Tribute bands get a bad rap. You know it’s bad when there are multiple Reddit posts about how tribute bands have “killed rock and roll.” However, Chest Fever’s tribute to The Last Waltz at Massey Hall wasn’t your average tribute concert in the slightest.
Before Robbie Robertson’s passing earlier this year, Chest Fever was given the official “stamp-of-approval” as the official tribute band of The Band; that’s how you know that their pretty good, huh?
The band is from California, and also plays under the name Mrs. Henry for their original material; two different bands, same people. Kinda like Parliament-Funkadelic. Chest Fever is comprised of Dan Cervantes on guitar and vocals, Blake Dean on bass and vocals, Jody Bagley on piano and vocals, Allan Ritter on drums, vocals and mandolin, and their newest member, Ben Pinnola on organ, saxophone and accordion.
I first saw Chest Fever back in August at The Horseshoe Tavern. There wasn’t a huge crowd, but everyone was having a good time celebrating The Band on a miniscule scale. In conversation with Chest Fever after the show, there was mention of their celebration of The Last Waltz that was going to happen in November at Massey Hall. I thought they were being overambitious, but I was terribly mistaken as the show was pretty well sold out on Saturday night. As well, a percentage of the money from the show went towards the North York General Foundation to help support men’s prostate cancer awareness; the cancer that Robbie died from earlier this year.
A little South Park mixed in
The night started with a specially arranged “Theme from The Last Waltz”, featuring classic Canadian songs such as “Closer to The Heart” by Rush, “American Woman” by The Guess Who and “Sundown” by Gordon Lightfoot. Chest Fever must be big fans of South Park as they slyly included “Blame Canada” from the 1999 South Park movie.
This was the first introduction to the string quartet, as well as the horn section, which featured “Blue” Lou Marini and Tom “Bones” Malone, most famous for their contributions to the horn section in The Blues Brothers.
As soon as the familiar waltz melody filled Massey Hall, cheering erupted from the audience. People sang along, and few attempted to waltz, despite the general admission floor being packed.
At the conclusion of the theme, Chest Fever took to the stage to commence the (unknowingly to the audience) five hour long celebration.
They began to play “Up On Cripple Creek”, just like how The Band began The Last Waltz in 1976. Massey Hall was being filled with the music of The Band for arguably the first time since their show there back in January 1970. The audience belted the lyrics, even catching the infamous “I sure wish I could yodel like a—” line from Levon Helm, and mimicked the recognizable Wah Wah Clavinet combo made famous by Garth Hudson.
Former road manager shares stories
The energy from Chest Fever was contagious. From the beginning it was obvious the amount of effort put forth for this evening.
Chest Fever’s Last Waltz was billed as a show that would feature over 30 mostly Canadian guests throughout the night on the Massey Hall stage. Asides from Lou Marini and Tom Malone, the first guest of the night was award-winning singer-songwriter Conor Gains, who sang one of the best versions of “King Harvest” I have ever heard in my life.
The crowd welcomed him with warm reception and sang along to every word.
There wasn’t just musical guests joining Chest Fever on stage that night. There was also Bill Avis, former road manager for Ronnie Hawkins, Bob Dylan, and The Band, who told an amusing story of Gordon Lightfoot and Bob Dylan playing pool together back in the 70s. His storytelling was comical, making everyone in attendance laugh. His son, Jerome Levon Avis, then joined the band onstage, where he talked about how his godfather, The Band’s Levon Helm, loved to sing “Ophelia” “even when he couldn’t” during his battle with throat cancer, leaving many without dry eyes—myself included. “Ophelia” is certainly a fan favourite, and with the addition of Jerome’s vocals and drumming, it was nearly spot on to having Levon Helm on stage—right down to the vocal phrasing and drumming patterns. Clearly, he learned from the best.
Colin Linden pays tribute to the post-Robbie era
The six-piece horn section was exceptionally tight and accurate to The Last Waltz’s horn section thanks to the arrangements by Jesse Audelo. As a lover of a good horn section, the miniscule details didn’t go unnoticed.
Next to join the star-studded event was blues guitarist Colin Linden, who paid tribute to the “other” members of The Band post-Robbie Robertson with a song called “Remedy” from The Band’s 1993 album Jericho. This served as a reminder that The Band wasn’t just magically gone after The Last Waltz—they continued to tour and release albums into the 1990s, with little credit given to the later musicians who joined them.
