Come Together: Abbey Road
Thursday, December 10
Last year some of New Zealand’s best known, much loved musicians banded together and delivered a concert replication of Neil Young’s Live Rust album/show – I went along slightly cynical. I left impressed with the effort – it showcased that wonderful music in the very best way: Fans showing what they loved and how they’d learned. There’s a slight sadness around the idea that this is what it takes to sell out a venue – give people what they know on some level, the only element of surprise is around if the locals can deliver; many of the musicians on that stage on that night couldn’t have got that audience for their own music. I couldn’t work out if they were being humble or just desperate. But I got over that to enjoy the show.
So I had that knowledge going into this year’s round. Many of the same musicians – and a few new faces – have been gathered to do three classic albums. Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms has been and gone, a repeat of Neil Young’s Rust will take place in January but December’s gig was the one I was looking forward to: Abbey Road by The Beatles.
Abbey Road is my favourite Beatles album – I know it inside out. I couldn’t have been alone in that as a full house again turned out to see this Kiwi supergroup tackle the Fab Four.
The first half of the show was a selection of Beatles songs – and wisely we are moving towards the Abbey Road era, the early rock’n’roll songs are almost entirely ignored. A Hard Day’s Night is as early as we go – for the most part it’s songs you might not have expected to hear in this context – White Album gems (Dear Prudence, Everyone’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey) and slightly lesser known things too, in the scheme (Hey Bulldog) as well as Eleanor Rigby, A Day In The Life and a couple of other classics that, arrangement-wise, might have deterred another group.
It was an excellent run of hits and the musicianship was frequently astounding. Brett Adams and Jol Mulholland (musical director) slayed the guitar parts – absolutely nailing those indelible lines and where songs were rearranged for performance (Eleanor Rigby) it was both respectful and thrilling. The core band moved like a muscle – this was such a lithe group as Mike Hall and Sean Donnelly (SJD) and James Milne (Lawrence Arabia) took turns at the bass, Sam Scott (Phoenix Foundation) moved from acoustic to electric guitars and backing to lead vocals and there were a handful of return walk-on star lead singers – Delaney Davidson, Tami Neilson, Laughton Kora and Jon Toogood – and they each brought their own style of course but all arrived brimming with an enthusiasm for the material that was instantly palpable.
In the second half we were given Abbey Road. It was brilliant. And served with such sincerity.
Again, the singers took turns and Laughton Kora’s way of connecting with a song instantly made him the best choice to kick off Come Together. He had the audience on his side straight away. The other big-star vocalist was Tami Neilson. No surprise. She’s one of the few from this band that can fill this venue with her own tunes and she certainly fills it up with her voice. In the first half she had totally owned Lady Madonna – taking that 50-year-old song and bending it to speak to the Working Mother persona that informs her most recent original work. For Abbey Road, wisely, she is given the job of singing both Oh, Darling and I Want You (She’s So Heavy). These are, respectively, Paul and John’s last two great Rock ’n’ Roll Voice songs. And Tami’s vocal is still hanging from the rafters there I’m sure.
It was spellbinding actually. She took to these songs they way her heroes might well have – Etta James and Mavis Staples so obviously came to mind. And as she has handled so many cover versions already you got the feeling that, hopefully, she’s now planning a full set of Beatles songs; it wouldn’t just work it might well be a revelation.
But look, everyone was great. Jon Toogood not only sang these songs like he meant them, but he played the hell out of the rhythm guitar – as he does – and looked and felt the part, not just for his grown-up-brat version of rock ‘n’ roll energy but for the way this music on this night moved him. It was so obvious to sense how connected he was to it. The same goes for many on the stage. They couldn’t wipe the smile from their faces.
And though it was male-dominated, and it was of course a tribute to a band that featured four male musicians who all sang on the record, so four male voices, it wasn’t just Tami out there to represent the women. Dianne Swann – as with her role in the Neil Young tribute last year – was so often a big part of the songs with her backing vocals, but also in the times when she was given a song to lead. She’s such a great communicator of the song; not just a singer – but again it’s so palpable that she feels every moment. You see the young music fan that was first swept up in the song as you hear the experienced vocalist that knows their way around the technical challenge.
It could be argued that more women should be involved in future shows – not only for balance but also to further make these tribute gigs their own thing. To take the source material and move it further towards the reinterpretation and away from the actual recordings.
But I don’t want to get into what this show wasn’t. I’m still thinking about what it was and how good I felt after.
So obvious that people like Scott and Milne are Beatles fans – we’ve heard it shadow the walls of their own songs, so it not only made sense to have them here doing this work but it felt like a behind-the-scenes sneak-peak, a Behind The Music featurette played live.
Sam Scott was the perfect person to play to the strengths and/or weaknesses of Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, he didn’t quite play it straight, there was always hint of a wink. But he nailed it for certain. And what might have been an ordeal for some was served so sweetly as to be nearly one of the highlights of the Abbey set.
Drummer Alistair Deverick – the safest of safe hands for many of the acts on stage and for several other of New Zealand’s great artists and bands (including his own solo work) was absolutely brilliant throughout but also took up the role of singing drummer to deliver Octopus’s Garden. The other “novelty song” of the night it was a nice moment between Neilson’s aforementioned two big soul-rock belters and had the authenticity of the drummer singing, of course The Beatles never performed it live but it was Ringo’s song.
The real thrill though – for me anyway, I’m sure this was the case for many – was the medley that ties up Side Two of Abbey Road. You Never Give Me Your Money through Golden Slumbers, Carry That Weight and The End. Here the band had no time for between-song banter, no time for applause between tracks to reset, it’s a quarter-hour of make or break. And it was sublime.
Delaney Davidson stood lone on the stage after rapturous applause and picked through the 20-second coda, Her Majesty. As with Tami’s work recasting the songs to suit her, Her Majesty – even though it’s barely there – was made to feel so perfectly like a song-sliver that Davidson might serve while wandering about his own stage.
In the end this is why it worked – the passion and connection for these great songs (which isn’t really any sort of surprise, it’s The Beatles after all) – was felt every step of the way.
So, yes, I still had moments watching where I worried that this was all a bit Wax Museum-ish and is that what we’ve decided for our touring musicians: We’ll watch – but only if you do songs we already know by band we actually like. But hey, they’re netting a payday. And earning their keep. And entertaining a crowd. And we’re lucky for such things. As are they. In a year that has served up a lot of challenges, and all but cancelled live music, this is a nice celebration to have. And this gig was hard to fault.
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