Live Review: Rhian Sheehan at Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Rhian Sheehan Wellington
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Rhian Sheehan

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday 12 October 2018

To say I was excited about this gig would be an understatement. Rhian Sheehan’s album Stories From Elsewhere is one of my favourite records. It helped me zone in as I wrote countless essays throughout university. It sets a calm and playful tone as I teach toddlers every day. It helps me unwind late at night, and makes me happy to be alive on sunny weekends.

Not to mention his other works. As a composer, Sheehan is prolific. I guess you have to be, if that’s what you do for a living. From his early electronica albums, to ambient soundtracks, to vivacious planetarium scores, to brand new album, A Quiet Divide, Sheehan’s works have never failed to inspire.

Arriving at my seat in the Michael Fowler Centre only increased the excitement. First off, it’s a great venue, known for brilliant acoustics, and especially suited to a show like this. Secondly, I’d bought tickets as soon as they came available, so had front row seats. Looking upon the stage sparked my imagination: drums, synths, a row of guitars, a grand piano, timpani drums, percussion rigs and an area for the string section. Such an array of instruments told of infinite possibilities.

As well as being a musical concert, it was also billed as a visual spectacular. The first thing that stood out was a prismatic disco ball hung above the stage. Three sheer mesh screens were draped from the ceiling, making a triangle around disco ball. A range of lights and multiple projectors were at the ready, and the room was slowly filling with atmospheric stage fog. Sheehan has been working with local special effects company Weta on a few projects recently, and in turn they’ve helped him to develop a visual show worthy of his music for these performances.

At 8pm the string section took their places, soon followed by Rhian Sheehan and the rest of the musicians. I recognised a few faces: Sheehan’s wife, Raashi Malik (formally of Rhombus), Steve Bremner from the recent The Adults show at Meow, Jakob guitarist Jeff Boyle, Ed Zuccollo with his signature mini-moog. A veritable star-studded line-up.

Golden lights bathed the stage in misty warmth. Strategically placed projectors shone images onto the mesh screens. The music – ah, such brilliant music – plays. Houston, we’ve hit Nirvana!

Of course it all looks incredible. The imagery varies greatly from song to song – sometimes as basic as geometric shapes, lines, boxes, pyramids… but always interesting. Images of spectral figures dancing about, of bustling cities; scenes of serene nature and of man-made destruction. Vast landscapes befitting of epic soundrack compositions. Ethereal animations alternate with powerful time-lapse footage. My favourite was “Soma Dreams”, which was similar to the video clip, with a flying whale, dancing woman and splashes of vibrant colour towards the end.

Of course the music was everything you’d hope for. Many of these songs have soundtracked my life for the past few years, and hearing them played live is electrifying. I write about mostly instrumental music on this blog, but seldom venture to the ambient or neo-classical end of the spectrum, so seeing a string section in a setting like this is a rare treat. And all the more interesting, with the electronic elements marrying the classical elements. Glitches and samples sat alongside harmonious swells. We heard wildly different versions of piano – with the traditional grand piano, and then the digital counterparts like synth and moog adding their own unique timbres. I appreciated little touches that deviate from the recordings – like Zucollo adding improvised solos on the moog, or the intense bass swells from the pedal-boosted cello – that made songs sparkle more in this setting.

This is evocative music. Songs that sweep you off your feet, grab you by the hand and tug you along on an adventure. Songs that explore the emotions that lie deep within the human psyche. Songs of beauty and joy. Samples of children’s music boxes and trickling streams, and busy traffic interplay with the music, grounding it and adding depth. This is the sound of magic.

The show was split into two sets, with a 20 minute intermission between. The first showed more new material, with fresh unseen visuals. The second set included more old video clips. The selection of music was diverse, with a good mix of old and new, studio songs and soundtrack work, and a few electronic tracks to spice up the sets. All up the show lasted two hours.