“W.S. Walcott Medicine Show” was next, which featured Chest Fever’s own Ben Pinnola stepping away from the organ to the front of the stage, clad with a saxophone—just like Garth Hudson would have done. The hall erupted with cheers as he made his way across the stage in an animated fashion, delivering a memroable saxophone solo.
It’s a shame that Ronnie Hawkins passed away in 2022 and couldn’t witness the version of “Who Do You Love” that was played. Ronnie’s performance in The Last Waltz is a personal favourite of mine, so I was looking forward to seeing whoever had to fill the massive shoes Ronnie left. His larger-than-life stage persona was easily, and scarily accurately, replicated by Duncan Alistair of the Toronto-based country band, The Holy Gamblers. Right down to the outfit, beard, and mannerisms, his performance was the most accurate to any original Last Waltz performance right down to the screaming. Joining him onstage was Tyrell Lisson, bassist of The Holy Gamblers, one of the producers and organizers of the evening, and host of The Band: A History podcast, as well as slide guitar player Cindy Cashdollar, who has worked with Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Paul Butterfield. “Who Do You Love” was certainly a fan favourite, with everyone singing and screaming along. Bassist Blake Dean tackled the Rick Danko sung “Stage Fright” with ease—right down to the similar vocal phrasing that Danko himself sang with. Blake’s animated personality shined through, even including the “woo’s” like the live version included. The horns hit every note, like intended, and an organ solo by Ben Pinolla topped it off.
‘Georgia on my Mind’
One of the most powerful performances of the night however was the version of “Georgia on My Mind.” The song started with minimal instrumentation and continued to build until the end. Sung as a duet between Chest Fever’s Jody Bagley and singer- songwriter Limore Twena, it was a gorgeous and soulful arrangement of the Ray Charles classic that The Band themselves favoured to cover in the mid 70s and during the tours post-Robbie Robertson.
Paying tribute to Dr. John was singer-songwriter and son of Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy, Devin Cuddy, who introduced the song the same way as Dr. John did; “thankfulness to the band, and all the fellas” before playing “Such A Night.” The crowd swayed back and forth with the Dr. John classic New Orleans groove, even making some of the horn players follow suit. After “Such A Night” Chest Fever surprisingly played “Down South In New Orleans” which was never featured in The Last Waltz movie, only on the deluxe edition of the soundtrack. Allan Ritter, drummer of Chest Fever, switched to mandolin, giving his drum throne to Jody Bagley. His energy was contagious. But what was more surprising was everyone singing along to it. You know that the venue is full of die-hard Band fans when everyone is eager to sing “Down South In New Orleans.”
In The Last Waltz there were musical performances that were filmed outside of the concert and added towards the end of the film. “Evangeline” featuring Emmylou Harris was one of those songs. Unfortunately, the evening wasn’t blessed with the presence of Emmylou, however, The Pairs, a folk group from London, ON, filled her giant shoes beautifully. The harmonies were rich; if you closed your eyes it was almost like you were listening to the original recording.
It was apparent that a lot of effort went into this celebration, and it wasn’t just another poorly executed tribute act. The first time I saw Chest Fever, I noticed that they would take The Band’s music and craft it into something distinctive and original, while keeping the foundation intact.
For their version of Eric Clapton’s “All Our Past Times” which featured award winning folk singer John Muirhead and Albert Lee, they took the slower tune and turned it into a country swing, leaving the audience two-stepping. The magic of Chest Fever shined through, turning something recognizable into something uniquely theirs. This wasn’t the only time they made a song into their own—but more on that later.
Buzzing at intermission
The next guest was folk singer Benjamin Dakota Rogers, who I recognized from TikTok with his viral song “Maggie.” He was the perfect choice to sing The Band’s “Rag Mama Rag” with his distinct and unique voice. The song featured Scarlet Rivera on violin, Cindy Cashdollar on steel guitar, both John Muirhead and Albert Lee on guitar, and the horn section with a dixie land type arrangement. Closing out set one was “It Makes No Difference” sung by the Jody Bagley. With similar cadence to Rick Danko himself, Jody had the audience by their heartstrings. The guitar solo played by Chest Fever’s Dan Cervantes was exquisitely interpreted into his own, but keeping the Robbie Robertson feel. Long with Dan’s guitar solo, “It Makes No Difference” features a soprano sax solo, which Lou Marini played perfectly, not-for-note from The Last Waltz version. When speaking to horn arranger and bari sax player Jesse Audelo after the show about “It Makes No Difference”, he said that “Lou [Marini] just really went for it even without having rehearsed it, he knew the emotion it was going to need and really brought the right energy. And I think the crowd felt that and reacted as well. I’ve never heard the audience react that way to that particular solo. It was a gem of a moment.”
