Keith Wortman and Don Was began Blackbird Presents with the simple idea of wanting to honor their musical heroes with one-of-a-kind events. Blackbird Presents creates and produces once-in-a-lifetime concerts and performances that recognize the work of distinct artists with star-studded lineups. For those who can’t make it to the one-off events, Blackbird films the evenings for release or broadcast television. Now the New York-based company is broadening their reach with festivals, documentaries, and their own record imprint.
“Whenever we decide to do a show it has to pass three hurdles,” Wortman told Amplify. “Are we huge fans of that artist’s music? Does that artist have a body of work, at least 20-25 songs that we can make a great show out of? Was that artist so inspirational to a group of musicians, that when we do start calling folks there’s no shortage of people who would do it?”
Once an artist checks off all those boxes, Blackbird searches out musicians to fill out the roster, a task they take as seriously as deciding on an honoree.
“The way we program the show, you had to have known the honoree, recorded or toured with them, or you will have needed to have cited that artist as an influence in order for us to want to call you,” Wortman said. “The artist community is small and passionate and everyone tries to support and learn from each other. If it turns out that one of your heroes is being honored, well life is short. So people tend to want to take that day out of their week to come and be a part of something very special.”
This year, Blackbird is also intending to expand the way they deliver their shows through musical releases. For the first time, Blackbird has partnered with Universal Caroline for its own imprint. Rather than sell or license any of their carefully curated sets, Blackbird will publish their own material on the new imprint and retain control of their recorded content.
Their first release on their imprint will be the recording of “I’ll Take You There: Celebrating 75 Years of Mavis Staples.” The concert took place in November at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago and included performers like Michael McDonald, Arcade Fire’s Win Butler, Aaron Neville, and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy.
The duo’s original idea to create special events celebrating the life and work of music icons began with “We Walk the Line,” a special performance honoring the work of the Man in Black on what would have been his 80th birthday.
The Johnny Cash show “turned out to be a great success so we decided to film and record all of our shows. Suddenly we have these sold-out shows and our shows became highly-rated broadcast specials and sought-after music releases,” Wortman told Amplify. “That was the jumping off point of the company.”
Since the success of “We Walk the Line” in 2012, Blackbird has put together various once-in-a-lifetime performances for artists like Jerry Garcia, Emmylou Harris, and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
The next hero to be recognized will be Merle Haggard. The company just announced, “Sing Me Back Home: The Music of Merle Haggard” happening April 6 at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. The night will feature performances and collaborations by Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Kenny Chesney, Loretta Lynn and Kacey Musgraves.
This follows the announcement for the second leg of The Last Waltz tour which celebrates the 40th anniversary of The Band’s farewell performance. Blackbird put on the original performance of the tribute at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival before receiving countless calls from venues and promoters requesting the show come to their market.
“When we did these shows at Jazz Fest in New Orleans last year, the response was so overwhelming from fans and the music press and from promoters,” said Wortman. “I started getting calls from all over the country saying we’d love for you to bring this show to our market.”
The Last Waltz tour was a first for Blackbird. The company’s Jazz Fest shows were all previously one-offs, but the success of The Last Waltz has changed the way they look at the events. Wortman says their night at this year’s festival will be the introduction for their next tour, a tradition they plan to continue annually.
“We’ve now heavily expanded, not just from doing shows that become broadcast specials and music releases, but we moved heavily into the festival space, the touring space, and also the film and television space in terms of series and films and documentaries,” Wortman said.
The broadcast premiere for “Outlaw: Celebrating the Music of Waylon Jennings” is set for April 7 on County Music Television (CMT), which followed AMC’s highly-rated airing of “Imagine: John Lennon 75th Birthday Concert.”
“It’s been an amazing, organic evolution for us. It’s guided by what we are passionate about. The core of who we are as music fans really guides what we do. We never do anything just for the money. Don and I have to love it in order to want to jump into something.”
To learn more about past and future Blackbird shows check out their website.