Firstly, I’ll hold my hands up. I didn’t go. I never intended to go. I wouldn’t go if you paid me. It’s not that I find his music particularly unpleasant, I just think it incredibly dull. A bit like David Gray all those years ago, but (even) more annoying. Music for barbecues.
To say little old Dunedin has made the most of a THREE night stint by Ole’ Speccy Ginger Chops would be to do it a disservice. It was quite a coup, undoubtedly – 3 nights in Auckland and then 3 down here and no other dates in NZ. But Dunedin has gone absolutely fucking bonkers for the bloke, to the point where it has become acutely, suffocatingly embarrassing.
If Dunedin were a person, they would be the sort who announces how many babies they’re going to have with you, on your first date, or reveals a full size tattoo of your face on their chest. Dunedin is the creepy desperate stalker one alright.
A ten foot mural of his face? Colour the E and the D on the Dunedin sign at the airport? Fuck OFF!
Sheeran attracted an extra 65,000 people to Dunedin over the Easter weekend, and that is not to be sniffed at. Many millions into the city’s economy is fucking brilliant, don’t get me wrong. The fawning and toadying, however, just makes us appear desperate.
Basking in the afterglow of an utterly spellbinding concert by Roger Waters, it strikes me that only a month prior, I had absolutely no intention of attending. I wasn’t baulking at the price, nor the venue, I think I was just wary of being disillusioned by ageing rockers again (thanks largely to Jethro Tull last year). I was this (holds out finger and thumb only millimeters apart) close to missing out on one of the greatest concerts of my, er, career. Not sure why I changed my mind in the end, but my deliberation over the matter worked in my favour, as by the time I bought my ticket they had reduced the prices for fear of swathes of empty seats.
I had been one of the lucky several hundred thousand that saw him perform The Wall in Berlin in 1990, and I wasn’t overly impressed but that was more down to logistics than any fault on Roger’s part. I could neither comfortably see nor hear that gig. I had a much better time at Pink Floyd the year before, but the weather had conspired to ruin the sound and the visuals and I desperately needed a wee for their entire set. So maybe this time then?
Dunedin is in the middle of a heatwave. It’s been 30+ all day (believe me, this is scorching for us), and the perspex-roofed Forsyth Barr stadium is basically a giant greenhouse so I’m leaving it as late as possible to enter. If the temperature in the shade in a local beer garden is anything to go by, I am going to need to stay well hydrated, and not with IPA either. The walk down to the stadium is gloriously hot with not a cloud in sight, and barely a trouser leg either. There is a lot of flesh on show, most of it unusually tanned for this part of the world. We’ve been advised that Mr Waters will take to the stage at 8pm sharp, no support. I appreciate this kind of precise information, because in my opinion there is no worse crime against music than missing the start of a show. It takes me a while to find my seat, but when I do, boy have I got a great view. I’m on the pitch, only 10 rows from the front, and not far off central either. This must have originally been one of the most expensive tickets and it’s a bit like boarding a plane and not discovering you’ve been upgraded until you reach your seat. The price-drop has paid dividends though, as the place looks to be full. I think, when half the pitch is utilised, this place holds 15,000 – convincing that many Dunedinites to part with $100+ and leave the comfort of their living rooms (or tonight, perhaps their paddling pools) is no mean feat.
At 8pm sharp, a projection appears on the giant screen (giant being the entire width of the stage and height of the East Stand, basically it couldn’t be much larger and still fit). It’s a film of a woman sitting in the sand dunes somewhere in Britain, staring out to sea, and the soundtrack is waves and seagulls. No Roger though. After watching the back of sand-lady’s head for another 20 minutes, I seed the band finally troop out from the back of the stage, all dressed in black like a posse of roadies. There are dozens of them, it’s like the Roger Waters Orchestra or something. I should have guessed from the 24 (that I could count) guitars dotted around the stage that this was going to be far from an intimate solo acoustic affair. I am heartened to see Dave Kilminster amongst them – he performed with Steven Wilson a year or so ago and he is one of the best guitarists I’ve ever had the fortune to see. No idea about any of the others though, but if they’re even half the calibre of Kilminster it’ll be a great show. There is another guitarist, a keyboard player, a slide guitar/keyboard player, a bassist, a drummer and two backing singers. They all take their places on the stage and then on wanders then man himself. He’s 74 FFS but he really doesn’t look it. He’s accumulated a slight paunch on the front of his beanpole frame, but he looks like he’s really taken care of himself in his half-century of rockstardom. I’m sure his lifestyle is more akin to Cliff Richard’s than Tommy Lee’s but even so, he is looking remarkably well. Sand-lady is gone from the screen and replaced with some colourful CGI and we’re straight into Speak To Me / Breathe. The sound is incredible. Just amazing, far better than I thought it was possible to get inside a stadium. Just the right volume too, I don’t need my earplugs. And as you might expect, this carefully selected troupe of musicians is as tight as the proverbial gnat’s chuff. Dave K plays with every bit of the grace and precision of Mr Gilmour – you would be hard pressed to tell the difference. The backing singers (2 ladies, with matching peroxide bobs) are also astonishingly good but it’s not until The Great Gig In The Sky that they get to really let go. And wowsers, they really let go. They fairly belt out Clare Torry’s part but in two part harmony. Stunning stuff. Roger Waters’ voice though, that’s the thing that impresses me. He hasn’t lost a single unit of whatever it is you measure singing prowess with (Watts? Horsepower? I don’t fucking know, do I). It’s majestic.