During the intermission, everyone was talking about how their expectations were already met and blown out of the water. Some people excitedly yelled “this is the best tribute band I’ve ever seen” and “this is just like the real Last Waltz!” While talking to some concert goers, the main question was what they were going to do with the Neil Diamond’s “Dry Your Eyes”—typically viewed as the perfect bathroom break song. Considering the way they made “All Our Past Times” into a country swing song, we were quite positive they would be (hopefully) doing something similar to Neil Diamond.
As the house lights dimmed, Ben Pinolla began playing his version of “The Genetic Method”, a song that allowed him to highlight his technical abilities. Barely able to see him over the monster Lowrey organ he sat behind, he included snippets from Garth Hudson’s version of “The Genetic Method” as well as a small phrase of “Greensleeves” which was played at The Last Waltz as well. With the same setup as Garth had, Ben was easily able to replicate the ‘iconic Garth Hudson sound’ while still making his version of “The Genetic Method” his own. From my angle, you couldn’t see Ben at all, but what I could see was Tom Malone standing to the side of the stage, trombone in hand, smiling. I’m sure it would have been surreal for him, having played the original Last Waltz over 45 years ago.
An amazing talent playing Muddy Waters
For ten minutes, Ben captivated the audience before launching into the iconic opening riff of “Chest Fever.” With the rest of the band joining him, the second set had begun.
Main vocals were sung by guitarist Dan Cervantes, who’s raw vocals undoubtably fit the songs theme. The time was already approaching 9:30, and the crowd was ready for another few hours of celebration.
The next guest was Sugarmill Slim, a harmonica player/vocalist from L.A. Gracing the stage with their shiny silver pants and tall platform boots, Slim launched immediately into Paul Butterfield’s “Mystery Train.” This got the crowd moving, singing, and dancing after the short intermission. Slim was meant to be a performer; their passion for the blues was the best choice to represent Paul Butterfield. Dan Cervantes looked overjoyed as everyone would sing along to the song, even catching lyrical embellishments only captured in The Last Waltz.
A few years ago, Mrs. Henry (same guys as Chest Fever) released a mini documentary about their version of The Last Waltz at The Belly Up Tavern. While watching this, I was captivated by the man playing as Muddy Waters; the stage presence and vocal abilities of this man were unmatched. His name was Bryan Barbarin. When it was announced that he was going to be at Massey Hall’s Last Waltz, I knew his performance was going to become one of my favourites. I wasn’t wrong, as he sang both Muddy Water’s songs (“Caldonia” and “Mannish Boy”) with the most passion and energy I’ve ever seen in a performer. Bryan was easily my favourite act of the evening, working the crowd and making everyone sing in the call-and-response section of “Caldonia.” Joining Bryan on stage was many of the other guests of the night, including Marc Ford, former head guitarist of The Black Crowes.
The Neil Diamond song gets a makeover
Blues guitarist Nicole Cerminara took on “Further On Up The Road”, leaving the other guitarists on stage a gasp. She delivered the blues better than Clapton did at The Last Waltz, and kept her guitar strap from falling off too (if you know, you know.) That’s woman power right there. The energy onstage reflected into the crowd, and everyone danced and sang along. Beside me was what I’m assuming to be her friends, and they had tears in their eyes seeing her up there. It was a beautiful moment to witness.
One of the most well-known performances from The Last Waltz is Neil Young’s. Maybe it’s remembered for the wrong things, but either way it’s a fan favourite. Marc Ford returned to the stage to sing “Helpless” with help from John Muirhead, Scarlet Rivera, Cindy Cashdollar, The Pairs and Rebekah Hawker and had the whole crowd singing along by the chorus.
After “Helpless” came “Out Of The Blue” which featured singer Sleepy Jean on vocals. I’ve found it’s a love/hate song with Band fans, but Sleepy Jean’s performance made me fall in love with the song—and hopefully changed the opinion of others.
Neil Diamond’s performance at The Last Waltz has always been questionable to me. “Dry Your Eyes” was always a perfectly placed bathroom break song if I didn’t feel like pausing the film. So when it came time for “Dry Your Eyes” I’m sure that some people, me included, were praying that Chest Fever was going to do something to revamp it. Christ, they did. I never knew that you could make Neil Diamond heavy, but never say never. Instead of the sappy Neil Diamond, they transformed it into a rock n roll anthem, featuring Skye Wallace on vocals. Hopefully you can find a video of it online. Lights flashing, Skye’s vocals soaring above the instrumentation. I couldn’t believe that these were the same songs. Speechless is the best way to describe when they started playing. I turned to my friend, who’s husband was producing the show, and looked at her with the blown away look. “I told you.” She said. Very glad I didn’t take that bathroom break.
