Opera House, Wellington November 2014
It was hearing Radio New Zealand music reviewer Nick Bollinger interviewing guitarist James Burton that piqued my interest in this concert. I was already familiar with Burton’s music without actually knowing this – most notably 1950s rockabilly hit Suzie Q. It was Burton’s groundbreaking playing that made the song, when Burton was barely 15.
He has played with a wealth of artists since, most notably Elvis Presley from 1969 to 1977, and along with Ronnie Tutt (drums), Glen D. Hardin (piano) and Norbert ‘Put’ Putnam (bass) who also played in Elvis’ Taking Care of Business (TCB) band, was going to perform in Wellington, backing John Rowles on his and Elvis’ hits (In the end, I don’t think Putnam performed at this concert but I haven’t been able to confirm this).
I have to admit to not being a great fan of Rowles’ music, although I fully acknowledge his talents as a singer. So to some degree I went to the concert as an uncommitted observer, unlike most of those who milled about the foyer of the Opera House pre-concert (although I did meet up with a old blues playing friend during the interval there for the same reason as me, so there must have been a few James Burton fans in attendance).
It’s hard to discern who was there to see and hear John Rowles and who was there for the Elvis connection. There was just the one tall gentleman dressed in a rockabilly style – slicked back hair, wearing a jacket with a giant Elvis image on the back. I admire such people for their commitment, and courage in presenting it to a world which has a tendency to ridicule too easily. But for the most part the audience is of the age where they are likely to have fallen in love with Elvis and Rowles some time in the 1960s.
Elvis and Rowles do a share a lot in common – in particular a love of pomp and showmanship, and powerful soulful voices. A lot of their aura was also based around their sexual mystic. While Elvis died young enough not to have to confront the issues that come with being an ageing sex symbol, unfortunately for Rowles, as he is quite honest enough to admit, this gets harder to conjure up with every concert (at one point someone in the audience shouts “Take it all off! – Are you serious? You might be disappointed.”)
The audience is quite anarchic at some points during the concert, somehow managing to be both fawning and mocking, almost at the same time. Rowles laps up the former in a somewhat gauche manner, especially when dealing with star struck 60 year-olds, and mostly ignores the later. In some ways, Rowles’s once huge popularity acts as a millstone around his neck, now that he has permanently moved back to New Zealand.
Unlike another Maori crooner, Denis Marsh, who never made it big on the world stage but how has a strong and stable following when he regularly tours New Zealand’s “workingmens’ clubs. Could Rowles, for instance, earn a living doing these sorts of tours? Probably not, partly out of pride and also because he doesn’t have the common touch (although I have just noticed on his website www.serenadesfromtheheart.com that Rowles is available for “Weddings, Birthdays, Fund Raisers, Private Parties, Grand Openings and Funerals” – I think he would be great for these).
Rowles belongs to an era when separation between star and audience was essential to maintain their aura. Living in a country with a population of four million it’s very easy to become over-exposed and devalued. But strip all this away, and you still have a fine singer. He just needs his own Rick Rubin (famous for revitalising the twilight career of Johnny Cash amongst others) to work their magic and Rowles could conceivable yet have another hit, or at least put out a critically respected album.
So anyway, I’m sitting next to a man in a large cowboy hat – the only cowboy hat in attendance – and he is telling me over the sound of popera being played through the soundsystem (incongruously given the genre of the concert), that he plays in a country/rockabilly band. We agree that mainstream Country & Western music from the 1950s and 1960s is preferable to alt country.
And then the lights dim, and Also Sprach Zarathustra, made famous by the film 2001, and traditionally the opening for Elvis’ live performances starts up and the band kicks off with CC Rider, Rowles entering stage right to introduce its members and immediately mellow the mood with Welcome to My World.
The energy and music steps up a notch again with a fine version of Little Sister, written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, with Presley’s version reaching No 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1961. Burton’s guitar and Tutt’s drums lift the rhythm up to another level without losing the essentially laid back flavour of the song. Rowles’ vocals work well on the song as well.
Incidentally, it is interesting to read on the Internet that Elvis had a remarkably wide range, described variously as tenor, baritone and bass. It is when Rowles covers songs sung by Elvis in the lower registers that the two match up most perfectly.
