John Simon brings The Last Waltz to NZ

By Graham Reid

Graham Reid speaks with the musical director of one of the most famous farewell concerts in rock.
Music producer, John Simon.
Music producer, John Simon.

For a decade from the mid-60s, John Simon was one of the most important record producers in America. In rapid succession he produced Big Brother and the Holding Company's Cheap Thrills (which unleashed Janis Joplin on an unsuspecting world, Leonard Cohen's debut album, Simon and Garfunkel's Bookends, the Electric Flag ...

However his name will forever be appended to one group: The Band.

They were the musicians working with Bob Dylan during his time away from the public eye in 1966 and 1967, and emerged in their own right when Simon produced their seminal debut album Music From Big Pink (1968) and its self-titled follow-up.

These records ushered in a genre that would subsequently be known as alt-country or Americana.

And when the Band called it quits in 1976, Simon was the musical director for their famous farewell show The Last Waltz, filmed by Martin Scorsese with a guest list that included Dylan, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Dr John and many more.

The reason for the call now to his home near Woodstock is that Simon, 75, is coming to New Zealand to produce a 40th anniversary Last Waltz tribute show which includes original Band keyboard player Garth Hudson and some of New Zealand's finest musicians, among them Tami Neilson, the Bads, Barry Saunders and Adam McGrath - and a five-piece horn section.

Simon has acted as musical director for a number of similar tributes in the States, but this is the first he's done outside the country.

"I've been asked before but never taken up the offer, but the producers are so dedicated to making it just right it's going to be something to be proud of."

Simon says he and Hudson have seen the New Zealand performers on YouTube and when they arrive there will be a couple of days of rehearsals. But though The Last Waltz is the essence of the concerts, "everyone is going to bring their own artistry and I was aiming for that; these people put their own fire into it".

"It's a very loving tribute to the Band and The Last Waltz, but also that pioneering period ... and it seems New Zealand is attuned to that, the spirit is there in New Zealand as a young country."

Not long after The Last Waltz, Simon withdrew from high-profile production, made albums under his own name, wrote and produced music for film and television and kept his hand in with more modest projects.

For The Last Waltz he was very much in control as musical director. "Martin was directing the film and Robbie Robertson [of the Band] was the producer, but he abdicated musical control so he could perform ... [and I was] the musical translator for the Band because, aside from Garth, the guys didn't read music".

"Someone like Joni Mitchell with her guitar tuned crazy meant they wouldn't be able to tell what the chords were, so I had to piece out what would work so they could play along with her.

"At the concert there was a lot for them to remember so I would get a few things down to hand signals. I would stand in the wings and hold three fingers horizontally to indicate an E chord coming up and things like that," he laughs.

Simon says the professionalism he saw in the New Zealand artists has drawn him to make the long journey - from early winter in New York State to early summer in New Zealand however, he notes happily - but there's something else enjoyable ahead.

"My wife is coming with me and we'll spend some time out in the bush and seeing the country, so we're looking forward to it."

Who: American record producer/musical director John Simon
What: The Last Waltz: 40th Anniversary Concert Tour with Garth Hudson, Barry Saunders, Kevin Borich, the Bads and others
Where: Christchurch, Tuesday November 22, Isaac Theatre Royal; Wellington, Wednesday November 23, The Opera House; Auckland, Thursday November 24, The Civic

- NZ Herald

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