We are treated to One Of These Days and Time and Welcome To The Machine before it’s time for some new stuff. His latest solo offering is pretty listenable and I recognise Dèja Vu and in my opinion, easily the best track from Is This The Life We Really Want – the synth heavy Picture That. The crowd is a little reluctant to participate, it has to be said – perhaps because it’s a Tuesday, perhaps because it’s just so hot, but they (we) are quite happy to remain seated and applaud politely. The first half of the show is brought to an end with Another Brick In The Wall Pts ii and iii. It is done to perfection, complete with a dozen local children on stage to play the pupils. His explanation that he’d be back in 20 mins for more is the first time all night that he addresses the crowd – he’s evidently quite a modest chap that would prefer that his music does the talking.
It’s much darker outside by the time they resume their positions on the stage, and Roger has promised us a decent lightshow. Battersea Power station appears on the giant screen, and we are treated to Dogs, then Pigs (3 different ones). I’ve forgotten just how good Animals was, and resolve to reacquaint myself with it properly next time I’m near Spotify. Lots of anti capitalist, anti greed and anti Trump imagery flashes up on the screen, and then a series of POTUS’s most WTAF quotes. For an aged multi millionaire, Roger Waters is still quite the revolutionary. A huge inflatable pig drone flies out over the crowd and later an inflatable moon drone. Then Wish You Were Here, another new one and Money, before the tour-eponymous Us And Them, and the finale, a belting version of Brain Damage, during which we are treated to a laser show. I don’t think I’ve seen a laser show at a gig for a few decades. It’s not that they’re passé or anything, I just don’t go to gigs on this scale very often (any more). A laser, 5 cleverly placed mirrors and a couple of smoke machines combine to generate a pyramid, illuminated by a rainbow coloured laser above, and it’s almost like looking at the cover of Dark Side of the Moon. This is stadium rock alright. By the end of the second set, the timid, sober, Tuesday night Dunedin audience is on its feet screaming for an encore. I’m amazed and more than a little overjoyed that we have thrown off our collective reluctance to stand up or raise our voices. I’ve never heard this sort of crowd response in NZ before and it’s genuinely heartwarming.
He doesn’t disappoint, and back they come. For only the second time tonight, he addresses the crowd, this time to introduce the band. Due to the huge number of personnel on the stage (the 10 from the first half plus an additional sax player who appeared for Money onwards), this takes a good few minutes, and Roger gives each of them equal billing while we give them equal amounts of adoration. Mother is the first encore and although I am quite fond of the song, it really pales into insignificance next to Comfortably Numb, the final number. It’s probably my favourite Floyd song of all – Roger sings the verses (the low, almost spoken parts) while the other guitarist, Jonathan Wilson, handles the choruses. More importantly Dave K absolutely nails the guitar solo.
And that, folks, is that. They return briefly to perform the curtain call bow and wave goodbye, and as the house lights come up, we are all left to stare in amazement at each other at what we’ve just witnessed. I never realised how much I appreciate Pink Floyd. This was way better than my previous experiences of Floyd or Waters, it was pretty much perfect in every way. He played virtually everything I wanted to hear, with the exception of Shine On You Crazy Diamond, and even the new stuff was good. This is in such stark contrast to Jethro Tull, it’s really renewed my enthusiasm for old has-beens (although he really is far from a has been). And let’s face it, Dunedin struggles to attract artistes under 60 so has-beens is the best I can hope for really. I’m so glad I decided to go.
Absolutely brilliant. 10 out of 10. Would definitely go again.
The Dunedin Craft Beer & Food Festival is fast becoming the flagship event in the city’s social calendar. It has certainly been the most important date on my radar since I first went four years ago and it’s just about the best use there is for a covered stadium, certainly in this part of the world. There has always been a stage and bands, just for background noise really, but the size of the set up and the quality of the acts has been steadily improving over the years, to the point where I’m slightly worried that it will become a music festival with additional craft beer. I’ve never taken the slightest bit of notice in the stage in the past, choosing to ignore The Black Seeds and some rapper or other P-Money? Scribe? I have no fucking idea, but I had definitely heard of them.
