Cover bands often get a lot of crap for “taking the easy way out” when it comes to performing—but Chest Fever shows that it’s not easy being a tribute act.
Chest Fever, based in San Diego, honors the sounds and legacy of legendary Canadian/American rockers The Band. While most cover bands settle for a greatest-hits set, Chest Fever goes above and beyond—complete with costumes! The group is on tour to perform The Last Waltz, the iconic final concert by The Band, which later became a live album and a documentary. Catch a performance of the monumental tribute at 7 p.m., Friday, Dec. 16, at Cypress Reno.
“We first played this concert live under our original band, named Mrs. Henry, in 2017,” said guitarist Dan Cervantes during a recent phone interview. “Frankly, the idea was sprung up on us from a venue saying, ‘Hey, we heard you guys play The Band really well; have you ever thought about playing Last Waltz?’ And we said, ‘Sure.’ Just like anything else we do as a band, we decided we’re going to go all the way and really put our heart and soul in this.”
The Last Waltz is a lengthy concert. On Thanksgiving night in 1976, The Band took the stage at 9 p.m., and wrapped up the concert up a little after 2 a.m., performing 42 songs in total.
“Our first time, we did three hours; the second time we did it, it was three hours and 45 minutes,” Cervantes said. “Part of the scope is that there’s so much that went into that concert, and most people know the small version of it, but … with good technology and Spotify, more and more people are getting turned on to the soundtrack. People know that, ‘Wow, it’s four hours of music.’ The decision to take it on the road kind of went natural with the fact that we started taking our performance of music by The Band on the road this summer, where we did a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Rock of Ages.”
Even though Chest Fever has spent a large amount of time studying and performing The Last Waltz, the members say they’re still enjoying it.
“I haven’t found the hate relationship of it yet,” said drummer Allan Ritter. “Diving into each one of (the songs), you’re always finding new little intricacies or little nuances that happen. You’re like, ‘Oh, we should try that one.’ We were doing ‘Life is a Carnival’ the other day when we were rehearsing, and our keyboard player mentioned to our organ player that he does, like, these little carnival licks, and on one of the breaks, he should do those little carnival licks. It’s fun diving that deep into actually what every single person is doing.”
Added Cervantes: “If you asked my wife, she’s sick of hearing the songs. I agree with Allan; just last night, I was pulling up the concert. I was listening; I was trying to study the vocals. From a musician’s perspective, there’s more than just the elements of how it’s being played. It’s how it’s being sung, how it’s being performed, what’s the tonality, the expression? It can be overwhelming listening to it. I want to do my best to do it in spirit, but there are so many nuances that they did that night that they didn’t do any other night, that are so iconic to The Last Waltz. … They’re striving to play the songs, because they’re not just playing their originals; they’re playing covers that they love, and they’re striving to deliver in a way that’s them, and also give some love back to the original. They do a version of ‘Georgia on My Mind’ (where) you can hear Richard Manuel really diving in on that Ray Charles’s delivery and doing his own. There are a lot of intricacies to dive into, and it doesn’t get old to me.”
The art of performing another band’s live album, especially one with covers, can lead to a few mind-boggling thoughts. Chest Fever, essentially, is performing covers of covers … of covers. Is there still room for the original side of Chest Fever?
“I think we always have our personalities … kind of come out, while still doing service to the music as well,” Ritter said. “… You’re still paying homage to that one, but you’re adding a little bit of your flair on it as well. We’re not going note for note for note, tone for tone, but we’re getting close to it as we can, with still some of the exploratory-ness that we have naturally.”
Added Cervantes: “I think that it’s hitting the spirit of what they’re doing, and the vibe and delivery is the same message they were trying to deliver. These songs people love and know, so if anything, we’re thinking about: How do we just heighten that experience and not detract? If it’s a super-energetic song like ‘Up on Cripple Creek,’ we’re not going to do the laid-back version. My licks might be a little different than Robbie (Robertson)’s that night, but I’m still going be trying to hear where to put them based on how The Band were playing that night.”
Chest Fever decides which era of The Band to honor based on anniversaries.
“This past August, we did Rock of Ages, because it was the 50th anniversary of that one,” said Ritter. “This one, we’re doing because it’s a holiday concert, but next year, we’re going to be touring the 55th anniversary of Music From Big Pink. There’s also the 45th anniversary of The Last Waltz (movie) next year, so we’re going to be touring The Last Waltz a bunch next year.”
In the sea of tribute acts, Chest Fever brings an extra appreciation for the music and experience, as well as the history of a tight band, to their performances.
“When I first saw The Last Waltz, it’d be kind of crazy to know that there was a band out there doing what we’re doing now,” Cervantes said. “I’d be like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ … We are a band, and we are people who have been playing together for about as long as The Band members were playing together. Allan and I have been playing in groups together for 10 years, and we have an original band, so our decision to be The Band that night, and devote ourselves to being everybody else’s Band that night, is a little bit of a different element. It goes into our own love for playing music together, which makes it less of just playing these songs, and playing music together as a band. We found the connection of people actually showing up to the shows knowing our original music and band, and that has been, to us, everything we wanted. We know people want to hear a band do this, and The Band doesn’t exist anymore. It’s good music, and it should be played. … To me, it’s the joy of getting to turn people on to something maybe they’ve never seen, and also give people who’ve always wanted to see it an opportunity to finally see it.”
Chest Fever will perform The Last Waltz at 7 p.m., Friday, Dec. 16, at Cypress Reno, 761 S. Virginia St., in Reno. Tickets are $30 in advance. For tickets or more information, visit www.cypressreno.com.