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Let's waltz again

Last Waltz Ensemble honors the Band and bassist Ricky Keller, helps kids

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Thanksgiving, 1976

Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco, Calif.

The final show from rootsy rockers the Band was an all-star event. Friends such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Van Morrison gathered to pay their respects and play a few tunes. Filmmaker Martin Scorsese captured the evening on film and two years later, The Last Waltz movie and soundtrack LP were released.

Thanksgiving weekend, 2006

Smith's Olde Bar, Atlanta, Ga.

The 32nd and 33rd shows by the constantly evolving Last Waltz Ensemble will unfold on Friday and Saturday nights. Atlanta-born guitarist Kris Gloer, a long-time fan of the original show, will once again anchor the proceedings. He'll pull together a diverse assortment of the region's finest musicians to reproduce the set list of the 1976 concert.

"There is no difference between this group of musicians and a group of Shakespearian actors that get together on Friday night to knock out Othello," Gloer says by phone en route to Atlanta from his current home in Jackson, Miss.

An 8-year-old kid when the original show happened, he first became a fan of The Last Waltz when he saw a video of it. "It was so good I had to see it again and again." But it wasn't his first exposure to live music. Gloer literally grew up at the now-demolished Great Southeast Music Hall near Buckhead. "My foster brother worked there," he recalls. "I thought every kid got to play pinball machines with rock stars, I didn't know."

Fast-forward to the early '90s. With his band Jellyroll, he recorded an album, the hard-to-find Captain Strange, at Southern Living Studio. It was there he met the late multi-instrumentalist Ricky Keller. "I learned so much from just watching him in action there at the studio," he says.

"Ricky Keller was the complete musician. 'Maestro' works but doesn't tell the whole story. He could play, arrange, record, teach, learn and listen -- all at the same time. Southern Living taught me and many others about what creative freedom could be; what possibilities existed and how to achieve them."

On Thanksgiving of 2004, Gloer and friends held the first Last Waltz Ensemble show at the intimate confines of Fuzzy's Place near Buford Highway. "I just had a crazy idea to bring a lot of very different players together. Somehow it worked. I mean, when you think about the great nights of rock, that's definitely one of them. That music's gonna be around long after we're all gone."

An assortment of musicians asked to participate in the 2005 edition. "It just grew organically," he explains. "The next step was a larger venue, Smith's." The event proved so popular, Gloer and his core band of players (who also comprise the band Houndog) took the show and a few special guests on the road. First to Athens, then to South Carolina. "People love the songs, and I love the challenge of playing with different folks every time."

After a sold-out springtime version of the show at Smith's this year, Gloer says he wanted to combine his respect for the show with a way to help keep the memory of his friend Keller alive. "A lot of times, a few years after someone dies, you hear less and less about them. I didn't want that to happen with Ricky."

Gloer discussed some benefit possibilities with Keller's family and created the Ricky Keller Foundation, a loose umbrella organization for giving in the name of his mentor. "I decided the best way to help would be to help kids with music."

The beneficiaries are close to Gloer's heart. "We settled on benefiting two charities this time. The Drew Charter School (www.drewcharterschool.org) and the Sutton Middle School band (www.suttonmiddleschool.com)." The Charter school offers specialized education and "really emphasizes excellence." "And the Sutton School is where I really came alive in band. At that age, the possibilities are endless for a kid. And if we can help some kids by playing The Last Waltz, then that's just amazing. It's given me so much joy over the years, I'm glad to be giving back just some of that joy."

"I'm playing music with the very best players around: Caroline Aiken, Rick Richards, Col. Bruce Hampton, Will and Lee of the Sundogs," he says. "We are playing material that has not only shaped my musical life, but several generations' worth. It's so right and I'm honored to do it."

Now, as he is about to mount a production of the ensemble piece on the 30th anniversary of the original, Gloer says it simply "feels right."

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