This year though, we are treated to Nomad, Goodshirt and the legendary Dave Dobbyn. I’m not a fan of Nomad or Dobbyn, but a massive Goodshirt fan. It’s a genuine toss-up between Goodshirt and The Datsuns, the tag of ‘my favourite ever Kiwi band’. The missus and I saw them 3 times in a week once, when they were trying to ‘crack’ the UK market in London. They rather selfishly split up shortly after we emigrated to NZ though, and then rather secretly, and to pretty much zero critical acclaim, reformed a couple of years back and released an EP that got no recognition whatsoever. It’s not bad really, as a couple of last minute Spotify plays will testify. In exactly the same mould as the 2 albums, and none of the tracks are over 3 mins so I don’t mind if they play a couple.
However, cynical as though I may seem, I’m really a bit worried that one of my favourite bands ever will have lost it in the intervening years. Got fat and drunk too much and reformed out of necessity rather than the love of making a noise together. It wouldn’t be the first time, though. These occasions have a habit of disappointing.
They have only been given 45 minutes, so I’m guessing it will be hits, hits, hits and maybe one off the new EP. After the announcement of the winners in the home-brew contest (nothing for me, my Pecan Pie Porter was clearly too specialist for the judges’ palates) they amble onto the stage to a fairly unremarkable reception. I wouldn’t recognise Rodney Fisher (singer any more, he has a large beard and hipster spectacles. Gareth the keyboardist I recognise, although he has a few streaks of grey in his barnet. I wouldn’t have a clue if the other two are the originals or not. It’s been a while (12 years) since I caught the bus up to Kentish Town to see them in a pub. Blowing Dirt is the opener and holy shitballs they still sound good. The sound itself is great, and they are right on the money, tight and totally not gone to seed as I feared. Rodney and Gareth still have great voices, they’re smiling while they do it too. Gareth is still (for me) the star of the show, handling bass, keyboard and vocals at the same fucking time – legend. The greatest hits are duly worked through – Sophie, Place To Be, Fiji Baby, Cement, Lucy, Dumb Day, Buck It Up, one of the new ones, and (obviously) ending on Green. As I predicted. A master class in spiky power pop.
They go down extremely well, too. No more than a couple of dozen people were actually standing in front of the stage area when they came on, but by the second song three or four times that had got up to boogie. A beer festival is not as easy a crowd to win over as you might think – yes, everyone’s pissed, but they are mostly there for the beer and the music is secondary.
Certainly was for me, as 45 minutes without a refill seemed like a bloody eternity. So I literally ran for the nearest stall and ignored the stage for the rest of the day. Absolutely brilliant day out.
Spoiler Alert – this isn’t fucking Jethro Tull. This is Ian Anderson plays the songs of Jethro Tull.
A bit like this dumb fuck, I didn’t read the advert properly, OK? I just thought, ‘yay – I’ve never seen Tull and I really like them and they’re coming to Dunedin and yes it’s a fuckload of money but I’ve always wanted to see them so what the hell’. So I splashed out $150+ smackers for a seat in the stalls at the Regent. Then a few weeks later I discovered that it was Ian Anderson and some session musicians coming to visit, not Ian Anderson, Martin Barre, Dave Pegg etc. Oh. In my defence though, the ad below was not the one I saw. It was far less obvious.
I have to say, I have never been part of a crowd quite so elderly and un-rock as this. These people around me make the crowd at Midge Ure last month seem positively adolescent by comparison. I don’t know what I was expecting, but jeez, I am gobsmacked by how few people have hair and how many people have beige cardigans. Thinking about it, Ian Anderson (in his late 60s? early 70s?) must be the oldest performer I have ever paid to see.
No support, on stage at 7:30 prompt. The lights dim and the bassist cranks up the intro to Living In The Past. Cue much cheers. Then on comes a secondary school geography teacher waving a flute about. It’s not a teacher, it’s Ian Anderson. Hang on though, when he starts blowing it, it’s not a half bad sound. Maybe this is going to be OK. Then he opens his mouth and I realise that $150 is going to be very hard to justify. FUCK ME he can’t sing. I mean really can’t sing. Out of tune, wheezing and out of time. It’s a disaster. It immediately puts me in mind of Vic Reeves’ club singer routine, it’s that poor. It would be funny if I hadn’t shelled out so much to see it. When he stops singing and goes back to blowing the flute, it’s OK. The band are tight as a gnat’s chuff, and the sound in the Regent is pretty good too. But the vocals? Man, it’s going to be really difficult for me to get past the vocals.
