“I remember all of it … Let me take you back,” said musician and producer John Simon at the start of the Last Waltz 40th Anniversary Concert at the Aotea Centre in Auckland in the last week of November. He was talking about an event in California in 1976 for which he was the musical director: a farewell concert for iconic group The Band featuring a large cast of guest stars.
This 2016 show was an homage to that one and a celebration of the genre of “American music”, and it featured The Band’s original organ player Garth Hudson along with a posse of New Zealand musicians for whom this band’s music is something of a touchstone. “Let me take you back,” said Simon, but this wasn’t an exercise in sentimental nostalgia, an attempt to recreate faithful note-for-note versions of The Band’s songs; it wasn’t a pining for something been and gone. This was a celebration of the motifs, characters and aspirations of the genre, of the pioneering aspect of The Band, and of the joy of music and performance in general. It was a showcase of some of the best musicians in the New Zealand music scene and a tribute to the ideals of a kind of music that values craft and soul over rock and roll cliché.
There was certainly a lot of heart and soul in this show. The vocalists threw themselves into the songs, they traded hugs at the end of tunes, they joked and laughed. There was a lovely reverence for the 79-year old Garth Hudson and his wife Sister Maud Hudson as they moved slowly on and off the stage for their parts of the performance and as they played and sang. There was an unforced undercutting of the bombast and nihilism that infects a lot of contemporary music.
Some highlights: Delaney Davidson’s takes on Bob Dylan’s This Wheel’s On Fire and Dr John’s Such A Night had an intensity and edginess. He also provided chiming acoustic guitar on Reb Fountain’s stunning version of Joni Mitchell’s Coyote, which had space and melody: Fountain didn’t miss a beat in capturing the heart of the song in a soulful performance.
Barry Saunders of evergreen Kiwi outfit The Warratahs took the lead vocals and contributed acoustic guitar on several tunes. His voice suited these gritty songs and he delivered them from his gut, capturing the pathos of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and the urgency of Stage Fright.
Paul Ubana Jones, singing Georgia On My Mind and Forever Young, was a commanding and joyful presence, as was Tami Neilsen during the swampy slow-burner Evangeline.
The Bads (who have a new album out soonish) contributed the spine and ribs of the music for the whole show, with drummer Wayne Bell pounding his kit with smiling gusto, Dave Khan swapping between mandolin, fiddle and guitar, Mike Hall on bass and Brett Adams centre stage on guitar and vocals. Another highlight was the horn section — especially the tuba — which filled the venue with a big fat sound when they took their instruments in hand.
So many good songs, but two stood out. It Makes No Difference featured Garth Hudson’s piano and Sister Maud Hudson’s bluesy vocals in a poignant performance which garnered a standing ovation. “It makes no difference how far I go / Like a scar the hurt will always show … / Without your love I’m nothing at all / Like an empty hall it’s a lonely fall,” sang Sister Maud, sitting in her wheelchair, dark glasses under a hat pulled low and with a carved walking stick in hand as her husband accompanied her on the piano.
One of my all-time favourite songs appeared at the end of the show: Dylan’s I Shall Be Released, which had every player — twenty at least — onstage for a rollicking singalong. “I see my light come shining / From the west unto the east / Any day now / I shall be released.” These men and women love music, and this style of music especially: that was clear to see.
This is their daily work, their “arena of service” as artists, as St John Paul II would have it. It strikes me that in their looking back to see where they have come from, and in their bringing forward the distilled essence of this tradition into the current resurgence of Americana music, there’s a sense of two words Catholics should be familiar with: there’s a ressourcement in the retrieval of the riches of tradition and an aggiornamento in bringing them up to date in a revitalised way for a modern audience.
These concepts were part of the reforms of Vatican II and are something the Church is still wrestling with 50 years down the track. In much pop music there’s a striving to be “new” and “modern”, to make a rupture with the past, just as there unfortunately often is in liturgies and ministries in the Church: perhaps the musicians of the Last Waltz Concert suggest that authenticity and joy might indeed be found in a thoughtful alignment with a solid traditional foundation while taking up every good and useful aspect of what the twenty-first century has to offer.
Photo credit : Trevor Villers