Rhain Sheehan is not a performer. He’s a studio musician who creates soundtracks for a living. But somehow he managed to bringing his other-worldly music to life in an unforgettable way, creating a audio-visual spectacle that completely enveloped the Michael Fowler Centre last night. I went in with high expectations, and left completely in awe.

 

Joseph James

Live Review & Photos: Listener at Valhalla, Wellington

Listener Au NZ tour poster
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Listener

w/ Yor Cronies and New Age Leper

Valhalla, Wellington

Wednesday 3 October 2018

In typical fashion, I missed the opening set tonight because I was ordering food [burgers that took an hour to come after we’d ordered, and were disappointingly inadequate – thanks Bristol!] So I cannot report on Yor Cronies’ set. I can, however comment on New Age Leper.

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In short, they were great. Hard rocking, drawing on a mix of styles, they impressed with their intense, wah-heavy jams. They collectively picked on Bjorn the singer, making jokes at his expense. All four members were fun to watch, but the best was seeing the lanky tumbleweed on guitar and synths, whose ‘fro bobbed up and down with his every movement. If they tighten up their set a bit by rehearsing more and cutting down on the time spent tuning between songs, they will be a force to be reckoned with.

Listener at Valhalla

Pre-show huddle

Listener precluded their set with a small pre-show ritual, the four of them gathering in front of the drums for a pep-talk to get into the right frame of mind. I’ve heard that on their rider, they request a personalised note of encouragement from each venue, which is so endearingly wholesome. It shows how much they value positivity.

They started off the set strong, with two of the heavier songs from recent album Being Empty: Being FilledNow I am a fan of Listeners early work, but this recent album really upped the ante, bringing the music to the forefront to match frontman Dan Smith’s impassioned vocals.

The quartet were firing on all cylinders, bringing such visceral energy to the foray that I was surprised at how big of an impact they made.

Listener at Valhalla

Dan Smith

Smith stood front and centre, barefoot and playing bass guitar. I see his poetic lyricism as one of the major factors that draw you into Listener’s music, and thankfully the mix was clear enough that we could hear most of his vocals. He stood half a foot back from the microphone, eyes closed and passionately swaying his head side to side as he sang.

Smith’s equally mustache-blessed partner Kris Rochelle injected life into the music from the drums. He was a wonder to watch, reaching up to hit cymbals set so high that they threatened to tip with every strike against them. I noticed that many songs featured steady continued beats on the bass drum, giving a throbbing urgency to the music that I hadn’t picked up on before. Apparently Rochelle recorded all the music of the recent album himself, so hats off to him not only for his drumming performance, but for his multi-talented musical abilities.

Tim Stickrod and Jon Terrey stood on either side, both on guitar. They helped to fill out the sound, be it frenzied, intense rock, or more sombre numbers.

Listener at Valhalla

Jon (L) and Kris (R)

After a few songs Smith stopped to thank us for the applause, before opening the floor for a Q&A sessions. Turns out Smith’s favourite colour is black – yes it is a colour – (I thought October was his favourite colour?), but no-one had decent questions worth addressing so the band delved back into their set.

Valhalla is traditionally Wellington’s venue for metal music, so it seemed like an odd choice for Listener to play. But on the night it seemed ideal. Size wise, it felt intimate for the 60-odd people present. The sound mix was great. And Listener rocked out more than I had anticipated, making them feel more suited to this heavy venue.

I was loving it. And looking around the crowd, others were gaining something special from the night as well. I noticed a few people mouthing along to Smiths busy dialogue for Wooden Heart era songs, clearly feeling a connection.

The set drew from new and old, heavy and mellow. I was certainly moving along to some of the more rocky songs, and completely immersed in the stories of the more solemn songs. Songs like “Seatbelt Hands” are real tearjerkers, but “It Will All Happen the Way It Should” took the pain and rawness to the next level . And when Smith brought his trumpet out for a few songs it felt so perfect.