A legend makes an appearance
After heavy metal Neil Diamond, The Red Hill Valleys came to the stage to sing both “Coyote” and “Acadian Driftwood.” I’ve seen the Red Hill Valleys a couple times and I fell in love with them musically, as well as individuals. Danielle Beaudin sang “Coyote” beautifully, thus perfectly incapsulating Joni Mitchell’s performance, down to the slight chuckles Joni adds. Tim Allard and Chelsea McWilliams took verses on “Acadian Driftwood” and nailed the harmonies with Danielle during the chorus, while the audience sang along with. And I can’t forget Matt Soliveri playing the shaker and tambourine like his life depended on it.
At The Last Waltz, Neil Young, along with his Canadian “friends” sang “Four Strong Winds” by Ian Tyson. At the Massey Hall Last Waltz, the special guest to sing “Four Strong Winds” was Sylvia Tyson. To be in the presence of such a huge Canadian music legend, at Massey Hall no less, was overwhelming, tears pricked my eyes as she sang the chorus with everyone.
After Sylvia Tyson, the horn section started to play the famous choral before “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Immediately, the crowd was cheering and shouting the lyrics. Dan had taken the challenge to sing “Dixie” and it was clear the love he has for The Band, for performing and for the night. Everyone on stage looked so proud. Everyone singing along to “Dixie” had tears in their eyes.
Bryan Barbarin returned to the stage to sing the two Van Morrison songs; “Tura Lura Lural” and “Caravan.” By the end of “Caravan” he had entire crowd raising their arms while he attempted his best Van Morrison high kick. A glorious sight to behold.
With everyone recovering from “Caravan”, Toronto’s own Jerry Leger came out for the Bob Dylan set. Starting off with a killer version of “Baby Let Me Follow You Down”, Jerry had the entire crowd giving their best Bob Dylan impressions alongside him. He then sang “Hazel” and “I Don’t Believe You” before inviting Don Stevenson of Moby Grape on stage to finish the Bob Dylan portion of the show. Don sang “Forever Young” and verses of the reprise of “Baby Let Me Follow You Down.”
Ending the night on a high note
As someone who has seen The Last Waltz multiple times, the finale is “I Shall Be Released.” As everyone crowded the stage to sing, tears welled up in my eyes once again as Don began to sing the first verse. At the chorus, tears ran down my cheeks, as everyone in Massey Hall sang along in unison. We were all celebrating The Band in that moment. It was surreal.
After a brief pause, everyone returned to the stage to sing “The Weight” which featured many of the guest singers once again taking a verse. This version of “The Weight” is easily one of my favourites, and regretfully I didn’t get a video of it. Hopefully a live album of sorts will be released soon, or some videos online surface because this version was stylistically set up like the version The Band did with The Staple Singers—rich with harmonies.
For the final song of the night, Chest Fever played “Don’t Do It”; roughly four and a half hours from their opening song of “Up On Cripple Creek.” Even though some of the crowd had already left by this point, Chest Fever didn’t care. They still played with the same passion that they started with. As they took their final bow from the stage, everyone in the audience knew that what we just saw was the best tribute act ever.
Canadian music wouldn’t be the same without The Band. They have been ingrained into Canadian culture, and have defined genres of music, including roots and Americana music. That’s why I knew it was important to write something about this legendary event at Massey Hall. Nothing will compare to being there physically. Reading about it is one thing, but having the experience unfold in front of you is something else.
Someone commented on Chest Fever’s Instagram that it was better to leave The Last Waltz alone and not embarrass themselves by playing Massey Hall. The day after the show, people were replying to their comment, telling them that they were indeed wrong.
Sure, it was a crazy thing to do. The Last Waltz is a huge concert to try and recreate. Chest Fever did it.
If you ever get the opportunity, go see Chest Fever. They’re not just a tribute act. They’re keeping the music of The Band in people’s hearts for generations who never got to experience seeing The Band physically. They are the nicest band I’ve ever met, and are passionate about what they do. The love they have for The Band is uncompromised. To those who didn’t come to Chest Fever’s Las Waltz: you missed something truly special.