for a quick read of some of the names involved, but that would run counter to the event’s resolutely anti-headliner ethic. The event is a benefit for the Denver Rescue Mission, which is what matters, and the star of the event is the music, not the top-billed artist. 

“It’s purposely not an ‘all-star’ concert,” insists Gruver. “That was by design. This being our 15th year, we do have some bigger names that we went out and got. I’m fortunate enough to be a touring musician, so I know some people out there that I pulled in, and Tori’s the same way, but for the most part our strength has always been the fact that we built this, starting at Dulcinea’s, with nothing but local musicians.

“It’s become bigger than me, or Tori, or Gayor, or any of the musicians. What we created has become such a tradition, it really has nothing to do with us anymore.” 

Well, it still has a little to do with the three principals. We couldn’t help but wonder how a gig like this, largely a pre-determined setlist but one also subject to some change, gets staged. Rehearsals, song/artist alignment. The fans and the tradition and the songs and the cause are the heart and soul, sure, but these things don’t happen by themselves. 

Seriously… how do you manage 30-plus songs and 80 musicians? (And in Gruver’s case… remotely.)

“Google docs!” laughs Gruver. “A whole spider web of Google docs. Lots of spreadsheets. 

“It takes about a year … we have this rule that after the show, we’re not allowed to talk about [next year’s show] until Jan. 2. But inevitably, we’re on the phone with each other the day after Thanksgiving. After 15 years, a lot of the infrastructure is already there and set in place. There’s a process, but still a lot of communication and a lot of emails back and forth.

“We’ve got what we call the ‘core band,’ bass and drums usually. We have six of those doing six or seven songs apiece, they show up and do a five- or six-hour rehearsal, and then the horns show up and we run through all the songs with the horn section. And really, we’ve been doing this so long, it’s usually just one run-through of the songs and we’ve got it.”

What about the struggling player with some chops, maybe new to the area, looking to gain a little exposure and network with some old hands — how do fresh faces get themselves on this stage? 

“I tell you, what’s worked for a good handful of musicians is people sending me a Facebook message, saying something like, ‘Hey, I see what you’re doing, and I want to be part of it.’ On a couple of occasions it’s worked out really well. Other occasions they did one show and we realized it just wasn’t there.”

The Last Waltz, of course, the original, occupies a unique place in the American rock cinema pantheon — indisputably one of most essential concert films of its era (maybe any era), even if the event itself was somewhat fraught and later besmirched by the bitterness expressed by most of The Band not named Robbie Robertson. Levon Helm was especially critical in his autobiography, calling it a rip-off, and critics have pointed to it as the closing of an era, premature by some estimation, and the seduction of Robbie Robertson into a career of Hollywood and big-music-industry schmoozing. 

Gruver noted that for all the gripes, from critics and some of the participants, it still played a vital role. 

“As much as people want to bash it, it made a lot of people’s careers, and really helped some people — some of them would have had big careers anyway — but I think about Dr. John, for example, who was well known locally, but that “Such a Night” really helped propel his career. And Bobby Charles, he had a couple of hits. They brought a lot of people to the table.”  

But if it’s possible to separate Robertson the man from the songs, it’s worth noting that The Band’s output represents a foundational model, paradoxically both detailed and warmly organic, for much of the No Depression/alt-Americana that followed in the ’90s and early aughts. We asked Gruver if he thought that their influence is duly recognized as such.

“I don’t think it is, consciously,” Gruver says. “I think everyone recognizes in a way that they don’t even know they recognize it. And it’s so ironic, since none of them, except for Levon, were even American. I loved that irony. Writing songs about the South… ‘Acadian Driftwood’ being a really good example.”

Gruver opened a School of Rock in New Orleans about a year and a half ago, in addition to his full-time gig as a member of the New Orleans Suspects (who also do a Last Waltz tribute show, which includes Reggie Scanlon, formerly of the Radiators). He isn’t reluctant to compare the Denver and New Orleans music scenes.

“I moved to Denver for the music scene,” he says. “People thought I was crazy. I’d say, ‘You don’t know!’ Between Kansas City and Salt Lake, there’s nothin’. Eight or nine hours in either direction to either city, you have to stop in Denver. And, people love music. Younger demographic. People have money, there’s every size venue… It’s very underrated.

“The Denver scene, what The Last Waltz represents, is very communal, and very supportive. Which is very unique; in a lot of cities it can be very competitive. And New Orleans can be that way too, in some ways. But I see a lot of similarity between the two cities, in a positive way. Denver has a lot of soul and a lot of grit, and a wide diversity of amazing musicians.”  

Attendees bringing canned food items for The Denver Rescue Mission will receive a free limited edition poster commemorating this year’s Last Waltz — Revisited (poster artwork by Diana Azab, publicist/graphic designer at Cervantes’). The food and a portion of proceeds will go to the Denver Rescue Mission.  

ON THE BILL: The Last Waltz Revisited 15th Anniversary (in benefit of The Denver Rescue Mission). 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 22, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St., Boulder, Tickets are $20. 

8 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 27, Fillmore Auditorium, 1510 N. Clarkson St., Denver. Tickets are $58 and up.