A FEW MINUTES WITH… Bob Margolin of the Last Waltz 40 Tour

By Don Wilcock

Warren Haynes may be the big draw in Thursday’s (February 2) Last Waltz 40 Tour concert at Albany’s Palace Theatre, but Bob Margolin is the only musician in the stellar line-up who actually participated in the original Last Waltz concert, billed as the last concert by The Band. Martin Scorsese’s film of that 1976 show is widely regarded the best rock concert film ever.

At that time Margolin was the lead guitarist and music director for blues icon Muddy Waters, and during that legendary concert, he played with Muddy, Eric Clapton, Paul Butterfield and Pinetop Perkins.

Now four decades later he’s sharing guitar duties with Warren Haynes and rubbing shoulders with an A-list of support musicians that includes Michael McDonald (the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan); country hitmaker Jamey Johnson; keyboardist John Medeski of Medeski, Martin & Wood; Don Was of Was (Not Was) and president of the Blue Note jazz label; funk drummer Terence Higgins from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band; the Radiators’ lead singer and guitarist Dave Malone; Ivan Neville, member of the first family of music royalty of New Orleans and leader of funk/jam-band group, Dumpstaphunk; and New Orleans’ Mark Mullins & the Levee Horns.

“It went fantastic,” said Margolin after the first night of the tour in Florida. “It’s amazing to get that kind of audience response at the end of a great show, and they got it as soon as they walked on stage. And I said, ‘Hmm, this bodes well.’”

According to Margolin, Warren Haynes told the musicians after the show, “I think there are some people that actually are gonna follow us around like Grateful Dead shows, and we should do the show a little differently each night.”

“The Last Waltz 40 Tour: A Celebration of the 40th Anniversary of The Last Waltz” – the full, if overly long name of the tour – is not a stunt to make money off of an iconic moment in rock history that saw the cross pollination by icons of rock and blues. Rather, it is a similar concept to the original with some of today’s most iconic musicians working with co-producers Warren Haynes and Don Was to create a living supergroup/super-jam band that morphs and evolves with a tour that remains fresh and evolving every evening.

“It’s interesting being around people that are experienced like Warren or (co-producer) Don Was,” explains Margolin. “They have sometimes a real insider perspective on all this. Warren knew (The Band’s drummer) Levon Helm pretty well and then played with him in various situations. We end up talking about Levon a lot, his presence is kinda with us quite a bit.

“So (on the first night of the tour) we went over ‘Kind Hearted Woman,’ and I played it traditionally the way Robert Johnson had, and I sang it, and it was just a straight blues, and Warren played some beautiful slide guitar on it. And I said to him, ‘I wonder if I could change it around and just tune up three strings differently, and let me play slide guitar the way Muddy (Waters) did on it while I sing it, and you play standard guitar.’ He does play slide on a lot of stuff, and obviously Warren is a spectacular slide player, and he goes, ‘OK, we’ll do it that way.’”

Margolin normally travels in a parallel universe to most of the others on this bill. In the blues world, he’s known as Muddy’s first white guitarist, and he also functioned as Muddy’s band director. As such he was literally the architect of a sound that was the foundation for three generations of rock by groups like the Allman Brothers Band, Gov’t Mule and The Dead, all of whom Warren Haynes has fronted and/or played in.

Margolin followed in the footsteps of Otis Spann, who played keyboards and acted as Muddy’s band director from 1952 to 1969. Margolin took over that role when Spann passed away in 1970. “Muddy wouldn’t go to the rehearsals, but Spann would lead the band through everything. Muddy didn’t like to arrange songs or anything like that, and (after Spann passed) I had a real opportunity and was aware of it to take that role because we never rehearsed. We just followed what was happening on the bandstand.

“But when Muddy went to the Last Waltz, he brought (keyboard player) Pinetop (Perkins) with him because he wanted that sound, and he also brought me with him to kinda be the go-between between him and the band and Paul Butterfield, who he knew and liked. We had worked with him on the Woodstock album, but he wanted me to be kind of the bridge between him and them, and that’s what I did at the rehearsals, which impressed the rock stars who were sitting in the back of the room a lot.”

“Muddy didn’t pick up a guitar at the Last Waltz, so his great slide guitar playing is not in the (film version of) ‘The Last Waltz.’ So, I’ve been kind of reproducing the guitar parts I play (in my post-Muddy performances) and then sing over it, trying to be entertaining at the same time, but in the rehearsal I said to Warren, ‘Why don’t I play some of that slide right in that introduction to The Last Waltz, and we did it last night.’

“(My version of) ‘Mannish Boy’ (on the first night of the tour) began with the slide guitar lick that sounded like Muddy’s part in the slow blues, and all of a sudden I just broke into ‘Oh, yeah’ like that, and it really got the crowd. Warren said, ‘I want this to be a living, breathing thing, not just a recreation, and so I want to do some different songs.’”

Bob Margolin views his role in Muddy Waters’ legacy as a mixed blessing. He has evolved his own sound as heard on his excellent recent album My Road, but the Muddy Waters connection always seems to override his own identity. He was a late addition to the Last Waltz 40 tour, and had to forgo the Legendary Rhythm’n’blues Cruise as well as gigs connected with the Blues Foundation’s International Blues Challenge in order to do the tour.

“It’s been a big issue,” he admits, “and I have been advised, ‘It’s time for you to bury Muddy Waters.’ People that I work with, business people, have said that, and I listen to that. I listen to anybody that might give me some good advice. I don’t always agree with them, or I’m not always able to sit in on it even if I want to, but I figure out there is a duality, and I’m not sure that they can’t co-exist, (but) that’s what I want.”

I asked him to compare the original 1976 Last Waltz to this tour. “For me personally, having been at both, it is a strikingly similar experience to be around experienced and very talented musicians who are known for their own music coming together to work on music like they did for the (original) Last Waltz.”

WHAT: “The Last Waltz 40 Tour: A Celebration of the 40th Anniversary of The Last Waltz”
WHO: Bob Margolin, Warren Haynes, Don Was, Jamey Johnson, John Medeski, Michael McDonald, Ivan Neville, Dave Malone, Terence Higgins, Mark Mullins & the Levee Horns
WHERE: Palace Theatre, Albany
WHEN: Thursday (February 2), 8pm
HOW MUCH: $49.50, $59.50, $69.50, $79.50, $89.50, $125.50

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