When The Band decided to call it quits in ’76, their farewell concert – the aforementioned Last Waltz, took place at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom on Thanksgiving evening. They were joined by such musical luminaries as Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Ron Wood and Muddy Waters, and the resulting performance was a show for the ages.
Though many astute concert goers are quick to dismiss cover bands (most often with good reason), The Last Waltz Ensemble has proven to be too talented to be categorized as just another cover band. Jelly is known to rotate the cast of his Ensemble, and has performed with nearly 100 musicians during the past few years, including such talented names as Col. Bruce Hampton Ret., Sean Costello, Rev. Jeff Mosier, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Ike Stubblefield, Tommy Talton, and Rick Richards.
The core of the Ensemble, for the most part, has remained the same, consisting of some of the hottest players on today’s touring circuit:
Kris “Jellyroll” Gloer: the band’s ringleader plays guitar and handles most lead vocals. His past includes credits on ten albums with four different bands – Jellyroll, Houndog, Arlan & Jelly and The Wayside Riders.
Mark Kramer: a North Carolinian, Kramer also plays guitar and vocals. He cut his teeth as a street musician in San Francisco before moving to Seattle in the 1980s and becoming involved in the burgeoning folk scene.
Kevin “Little Budda” Rutschman: a Kansas native, Rutschman graduated from the elite school of music at Emporia State University and was an upset winner of Outstanding Performance Award at the Notre Dame Jazz Festival in 1995.
Benji Shanks: a native of Georgia, Shanks can play lead/slide guitar with the very best of them. He gained notoriety with southern rockers Captain Soularcat and frequent guest appearances with Tishamingo. He was also featured on Bluestring’s Jammy-nominated release Pick Me Up, and most recently performed with Justin Brogdon on Justin’s new self titled CD.
Ted Pecchio: best known as the former bass player for the Codetalkers, Ted’s resume also includes special projects with Susan Tedeschi, Oliver Wood, Scrapomatic, Ike Stubblefield and many more. Ted’s addition to the Ensemble has been key in pushing the band’s performances to new heights.
Jason Fuller: known as Athens’ resident Piano Man, Jason is without a doubt one of the more talented musicians to come out of Athens in many years. He’s also one of the most versatile players around, able to leap from barrelhouse boogie to nasty New Orleans swing to rollicking honky tonk to tasty jazz. Jason refuses to be tied to just one band, and currently performs with at least a half dozen acts on a regular basis, including the Kinchafoonee Cowboys, Sounds of Motown, and SNAP!, and has previously toured with Ween, Marc Ford and Tishamingo.
Tony Giordano: known simply as Tony G, this astounding keyboard player heads the band Ancient Harmony, and also regularly performs with Tishamingo and Captain Soularcat.
Brad Thomas: best known as the sax player for progressive bluegrass band, Bluestring, Brad has also played with Tishamingo, Captain Soularcat, and Houndog. His stellar saxophone solos are often highlights of the Ensemble’s performances.
The Last Waltz Ensemble recently celebrated their fourth annual Thanksgiving show, again at Atlanta’s Smith’s, with a performance on November 24 that many in attendance ranked amongst their best to date. While the show did not feature as many special guests as in past years, the core band quickly proved to have gelled during their time on the road as they roared through set opening hits “Up On Cripple Creek,” “The Shape I’m In,” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
Shanks was most impressive throughout the first set, masterfully handling lead guitar with his mesmerizing playing on “Stage Fright,” “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” and “Don’t Do It,” the latter featuring a dual lead, played with Jelly, reminiscent of the Allman Brothers “Mountain Jam.” The set came to a close with Zach Deputy taking the stage, delivering a spot on rendition of Dr. John’s "Such A Night." As impressive as Deputy was, it was Jason Fuller who truly made the song his with a rollicking tinkling of the ivories that would have made the Dr. proud.
As the evening’s guest performers began to take to the stage, set two was even more delightful. Tishamingo’s Jess Franklin gave his best Eric Clapton impersonation on “Further on Up the Road,” a song that also featured a stellar bass solo from Charlie Wooten (SEE IT HERE).
When Oliver Wood joined the show, he quickly took command of the stage as he led the band through “Rag Mama Rag.” All the while, Ted Pecchio rattled the room, if not the entire building, with the most powerhouse bass playing the Ensemble has ever seen.
Lee Schwartz (of Outformation fame) played the part of Neil Young, performing “Helpless” as Jason Fuller continued to deliver some of the most joyous keyboard playing known to man. Fuller would also play an integral role in the highlight of the night, a set closing take on “Chest Fever” that saw Jess Franklin join Jason at his keyboard, the two trading runs back and forth until Jason finally got up and walked away, leaving the spotlight on Jess to bring the show home (SEE IT HERE.)
With the crowd screaming for more, Jelly promised a return next year. If the past year has been any indication of things to come, before long, this Ensemble could well find themselves performing not only in larger venues, but at a level commensurate with that of the original Band. At the very least, you can rest assured that once you’ve seen The Last Waltz Ensemble live, you’ll know that Jelly’s traveling crew is certainly not just another cover band.