Various Artists: Live Rust Concert Tour
Tuesday, August 6
So this was the pitch: bunch of Kiwi musicians paying tribute to Neil Young’s Live Rust album/tour on its 40th Anniversary. I’ll be honest, I didn’t quite get it at first. I mean, I get that there’s lots of people out there that love Neil Young and Live Rust – I’m one of them. And I was not alone. Tuesday night’s opening show at Wellington’s Opera House was sold out. And it was clear, almost instantly, that everyone on the stage loves Neil Young too. So no dramas there. I just didn’t quite get how it was going to work and if it would work at all.
Almost instantly I was hooked. Here was an all-star band – not only great playing from all but many showed at every available opportunity just how into it they were and what a crucial influence Neil Young has been. And here was a great setlist – obviously. And here was an audience ready and waiting. Perfect.
Many of the same players were on hand to perform a tribute to The Band’s Last Waltz (which, for me at least, absolutely did not work nor mean a thing) so perhaps that was reason enough for my initial skepticism.
But that was put to rest as soon as this concert started. The vibe was right. The sound was magnificent. And of course the songs were majestic. I found myself almost in tears hearing this crew tear through Revolution Blues, Harvest Moon and particularly Don’t Let It Bring You Down.
Now of course these are not songs from Live Rust, but in a generous first set we heard all of these and many more – a veritable greatest hits including Southern Man, Ohio, Down By The River and many of these songs – and these versions – were better than what was performed in the concert’s second half. Particularly palpable was Delaney Davidson holding both hands in the air as he changed the number from four to nine in the line to reflect the most recent tragic events in America (“nine dead in Ohio”). Davidson’s stinging guitar was perfectly suited to solos – and if anything I think he got closest to the spirit of Neil Young. But everyone had their own take. Of course Brett Adams is the technician, the calm head, safe pair of hands. He nailed it. Like he was always going to. Liam Finn played a wild-card role and Jon Toogood simply adapted his Shihad moves to a largely superfluous rhythm-guitar role but was good when stepping up to offer lead vocals (Old Man).
I particularly loved Dianne Swann’s energy. She had a swagger to her rhythm guitar chops, her voice is great and her love of the music was so overt. Reb Fountain, too, has a way of communicating songs – she lives inside the song while it is happening. And this is whether she’s a supporting voice in a choir of backing vocalists or out front and in charge.
Chris O’Connor is simply the country’s best – most versatile – drum-player. Want the job done properly? Call Chris!
And then much of the heavy lifting was done by SJD – Sean Donnelly. He was able to come closest to aping Neil’s dreamy falsetto, but with the requisite amount of SJD flavour (Pocahontas) and it’s a joy to hear him driving a band from his role as bassist. He had the tone and feel just right. I wanted to write a letter of support to Creative New Zealand at this point that simply said, “If Dianne Swann and SJD wish to do a project – and if it involves Delaney and Reb and Chris and Brett that’s obviously a bonus – please give them an open fucking cheque!”
After the interval we got the Live Rust album – with nods to the concert film, the all-star band all appearing now in overalls or jumpsuits, the “road-eyes” (based on the Star Wars Jawa folk) patrolling the stage and of course the oversized amps in the backdrop. Again, the music was joyous – this celebration of it: Sugar Mountain, I Am A Child, Comes A Time. Neil Young’s best music makes you feel as if you’re stoned while listening to it – in the best possible way. You don’t have to inhale, you don’t even have to light up. The music takes you (most of the way) there.
As with the first set we had swap-arounds, an acoustic guitar here and there between Fountain, Toogood, Finn or Swann, Sam Scott taking the lead vocal at times, and then SJD again, Adams, then Toogood. Davidson also. And here he was most effective as the go-to harmonica guy. All the while O’Connor was in control of the tempo and a portion of the mood.
Swann and Fountain took starring roles as they patrolled the stage-apron when on main-vocal duties. And Reb delivered one of Neil’s all-time greatest songs, After The Gold Rush from the piano (with a Delaney-assist on the harmonica).
The lovely country-pop of Lotta Love one minute, the dizzying punk-mess of Sedan Delivery the next. Stoned Inca magic with Cortez The Killer, stomping-good rock with Cinnamon Girl’s buzz and grumble…
Look, I think there were two obvious points to make that offer some mild rain to the parade. Firstly, Neil Young is inimitable and he doesn’t give a fuck what anyone thinks of him. These musicians on stage care what people think. Almost everyone cares what someone else thinks. Neil is almost not human in that sense. His songs are beautiful and humane and wise and messy and glorious – so if you could get over the fact that no one can be Neil (and no one was trying to be Neil) then it was magical.
Secondly, I was saddened to hear more than one person shouting out that this was an all-star band. (I’ve even used the term more than once here myself). What saddened me was the idea that it took someone else’s songs and a concert like this for us to refer to a bunch of talented Kiwis as an all-star band. If this same crew got together and played a batch of their own songs (The Phoenix Foundation, SJD, The Bads, Shihad, Liam Finn – well, why not?) would it sell out a theatre? Would people hang on every word?
So, as the second set hit a mild slump for me (because it was almost too much of a good thing) I started to get a bit philosophical-pondering. I think SJD is a genius. I think Delaney and Reb and Dianne all have something very special going on. I think Chris O is one of the world’s best drummers. Brett Adams is the safest of safey-safe hands – and that seems almost a putdown and I sure as fuck don’t mean it to be – and I recognise that the star-power of Liam Finn and Jon Toogood helped sell tickets even though they were really walk-on cameos. But this is what it takes in New Zealand, this is how it is.
Would a promoter get together a bunch of our best rugby players – IE: The All Blacks – and have them perform demonstration matches based on some of the best tries and set plays from 40 years ago?
I know I’ve lost most of you now. These were just the things I got to thinking about in a three-hour show.
Shit this was good. Super fucking good. And I didn’t think that it would be when I entered the theatre. You hope for the best. Always. But you don’t always go in thinking you’re going to get it. We got more than we might have expected when these great souls lined up to give their all to one of the greatest and most idiosyncratic musical minds of the last 50 years. It was for the most part so utterly joyous, respectful and never too nervous and tentative. There were several own-spins put on well-oiled classics.
I just wish we could care this much about our own musicians doing their own great music. But that’s a separate argument. And maybe tribute-concerts are the future. (Give the people what they want). No one could have left this show disappointed and the standing ovation at the end was the true tale of the tape.
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