We are treated to all the favourites that you would expect – Thick As A brick, Sweet Dreams, Heavy Horses, A New Day Yesterday, Aqualung, Locomotive Breath etc plus a couple of new ones (apparently they were releasing albums up until last year!). The new ones are pleasant enough, but really I doubt if more than a handful of punters are aware of them. The surprise for me though was one off Crest of a Knave (Farm On The Freeway) and not one but two from Songs From The Wood (eponymous title track and Jack-in-the-Green). Great songs, but all utterly ruined by Ian’s (lack of) voice.
Visually, it’s impressive. Each song is accompanied by a large video projection, usually of the musicians themselves in action, occasionally archive footage and promo videos, but synchronized with what we’re hearing from the stage. There is quite a lot of backing vocal coming from the video feed too. As a multimedia presentation it kinda works, but as a live concert it kinda flops because they are essentially playing to backing tracks, with no scope for improvisation.
Apart from the creaky voice, Anderson (mostly) still has it. He plays the acoustic guitar on a few songs, and extremely well. He plays the flute like a boss. Definitely the best flautist I’ve seen, but off the top of my head though, I can’t think of anyone else apart from Jumping John (Ozric Tentacles). I do wish he’d stop trying to do the standing on one leg thing – I know it’s his trademark but he can barely get his foot up to the other knee, and it’s most unbecoming for a gentleman of his advanced years. The musicians with whom he has surrounded himself are all very capable session guys, and they are obviously extremely well rehearsed, but it’s too staged for my liking. He grants the drummer (Scott Hammond) a ‘mini drum break-ette’ during Dharma For One, but it’s quite pedestrian and he’s really not a good enough drummer to be getting a 5 minute solo. I will only accept a drum solo if it’s performed by Neil Peart anyway. The bassist and organist are basically middle-aged music teachers, and even though they don’t put a foot wrong, they do nothing to inspire. The guitarist is a different story. A young German fellow, sporting long hair and a Les Paul, he clearly wishes he was in a metal band, because he is introducing fiddly notes and flourishes all over the shop, that definitely weren’t there when Martin Barre played them. Martin Barre is (was) the best bit about Tull. One of my favourite practitioners, he was the epitome of control and restraint, but this guy (Florian Opalye) is all about cramming in as many notes as possible before teatime. He’s very good, granted, but this is Jethro Tull, not Van Fucking Halen. It’s just not necessary. It is sacrilegious. It’s hurting my ears.
Overall, I regret to admit that this concert is a big disappointment. With the hefty price tag comes a certain level of expectation, an expectation that just hasn’t been met. It’s not as expensive as Black Sabbath last year, but it falls a long, long way short as entertainment. Prices go up all the time, I appreciate that, but if this were a Premier League transfer, it would be the equivalent of Teddy Sheringham with a gammy leg, going for 25M in 2017. Undoubtedly worth the figure once upon a time, but now? Not a chance.
You can’t do synth pop with a mandolin, guitar and violin. You just can’t. You can do fiddly-diddly-dee folk music but you cannot do synth pop. It can’t work. Surely.
Or can it?
This concert was supposed to be taking place in Coronation Hall, Maori Hill, just a couple of blocks from home. The hall that was one of the homes of the ‘Dunedin Sound’ of the 1980s. The hall, more importantly, where my younglings have their school assemblies. Midge Ure was supposed to be performing on the very same stage where my sproglets perform their end of year shows. But no, apparently due to fears that the building is not 100% earthquake-proof, the concert has been moved to the Mayfair in grotty South D. It is still deemed safe enough for 200 primary school children to attend weekly assembly there though(!)
Ultravox’s ‘The Collection’ was one of the first albums I ever owned (on cassette, obvs) and I have always been a big fan – I love a good bit of synth-pop but I always thought Ultravox were slightly above the rest, that little bit more edgy, due to the greater prominence of the guitar. I have a passing acquaintance with the album material but I’m really only truly enamoured of the ‘hits’, of which there are thankfully a great number. If truth be told, I would probably not be going anywhere near a Midge Ure concert if I were still a Londoner. Ultravox, yes, Ure no. Needs must, however. This tour is billed as ‘Something From Everything’ so I’m guessing we’ll have to put up with recent releases as well as solo efforts before we get to the classic early 80s stuff. No matter though, I am intrigued.