Then it’s back to Rowles’s own hits with If I Only Had Time and Hush Not a Word to Mary. Worth mentioning at this point are the skills of the two female backing vocalists whose names I didn’t catch.
Next up is You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling, a 1965 hit by The Righteous Brothers. Elvis began performing the song in concert in 1970, with pianist Hardin’s new arrangement showcasing Presley’s ability to further emphasize the R&B and soul aspects of the song, according to Wikipedia, that is.
The song was released on Presley’s 1970 album That’s the Way It Is and reprised for his 1972 live album Elvis: As Recorded at Madison Square Garden. It’s a little gem that I’ve never associated with Elvis and along the way a few such songs are dropped into the mix. It’s the first of three songs from Elvis’s late 1960s/early 1970s period that Rowles perfectly captures the spirit off.
But inevitably there’s going to be some 1950s Rock & Roll which actually wasn’t Elvis’ strongest suite although he sold it best. Heartbreak Hotel leads on to Hound Dog, and later That’s Alright Mama. Unfortunately we have to put up with How Great Thou Art, one of the dullest songs of all time.
In his patter Rowles has the lines down pat but unfortunately for him, his audience has a tendency to miss the cues, for example, there’s a great big awkward space when he says “Thank you for joining us”, leaving me with the task of conjuring up some applause. In between numbers, Rowles’s humour sometimes saves him, and sometimes digs a hole that Rowles barely manages to escape from with dignity.
I’ve already said I’m not a fan of Rowles’s own hits, but his self-penned The Girl in White, which I’d never heard before, is actually very sophisticated and appealing. It brings out the best in Rowles’s voice, reminding you that he just needs the right material to be able to produce a sound that very few others can match.
Burton’s guitar throughout is understated. He’s content for the most part to support Rowles with the occasional short solo, as is also the case for Hardin and Tutt. Essentially he’s a country rock guitarist – as Burton acknowledged in the Bollinger review, the music he played when he first started out “was called ‘hillbilly’ then.”
Hardin’s keyboard work is a bit lost in the mix, as often happens with keyboards. I know no one plays acoustic piano on stage any more but I believe that the best and only true way to play Honky Tonk/Rock & Roll piano is on a miced up acoustic. Electric pianos are but a pale approximation in comparison.
Likewise, while Tutt’s drumming is supremely professional and soulful, his drums are just too close to audibly perfect (ironically) thanks to modern technology. Rock & Roll needs an edge in its sound which requires a basic beat up drum kit. Then we are on to Cheryl Moana Marie – nuff said! But a good example of the genre I call “Maori Country”.
This is followed by Johnny B Good by the brilliant Chuck Berry. An interesting fact about Berry’s music is that it is totally black blues when played by him and totally white country when played by Jerry Lee Lewis, which fits in with my theory that all musical genres are essentially cultural in character.
Then it’s fast forward to 1968 and In The Ghetto by Mac (Baby, Don’t Get Hooked On Me) Davis. Once again the sophistication of the song’s structure is perfectly complemented by Rowles’s rich baritone, supported by lovely rolling guitar from Burton, and sensitive drumming from Tutt. Probably as good a version of this song as you are ever going to get in New Zealand in 2014.
Hardin gives the piano on Please Release Me an upbeat honky tonk feel which is far superior to the original lethargic version, followed by Love Me Tender and Tania, both of which are songs that make me think about things like how hard the seats in the Opera House are.
The music lights up again with Suspicious Minds which works for exactly the same reasons as You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling, and In the Ghetto, especially as once again it shows another side to Burton’s guitar.
And then, surprise, there is no encore. I think the first time I’ve ever witnessed that happening (or not happening).
I can’t say I am too sad about that though. I tend to think encores are over-rated and often see concerts end well past the best point for endings thanks to a drawn out encore. I’m going to hang around to check out the band members in the foyer afterwards as they are going to be signing CDs, posters and so forth.
But I decide to flag it. The truth is, meeting musicians after a performance is almost always a disappointment. They’ve already shared their muse on the stage. They become mere mortals again, once the show is over.