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.