So, The Princess By-Tor and I only got back from an exhausting weekend on the Gold Coast at 2 o’clock this morning, and neither of us is particularly up for going out, it has to be said. We drag ourselves down to the shabby Mayfair theatre though, whose prime years are a good deal nearer the beginning of the last century than the beginning of this one. It’s actually not a bad little theatre though, we’ve seen Ross Noble here, plus a number of low grade holiday entertainment shows for children. It’s 75% full tonight, and we are certainly at the younger end of the demographic. It’s somewhat disconcerting to learn that I now attend concerts where the average age of the crowd is 50+ and the average clothing colour is beige. This crowd (myself and the Mrs excepted, of course) would not have looked out of place at the recent Daniel O’Donnell show at the Regent. To add insult to injury, an usher appeared in the auditorium just before show-time selling ice creams. How very not rock’n’roll.
We’re second row, right in the middle, so about 10ft from the mic stand so we’ll get a good close look at the wee old bugger if nothing else. The lights go down and a couple of young fellas wander self-consciously on stage. Is this the support act, or Mister Ure’s backing band? Well, it turns out to be both in fact – a couple of young English blokes going by the name of India Electric Co. armed with an acoustic guitar, violin and a keyboard. Their style is quite eclectic, the violin gives it a folksy feel but there is a definite worldy jazzy lilt to it as well. The synth offers a plinky plonky piano sound rather reminiscent of Ludovico Einaudi and the whole sound is satisfyingly full for a duo. The singer, whose dancing style is a Joe Cocker/Lorde mashup, has an incredible voice, hitting some really quite high notes with unbelievable accuracy, warmth and clarity but the star of the show, for me, is the violinist who is clearly way more than a folk fiddler, he’s classically trained for sure. Their songs are quite poignant, lyrically, touching subjects like refugees and alienation and the half hour set veritably shoots by. Off they nip to a round of restrained and polite applause, and after 10 minutes they take the stage once again, followed shortly afterwards to rapturous (but again very polite) by the man himself, dressed all in black. He’s not in bad shape for a man in his 60s, bald as a cue ball but has aged pretty well.
There is no drum kit. I was hoping there might have been one hiding behind the curtain but no, it appears we are pretty much getting Ultravox Unplugged tonight, as he is armed only with an acoustic, no Stratocaster in sight. His band mates take their positions, armed with a mandolin and a violin. This is going to be fucking weird. The violin and mandolin were never mainstays in the synthpop era, I’m sure of it. What the fuck is he going to do with this lot?
The first song is a recent(ish) solo number called ‘Star Crossed’ (possibly?) and I have to say, the sound is incredible. The violin works very well as a substitute synth, especially as it is being piped through several effects pedals. The mandolin is quite low in the mix, nothing more than a rhythm accompaniment, but Midge’s guitar is beautiful, clear as a bell. His voice though, fucking wow man. The little guy can really sing – I’ve seen some singers in my time and he’s up there with the best of them. He claims to be suffering from a cold, but it doesn’t matter one iota as he hits all his notes with sniper-like accuracy. It’s just like listening to the CD (or cassette in my case).
One thing you notice early on about Midge Ure is that he loves talking as much as loves playing. He stops for a natter between pretty much every song and he’s quite the comedy genius. He spends time explaining the inspiration behind each song, behind the tour, behind the band and comes across as a genuine, genial all round sort of a good bloke. I overheard someone in the row in front talking about how they’d met him earlier and what a nice guy he was.
‘I Remember’ (from Rage in Eden) is the first Ultravox oldie to come up, and although it’s not a favourite of mine, it sounds damn good tonight. Not so keen on ‘If I Was’ but I never was particularly. ‘Flow’ from the reformed Ultravox album (which I’ve never heard before) sounds pretty good but it’s not until the opening bars of ‘The Voice’ that things really get going. I am a little disappointed – it’s one of my favourites from back in the day, but it doesn’t really work in this format. As you would expect, he ploughs through the recent stuff first, saving the hits for last. Lament is the standout (it really does work in this format), and although I’ve never been a real fan of ‘Vienna’, tonight’s rendition is outstanding, mainly due to the violin solo. If you had asked me to name an Ultravox song that had violin in it I would probably have looked rather blankly at you but of course, now I hear it, it does have a violin (or is it cello?) solo. A quite big one. And this violinist absolutely nails the fucker. The biggest applause of the evening so far, for that bit. Visage are represented by ‘The Damned Don’t Cry’ and ‘Fade To Grey’, and in amongst it all we also get ‘Hymn’ and ‘Reap The Wild Wind’. I expect he threw in a Rich Kids song but I don’t really know them, bar a little last minute swotting on Spotify. ‘Dancing With Tears In My Eyes’ is the single encore song, and then he’s off (at a very respectable 10:45, allowing those of us with babysitters to nip off quickly).
This evening had the potential to be a hideously embarrassing ‘singalong-a-tribute-act’, the last desperate act of a man clinging on to past glories, but it definitely is not. Some songs worked better than others, undoubtedly, but overall it’s a triumph, an almost ingenious reworking of some classics in a new style. It really shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. I mean, who would ever think of trying to do synthpop with a mandolin and a violin?
