In the wake of the Philadelphia School District’s budget crisis, a group of prominent area musicians have banded together to stage a Thanksgiving weekend benefit concert.
They’re drawing inspiration from the Martin Scorsese concert film that documented the farewell performance of The Band.
It’s “The Last Waltz” for Philadelphia schoolchildren.
In the film, Robbie Robertson, lead guitar player and chief songwriter in The Band, explains to Scorsese that he had to call it quits because of the tremendous strain the group had undergone after a decade-plus of touring on the road.
“It’s a goddamned impossible way of life,” Robertson told Scorsese.
It’s a sentiment that students, parents and teachers in the Philadelphia School District can relate to after a decade-plus of financial volatility.
This year, as the school district closed 24 schools and reduced its staff by 20 percent, Fergus Carey – the owner of Fergie’s Pub and Monk’s Cafe among other bars and restaurants – was having a revelation.
“I’ve been dreaming about putting on ‘The Last Waltz’ Philly-style for years,” he said.
When the film — which features not just The Band, but some of the top artists of the time playing on Thanksgiving Day 1976 — opened, Carey was a 13-year-old in Ireland.
“It blew me away — the Eric Clapton, the Van Morrison, the Neil Young,” he said. “It was just like, ‘Oh my God, this is dynamite stuff.'”
After talking with some local musicians and promoters, Carey’s dream of putting on a localized version of the show started coming together very quickly as the Trocadero Theatre in Center City agreed to host.
Farewell concert re-creation to help kids fare better
“It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is actually gonna happen,”‘ Carey said. “And then it was like, ‘we should do it for some good too,’ so we decided to help the Philadelphia schoolchildren.”
Carey quickly reached out to multi-instrumentalists Andrew Lipke and Kevin Hanson to act as band leaders.
“When Fergie and I were talking about where the money should go,” said Lipke, “we hashed out a number of different ideas, and really what seemed to make sense was kind of spreading the proceeds up amongst groups that are trying to deal with the problem in different ways.”
One-hundred percent of the proceeds will be split four ways between advocacy group Parents United for Public Education, the school district’s music instrument repair program and two neighborhood school associations –- one serving Andrew Jackson Elementary in South Philadelphia, the other, Horatio B. Hackett in Fishtown.
The group hopes the show will raise as much as $30,000.
The main band will consist of 11 members including a full horn section. Another 21 acts will join them on stage to round out the set from “The Last Waltz,” including perennial Band favorites “The Weight,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
Garth Hudson, a founding member of The Band, will join the ensemble for the last two songs of the evening, including the epically organ-ed “Chest Fever.”
“I’m totally thrilled about that,” said guitarist Jim Boggia, “just having Garth in the room is a thrill for all of us, but to be actually be playing one of the classic songs with him is pretty mindblowing.”
Performers united in support of schools
Ali Wadsworth, who went to high school in North Jersey and is playing the part of Emmylou Harris for the evening, has looked on in disbelief at the lack of stability that Philly school kids have been made to endure.
“It’s upsetting because I had that as a kid,” she said, “and I don’t know what would have happened to me if I didn’t have music in school, and if I didn’t have art.”
Matt Muir, the drummer for the evening, recently became the father of twin girls.
“So we’re deciding where we’re going to send our kids soon, so education is always on my mind,” he said.
John Francis, who’s playing the part of Bob Dylan, used to work for the Boys & Girls Club in South Philadelphia
“I’ve seen firsthand how the Philadelphia school system is in need of a lot of attention,” said Francis. “And in some places, it’s in need of a resurrection.”
The show will take place Saturday night at the Trocadero Theater.
General admission tickets are $25. VIP tickets are $100. Those include a meet and greet with the musicians, including Hudson, and a special set by the 11-piece Andrew Jackson Elementary rock band, HOME.
Doors open at 8 p.m. Show starts at 9 p.m.