Listener at Valhalla

Fantastic music, riveting performance, immersive showmanship. You can tell that these guys have paid their dues gaining experience on the road. There were no encores; Listener are not a band of pretense. But they were extremely gracious, and happily gave their time to all who chose to linger around to chat to the band after the show. I had a total blast and feel more enriched for having attended.

Listener at ValhallaListener at Valhalla Listener at Valhalla Listener at Valhalla

 

Words and photos by Joseph James

Live Review: Amy Shark at Hunter Lounge, Wellington

Amy Shark Love Monster NZ tour poster
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Amy Shark

w/ Neil MacLeod

Hunter Lounge, Wellington

Saturday 15 September 2018

 

Hot off the sold-out Australian leg of her Love Monster tour, Amy Shark stood onstage, silhouetted by a powerful spotlight, softly picking at her guitar strings. The stark lighting looked fantastic, revealing a shadowed figure opening her soul to Wellington.

Possibly a risky move, opening with the last track from her album – and a slow burner at that. Usually artists tend to choose high energy – or at least more popular – songs to kick off their sets with impact. But when the bridge hit… when the drums and synth smashed their way into play… when the strobes began to flash… when Shark shook off the meekness and bellowed into the microphone… we knew that we were in good hands.

Keeping the mood up with the boppy “Blood Brothers” from last year’s Night Thinker EP, she presented us with the chance to dance – the first of many throughout the night.

Shark stood front and centre, rocking her trademark look of a sweatsuit jacket with her hair half in a loose topknot, and half down. She was flanked by drums to the left and a musician switching between guitar and synth to the right. A backdrop of Shark’s portrait was at the rear of the stage, with an intermediate sheer banner emblazoned with the word AMY stretched between the musicians and the backdrop.

I had wondered how Shark’s music would translate live. A lot of her songs have programmed samples, and I didn’t even know if she would have a band joining her. Things sounded great as a three-piece though. Shark played guitar during many songs, switching between acoustic and electric. The drummer had both a standard set up and a Roland trigger pad. And the guitarist played synth at times. They obviously used backing tracks for some parts too.

The crowd screamed with approval as Shark mentioned her lifelong infatuation with the band Blink 182, knowing that this meant Shark was playing “Psycho”, which features Mark Hoppus. She switched to an acoustic guitar, deftly picking the melody as she cooed into the microphone.

One point that I feel compelled to touch on is that the volume wasn’t too loud. I always wear earplugs to protect my ears, given the amount of gigs I attend, but I took them out for a period to compare, and the levels sounded quite adequate, and not excessive.

The Hunter Lounge wasn’t quite at full capacity, but the passionate crowd made it feel full. And Shark reciprocated the love. One can never tell whether an artist actually loves the audience they’re playing to, or is paying the same lip service every show, but Shark appeared to have formed a real connection tonight. She playfully interacted with the crowd, allowing a small group to start a Baby Shark (do do do do…) chant, and stating how she hates the meaningless pantomime of encores, but obliging tradition regardless.

Shark walked us through her career, taking the time to share anecdotes that explained meanings behind certain songs.The best was when she imitated a NZ accent, playing out a funny phone conversation between a former [Kiwi] boyfriend and his mother. 

Shark was at pains to highlight that she has flaws, and wants her songwriting to reflect that. This vulnerability she demonstrated helped her connect with the crowd.

One surprise highlight was a cover of Wheatus’ “Teenage Dirtbag”, which prompted the biggest singalong of the night, as everyone joined in on the nostalgic trip.

I found the choice of set list fascinating, with intimate ballads alternating against high energy hits. But the audience was with her each step of the way, eagerly clinging onto every word.There were no surprises for the end of the show, with Shark playing three of her biggest hits: “Weekends”, “Adore” and “I Said Hi”, which is a certified banger. She may have started out softly, but she certainly ended on a major high.

It was a brilliant night, filled with great music, awesome lights, and a sense of community. As I left the venue I noticed that my cheeks hurt from smiling so much. 