I’ve never seen the real Ultravox and I suppose I never will, but this is pretty much the next best thing.
The Cult? In Dunedin? The actual Cult? Messrs Astbury and Duffy? In the Town Hall you say? Jebus. This town sucks for musical entertainment most of the time, but occasionally, just occasionally, the planets align and a promoter somewhere manages to convince a half decent act to venture down south. This year alone we’ve had The Buzzcocks and Black Sabbath, now The Cult.
Now then. The Cult. I love The Cult. I fucking love The Cult. Well, to be precise, I love the 4 or 5 albums they recorded in the 80s. I couldn’t even tell you the name of anything released since then. However, I get the suspicion that they know what the people want, the likelihood of them playing the classics is fairly high. Sure they’ll play a couple of new ones but I’m hanging out for half a dozen from the 80s and I’ll be happy with that.
There’s also the novelty factor of going to a gig in Dunedin Town Hall. It’s a fine old building, which I’ve only seen the inside of once in 11 years of living here. That was a classical gig me and Mrs ByTor got free tickets for. I had no idea they were open to hosting rock gigs.
I’ve just re-read my review of them in 1989, (almost twenty fucking seven years ago to the day!) and it wasn’t too complimentary. My main gripe (apart from Wembley Arena’s fuckawful sound) was Ian Astbury’s voice. If I remember correctly he just seems to sing half the words, struggling to hold a note for longer than half a breath. Anyway, it’s not reason enough for me to turn my nose up at it.
Apparently there is a support act, Bad Sav, a local bunch who I’ve seen a few times before. I was too busy in the bar while they were on though. Pretty big gig for them though, there seemed to be quite a few people watching them.
The Town Hall is maybe 3/4 full, which is really surprising given the fact that it appears to have been a word-of-mouth gig, such was the scarcity of promotion. I didn’t see or hear a single ad, apart from Facebook. Is that all that you need these days though? The house lights duly go down at about 9:30, and on they saunter to a very enthusiastic reception. Wild Flower is just about the best opening track for any album, and it’s an absolute pearler to open a gig. The opening riff, as brazenly stolen from AC/DC as anything Airbourne have ever done, is just legendary. It’s one of those songs that just can’t be played too loud. The sound in the Town Hall is really good, and it’s REALLY loud. My earplugs are only just up to the task of protecting my ‘drums. Not sure if the band brought this PA with them, I’m pretty sure Strawberry Sound doesn’t have anything this big. Crystal clear too.
Astbury is, as I remember from last time, struggling to stretch the notes out to their intended length, and in places this grates slightly, but he’s bang in tune and there are a couple of thousand black-clad fans singing along to help him anyway. Duffy though, is a guitar hero of the first order. He is looking pretty good for his 50 odd years, and man can he play that fucking thing. He is the consummate pro, stuffed full of clichés, but so fucking cool with it. I would even go so far as to say he’s up there with Angus Young. The rockstar pose on the cover of Sonic Temple is not affected, it’s just the way he plays the guitar. I expect he strikes that pose when he’s washing the car or mowing the lawn, he’s that fucking rock and roll. There are some other musicians on the stage, no idea about the bassist or rhythm guitar/keyboardist (they do the job), but the drummer is John Tempesta (ex-Exodus and Testament, amongst many others) so I’ve probably seen him a few times before without realising. He’s more than capable of backing the Astbury & Duffy show, but it really is just that, the other three may as well be session musicians for all the spotlight time they get.
As I (and probably a couple of thousand others) had hoped, there is a healthy amount of 80s material tonight. They play a few new ones, none of which I’m familiar with, and they offer a good opportunity to sneak to the bar. They’re not bad, they’re just not Electric . So, as well as Wild Flower we get Lil’ Devil, Rain, Phoenix, Horse Nation, Sweet Soul Sister & Firewoman, and then after only 90 very short minutes, the set winds up with the absolutely epic She Sells Sanctuary. We drag them back on stage for one more – there is one classic that they can’t leave without playing, and that’s Love Removal Machine. And that’s all folks. Short but oh so sweet (90 mins isn’t really short, it’s just that Steven Wilson played for three whole hours last month!).
I was expecting my favourite songs tonight to be those from Electric and earlier, but I think I enjoyed Firewoman and Sweet Soul Sister the most. I didn’t particularly like Sonic Temple when it came out, but it’s somewhat grown on me over the last 25 years(!). Duffy was putting much more in the way of bended-knee-facial-contortion guitar solos on Sonic Temple than he ever had on Love, or even Electric, and those two tracks tonight gave him more of an opportunity to do his thang. And he does his thang with absolute note for note precision, faithful to the recorded version, exactly as it was laid down 27 years back. No ten minute improvised shredding behind his head á la Angus Young or Nigel Tufnell while the others go off for a toilet break. One word – legendary.
