★★★★½ - STUFF
When Stevie Wonder was booked to play in Auckland in 1979, the New Zealand promoters did something that was almost unprecedented at the time. They booked a local act in support.
The usual practice pre the 1980s was to bring an Australian act over to support whatever American or European star was touring. The logic was that any New Zealand acts who were good enough, were probably already in Australia (or the UK) anyway, so why waste your time auditioning second-raters?
Herbs changed all that. They came to the attention of a couple of movers and shakers early in their careers and now the coveted Stevie Wonder gig was theirs. Only trouble was, the rain was so heavy that the main power cable to the stage was under a foot of water. Anyone on that stage was risking being electrocuted at any moment. Those who were lucky enough to be at that gig know what happened next. Stevie Wonder's people refused to let him play. But Herbs went on stage that night and carved themselves a legend.
It's a great yarn. It may even be completely true. The history of Herbs does get filtered through 40 long years, countless long nights and many, many former members and associates.
So calling this film – Herbs: Songs of Freedom – the definitive account of the band's long and fantastic journey might be stretching it. But Tearepa Kahi (Poi E) has made what is certainly as thorough an account as there will ever be. It is the film this band richly deserve.
Songs of Freedom is no "this is how we met and then this happened" plod through Herbs' story. Kahi has taken a far more nuanced and illustrative path into the tale. The edit skips around the timelines, more interested in making thematic sense than chronological. It's a tough approach to make sing, but Kahi and his editors make it look as natural as a kiss.
This is an affectionate and respectful film, but also one that knows exactly of what it speaks. In a move that might surprise some, the band's collaboration with Dave Dobbyn – Slice of Heaven, probably still their best-known track in middle-New Zealand – is rightly treated as a footnote to Herbs' actual musical legacy.
With full in-concert renditions of Long Ago, French Letter, Rust in Dust, Jah Knows and so many others to choose from, the band in absolutely storming form and Annie Crummer's perfectly matured support vocals setting the front rows on fire, Kahi doesn't need to pander to the pop charts.
The real meat that Herbs made taste so good was always pure reggae. Legend has it Bob Marley's concert at Western Springs in 1979 was the wellspring of New Zealand's infatuation with reggae. Maybe so, but Herbs have collectively done more to nurture that flame than any other band or individual. Herbs' influence – their humility sees it being seldom acknowledged – is immense.
Herbs: Songs of Freedom is a fantastic achievement. This is a funny, elegiac, moving, necessary and quietly triumphant film. It may just be my new favourite New Zealand music doco
-GRAEME TUCKETT, STUFF