Amy Shark set list Hunter Lounge Wellington

Joseph James

Live Review and Photos: The Adults at Meow, Wellington

Estere Meow Wellington
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The Adults Wellington Meow banner

The Adults’ second album, Haja, is one of the better albums to come out in recent months. Vivacious and upbeat, it combines energetic Sudanese percussion with emerging New Zealand pop and hip-hop talent.

I was wondering how they would pull it off in a live context, purely because the album featured a lot of contributors from around New Zealand and Sudan. Many songs on the record revolve around Sudanese Aghani-Al-Banat music, and the women who laid down those beats were unlikely to come all the way to Aotearoa for a few Adults shows. I also wondered what material they would play, seeing as there are two Adults records to draw material from.

Raiza Biza Meow Wellington

Raiza Biza opened the night with some smooth hip-hop. He looked familiar, and then I realised that I recognised him from one of David Dallas’ Hood Country Club album release shows last year. He had a great chilled out style, and his backing music was musical – as opposed to just beats – with horns and all.

After a handful of songs Biza looked over to the door to the green room. “Jon, are you ready? Should I do another song?” he enquired, unsure of how long he should play.

“Keep playing, we want more!” a lady behind me yelled. Biza shrugged, signaled the DJ to start another song, and played a few more

Raiza Biza Meow Wellington

The rest of the band came on after Biza’s set. Trinity Root’s Ben Lemi on drums, Steve Bremner on percussion, Emily Browning on guitar and vocals, Estere on roto toms, percussion, vocals and synth, and the main man himself, Jon Toogood on bass and vocals. A fairly star-studded line-up.

Biza stayed on for a few songs, taking on the rapping parts that he and Kings had laid down on Haja. Toogood was clearly stoked to have him on as part of the team.

The Adults Meow Wellington

I was pleased to hear the group faithfully recreate the Sudanese beats. Bremner and Lemi showed off their obvious proficiency on drums and percussion, with Estere adding roto toms, tambourine and maracas to the mix at times. Toogood complemented this by laying down thick bass, which came through loud and strong.

The mostly instrumental tracks “Haja” and “Like The Moon” were standout. They were able to mess around with the songs – due to the lack of verse/chorus structure – giving them the feel of fun extended jams.

The Adults Meow Wellington

Another highlight was lead single “Bloodlines”. “Oh, this is a good one!” a lady shouted as Toogood announced it.

“I hope so,” Toogood replied, “I thought it was good too. That’s why I’m here to play it.”

He appeared in a good mood – perhaps feeling slightly flustered and under-prepared for the first live performance of this material – but also clearly having fun, judging from his dancing as he immersed himself in the music. He joked along with the crowd as they shouted out, and made sure to direct positive attention to his colleagues.

The Adults is a supergroup, of sorts, and each member tonight proved themself a worthy addition to the band. Browning sounded great on guitar and could sing well, although could have used a volume boost. And Estere was the star of the night, spreading her talent across multiple instruments and leading most of the singing. She took on the parts written by Aaradhna and Ladi6 with ease.

Estere Meow Wellington

They played the all eight songs from Haja, followed by “Nothing To Lose”, the lead single from the original Adults record. This was a brilliant way to end, with everyone dancing along to the strong, bouncing bassline.

A short break was followed by one encore, “Short Change” – a b-side I didn’t recognise that Toogood had co-written with Shayne Carter. Bremner played drums this time, freeing Lemi to come up to play lead guitar.

All up it was a fantastic gig. Lots of talent, lots of energy, and plenty of opportunities to dance. It didn’t feel fully polished – being the first performance of new material – but it didn’t feel lacking either. I would have loved to hear more, but they did play the entire album, so I can’t exactly feel cheated. If you get the chance to see the Adults play any of the rest of the dates as they tour New Zealand of Australia then I recommend you head along and have some fun.

Words and photos by Joseph James

The Adults Meow Wellington  Ben Lemi Meow Wellington Steve Bremner Meow Wellington Emily Browning Meow WellingtonThe Adults Meow Wellington The Adults set list Meow Wellington