In case any Kiwis reading this thought Ian Astbury was from California, he’s not. He hails from the north-west of England. If you listen to Dreamtime Live at the Lyceum (recorded in 1984), he was definitely still a Scouser! By contrast, Mr Duffy, who presumably has spent roughly the same time across the Atlantic as him over the last three decades, hasn’t shed his native twang at all. I’ve always wondered if Astbury’s accent shift was just an affectation or if ‘American’ has just unconsciously consumed him since moving to LA. I am told that I have traces of a Kiwi accent these days (after 11 years living in NZ), and that is despite my attempts to resist it…
I don’t think I’ve looked forward to a gig this much since like probably, well probably forever. Maybe Metallica in ’88. But unlikely anything else in the last 25+ years. I’ve been a massive, massive, MASSIVE fan of Steven Wilson and pretty much all his side projects since the beginning of Porcupine Tree. I would say that I listen to Steven Wilson and PT as much as I listen to Rush, as much as I listen to Iron Maiden, as much as I listen to anyone really. There’s just so much out there, his back catalogue is huge, and I’m always discovering new things.
This tour is to promote Hand. Cannot. Erase. – easily the best solo album he’s done (to date). I know it back to front, note for note (although I’m never particularly good with lyrics, aside from the odd chorus), I know he’s surrounded himself with a troop of seriously qualified musicians, and I know how good he himself is on stage, so the chances of this being anything less than a magical experience are slim.
The anticipation for this gig, as I’ve had the ticket for 5 months or so, is darn nearly unbearable. Serendipitously, I’ve managed to get myself invited to MS Ignite in Auckland the same week as the gig, so I a) don’t have to pay for a flight or hotel and b) get to stay in a considerably better hotel than if it were coming out of my wallet. It does however mean I have to spend a large portion of the gig day thinking about SQL Server 2016.
The day’s technical sessions at Ignite are really beginning to drag on as the night of the gig draws near. I decide to go and investigate Galbraith’s Alehouse, opposite the venue, so after a 30 minute route march in the drizzle (does it rain every day in Auckland?) I’m in a very comfortable boozer surrounded by a lot of black t-shirts and long hair, not to mention English accents. Jeez, this place is even more popular than Emerson’s Brewery in goo old Dunedin. There are prog and metal shirts of every descriptions – Yes, Tull, Tool, Cardiacs. I am SO not in Dunedin any more! I don’t remember seeing a support act mentioned anywhere, and I have a sneaky suspicion that Mr Wilson and his merry band of minstrels will take the stage reasonably early (there is NO way I am missing ANY of this) so I opt to swap the luxury of a nice brew pub for the queue to get in. And it is some queue too, right round the block. Any worries I was harbouring that he wasn’t well known enough to attract a decent crowd dissolved into the Auckland mist as the queue grew and grew behind me. I know I am prone to obsessing about crowd size, and I think this was probably born back in the days when I used to go to football (where crowd size is inextricably linked to your team’s finances and thence success). It’s a weird thing, there are many advantages to a poor turnout – smaller queues, easier to get a good vantage point etc but the atmosphere suffers, and I always feel sorry, if not embarrassed for an artist if the room is half empty. As it so often is in Dunedin! As an aside, the crowd is much younger and less male-heavy than I would have expected, which is really encouraging.
I’m always hearing about The Power Station on Radio Hauraki, seems to be a fairly popular venue for visiting bands of small-to-mid size (mid in their home market = small in NZ) but once inside (after a brief moment of panic when my home-printed ticket won’t admit me through the door) I realise what a cracker of a place it is. Probably holds a couple of thousand at the most, with a balcony all the way round the main floor, creating a really closed in, intimate feel. The small stage is pretty much full – they have brought a serious fuckload of kit with them. Massive drum kit, Macs on every surface, two synth stations and several stacks of Marshalls. Not to mention the 15 (fifteen!) assorted guitars and basses racked up stage left and stage right. These guys certainly don’t travel light.
I was indeed correct in my assumption that there would be no support, as the lights dim and the breathy synthy intro to First Regret (the album opener) waft over the PA bang on 8.30. And on they wander. There is some fairly flashy visual stuff (bizarre arty film) projected on the back wall, but all eyes are firmly on the five individuals taking their places. Adam Holzman sits at his keyboards and tinkles out the opening piano riff with metronomic precision. It’s so good, if it were anyone else I’d be suspicious that it was sequenced. This bloke used to play with Miles Davis ffs, so he clearly knows a thing or two.
