Wednesday, November 23
Here was The Tall Order: take a bunch of musicians, give them four days to rehearse – and then send them out on the road to play a quick series of shows as a tribute to one of the greatest concert films of all time in which a band (The Band) says farewell with a blistering set of performances (featuring some special guests) after 16 years of life on the road and recording; their ferocious talent spilling out over and across every song.
Our own local tribute to The Last Waltz, timed for the film’s 40th Anniversary was billed as starring The Band’s Musical Genius Garth Hudson. He is/was certainly a genius – but one of the handful that made up that group, and one of only two left living now (the other, Robbie Robertson, the chief songwriter might be more deserving of the actual title: The Band’s Musical Genius). Also the musical director John Simon was on hand. We also had special guest Sister Maud Hudson, Garth’s wife of 35 years, a blues singer.
There was something of a Weight – perhaps pardon the pun – hanging across the shoulders of nearly every musician on stage. Those original performances and the players that poked them into place seemed to make a talented group of session guys nervous. Wayne Bell, a fantastic drummer who usually makes everything seem effortless, looked to be working harder than I’ve ever seen him. He was in the pocket, of course. But can anyone play like Levon Helm? Mike Hall is a good bass player but no one is Rick Danko. That rhythm section – so impossible to replace or even replicate – is the crucial hinge to The Band. Our version of the band is polite and polished and there’s no teetering nor tension; The Last Waltz – like The Song Remains The Same or Stop Making Sense or any of the great concert films was spectacular because it so often looked like it might fall over.
But not this attempt at endearing tribute. Far too nice. Brett Adams is a kick-ass guitarist, a player of taste and great skill, knowing what to play and what not to – but tonight, save for a nice burst of slide playing early on, it feels like he’s chopped up one guitar solo and sprinkled bits of it throughout the set. It doesn’t have Robertson’s pinch nor bite, it’s not messy and explosive. In the film – even after dozens of watches – Robertson’s playing feels surprising.
Our local singers do okay. And a quick shout-out to Reb Fountain, super-sub, called in at the last minute to cover for Dianne Swann. I’m sure Swann would have done a great job but Fountain, once again (as was the case with the Bowie tribute earlier this year) has a way of conveying music that is infectious. It lives inside her, she’s a conjurer. She sells it. Lives it. Loves it. A great singer too – fitting in with all of the leads, and – as I said – called up just a day or two before these gigs.
Barry Saunders is far better singing The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down than I expected – I like Barry’s voice but this song was always going to be a tough one. It’s actually a highlight on the night, even if a bit gentle. A wee thrill seeing John Simon count in and conduct the horn section for that intro he scored.
Tami Neilson is a safe pair of hands and a big smile. But again, it doesn’t come as naturally as the work does when you see her in her own environment, nailing the songs she’s written and the covers of songs she grew up with – here she steps up and does the work. But her own – crucial – personality is lost.
Delaney Davidson is the only one, early on, that seems comfortable with the heft of the task. His take on This Wheel’s On Fire is his own, blatantly so. It’s refreshing.
Paul Ubana Jones, sans guitar, croons out Georgia with the horns and rhythm section guiding him – and it’s lovely. Within just a few frames it suggests that Paul could put together a whole show singing bluesy, jazzy standards but it’s telling that when this show goes off-book it provides highlights; when it seeks to replicate it struggles. The opening Cripple Creek has no real punch. A safe rendition of Rag Mama Rag has none of the off-kilter magic of The Band’s wizard-show.
And on it all lumbers. Rather joyless, far too white and clean, no dirt, no grit.
When Garth Hudson takes to the stage to go tentacle-like across the keys, both seeming like he’s exploring them for the first time and as if it’s the only thing he’s ever truly known it’s shambolic rather than dazzling. For many, the sale-job of seeing “The Band’s Musical Genius” is enough. Not for me. Far better though is when he sits at the piano and guides Sister Maud through a blues ballad (It Makes No Difference). She is something special – touches and traces of Alberta Hunter and Phoebe Snow and Etta James. What a voice! Finally – we have something. Something that speaks to – and comes from – the energy and feel and flow of the original concerts.
John Simon’s presence is a bit of a distraction, a bit unnecessary. He’s there’s to church up the authenticity. Mansplaining (Bandsplaining?) the event as it happens. His intro would have been fine but beyond that he’s not a great talker, nor well prepared. Nice to have him at the piano for Georgia, he’s a great player, and in those moments as where he conducted the horns – but otherwise I could see him twiddling his thumbs side of stage, counting down the moments until the cheque had cleared; the money was in the bank.
This was a paycheck-gig. Pure and simple. Everyone was there – first and foremost – to get paid. But we were sold it as if some spiritual journey for many of the members, or at least a giant, thoughtful celebration. No. It lurched and crawled, and hoped, and it filled me with one desire. To go home to watch the film once again.
I made it only until the interval. I could not face another hour plus after a near interminable 90-minute first half.
I know the musicians were doing their best, and were facing the equivalent of pushing water uphill with a rake when it comes to really – truly – approximating The Band. But this was at times borderline-insulting, and almost always, despite attempts to be affectionate and endearing, it seemed directionless. Which is a great shame.