When the guitar and bass come in I remember how tight, how utterly polished Steven Wilson and any musician he has on stage with him are. I soon realise this is possibly one of the most professional outfits I’ve ever seen. I could be listening to the CD, it’s that faithfully reproduced, but it’s not like watching Coldplay who are soulless automatons by comparison, these blokes are putting a lot into this. A heck of a lot.
I’m mildly disappointed to discover that the other guitarist is not the legendary Guthrie Govan, whom I was really looking forward to seeing. It turns out to be Dave Kilmister, who used to play for Roger Waters, and before the end of the first song I realise that he’s perfectly well qualified to do this…
On bass is a real legend from my childhood. Nick Beggs. Nick Beggs from Kajagoogoo. Nick
Beggs that had the most ridiculous blond haircut (second only to Flock of Seagulls in the ridiculous 80s hairstyles stakes). He still has the long hair, albeit safely tucked out of harm’s way in two plaits. He must be 10 years older than me, but he looks like he’s in his thirties.
The drummer is also a new face (to me) – Craig Blundell. I was expecting Marco Minneman but as I have no idea what he looks like, I’m none the wiser until Steven introduces them all.
The sound in the Power Station is well, appalling. Fine during the lighter bits, but as soon as the bass or anything on the left hand half of the piano was played then it just became a muddy wash of noise. This wasn’t supposed to happen! I managed to improve things by moving forward ever so slowly, until by the end I was only a couple of bodies from the stage.
They stroll through First Regret and 3 Years Older, then Steven stops for a bit of bants, and explains that the first half of the show will be Hand. Cannot. Erase. in its entirety, and in order. Fucking get in. The title track, possibly my favourite thing he’s done, is sublime, but at only 4 minutes is far too short. It’s all sublime though. I can’t even really pick out a highlight from this hour-and-a-bit half of the show, it’s all so good. If I had to choose one moment it would be the extended keyboard solo in Home Invasion / Regret #9. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an amazing keyboard player in action. Holzman is a jazz pianist by trade, so prog rock must be meat and drink to him, but christ on a bike, he absolutely nails this sucker. It’s like watching Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman, but without the pomposity. The already very noisy crowd goes extra mental on the conclusion of his solo, and he turns and cheerfully, humbly acknowledges the appreciation. Legend.
I’ve never (knowingly) seen the Chapman Stick in action, and I have no idea if Nick Beggs is playing it the conventional way, but he seems to be mostly using the hammer on technique and holding it like a sitar. I’m sure it’s a complicated beast to master, what with all them strings and that, but he does make it look exceedingly simple. I would have to say that he is, with the exception of Geddy Lee and Les Claypool, the finest bass player I’ve ever seen, and I’m a matter of feet away from him.
They finish the album and wander off for a breather (leaving poor Adam to play the outro by himself) and I can only wonder at what’s to come. There is such an incredible amount to choose from, and it’s clear that there are no songs which can’t be reproduced on stage (the spoken word Perfect Life being a perfect example) so we could get absolutely anything. I know he still does a couple of PT numbers but I’m not expecting Radioactive Toy (which would seem almost childishly simple compared to the contemporary stuff).
Act II is just as mesmerising as the first half, and really delves into the archives, more heavily leaning towards PT. We get My Book Of Regrets from 4 1/2 and then Thank You, then Lazarus which he touchingly dedicates to David Bowie. Don’t Hate Me is the oldest one, from way back on Stupid Dream and as a finale they throw in Sleep Together from Fear Of a Blank Planet.
The encore starts with a moving tribute to Bowie (clearly one of Wilson’s heroes) – a very poignant Space Oddity that I’ve probably never heard sung better. Then he dives into The Sound Of Muzak from PT’s In Absentia, for which I now have a new admiration. I’ve never noticed how poppy and hooky it is but hearing it live has now pushed it way up the list of SW favourites. The final effort, and it really is a masterpiece, is the eponymous title track from The Raven That Refused To Sing. Now, I’ve not really noticed how epic this song is, always believing Holy Drinker to be the stand out on the album, but The Raven… is simply a progressive rock masterpiece. What a way to end a near enough perfect gig.
Then it really is good night. This has been near enough a THREE HOUR show, what more can you ask of a band? The very fact that they’ve schlepped over from Australia, with ALL that gear, just to play in front of maybe 1500 people is laudable, and shows what enjoyment they all get out of this. They really do appreciate the reception, and hang about on stage drinking in the applause, filming the crowd and pressing the flesh for a good 5-10 minutes before disappearing backstage.
In my last blog post I suggested that I would be disappointed if this gig didn’t make it into my all time top 10 – what was I worrying about? Obviously things might change a little in the cold light of day, but it’s gone straight in at number 3.