27 January 2008

Return to Wellington

On Wednesday 31 October I emerged from my rural retreat to see Crowded House at the Events Centre on Wellington’s waterfront. I remember Paul Hester explaining to me the American hierachies of venue: club, theatre, shed, arena, stadium.

The Events Centre is a shed that can fit about 3000 but in no way is it a music venue: high, tin ceiling, tin walls, no acoustic cladding within. It’s best suited to basketball. Still, on my third attempt (after 1998 and 2003) I finally saw a great Bob Dylan gig there in August: they got the mix right, and the rhythm section in particular were prominent. (Although the Dylan gig a couple of weeks later at Auckland’s last movie palace, the Civic, was more comfortable, I enjoyed Wellington just as much. And the John Fogerty gig I saw in this shed in late 2005 was one of the all-time great shows by a “dinosaur”, full of energy and every song a hit.)

Opening act Pluto was a non-event: it’s all about the singer and he struggled in a cavernous venue that was only slowly filling up, due to ridiculous hold-ups at the front door. The first thing I’d do is encourage the bassist to play some runs rather than just repeating the same note in demisemiquavers for a bar or three before changing to another note. Mate, get a copy of Rubber Soul and twiddle the balance knob.

Supergroove was a sensation, so energetic I wouldn’t have been surprised if they ended in a puff of smoke. Che Fu, of course, is the star singer, but Karl Stevens in particular provides a mad, angular, frenetic focal point, like something from the heyday of Two-Tone ska. And the bassist – couldn’t he have given the Pluto guy some tips? – flung his long hair about like a heavy metal poodle. And the crowd just roared, like a Mexican wave: these guys were massive stars when many in the audience were still teenagers.

So Crowded House had a hard act to follow. Their audience is now so across the board in New Zealand, and far bigger than it ever was before the band split up in 1996. It was 21 years ago that I saw them in their first New Zealand gig, playing at a party in an Auckland living room.

A year later they returned as pop stars, playing the Logan Campbell Centre after ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ made #2 in the US. But as far as New Zealand was concerned, that was it. The venues got smaller, and most people still saw them as a spin-off of Split Enz. Even after Something So Strong was published, people would still say to me, “Didn’t you write a book on Split Enz?” But for those who stayed interested, there were great gigs at the Power Station, Wellington’s Town Hall, double-billed with REM at Western Springs, at the intimate Founders Theatre in Hamilton and even outdoors at a racetrack in Palmerston North (where Neil encouraged a running race, and improvised a commentary from the stage, while the band played the theme from Bonanza).

Then the band broke up and after Recurring Dream was out, suddenly they were all over classic hits radio and on the muzak in every supermarket. It wasn’t just the idiot commercial radio programmers of the 1980s and 1990s, and an audience that took them for granted, partly it was the band’s fault. They were based in Melbourne, but were looking north to conquer the world. They came down here to tour with each album, but didn’t do much more. With our small population and a steady fanbase, who can blame them?

At the Events Centre, I needn’t have worried about the Supergroove effect. Apart from having a set list chock-full of hits, Crowded House were punchier live than I can remember. (Though Hester, besides his anarchic humour, had a touch of Keith Moon about his drumming, and I liked the steady R&B grooves that his replacement Peter Jones achieved; so did Nick Seymour.) It’s not just new drummer Matt Sherrod, they play as if asserting their relevance.

Time On Earth is a strong album, hampered by being too long and having too many songs at the same easy tempo. (Mitchell Froom always thought Woodface was too long, so people missed out on ‘She Goes On’ and ‘How Will You Go’; he wouldn’t have been the only one to have dropped ‘Chocolate Cake’ and made ‘It’s Only Natural’ the opener.) But the one I avoid playing is the brash Johnny Marr co-write ‘Even a Child’, which tries far to hard to be radio friendly and poptastic.

I think Neil Finn’s second solo album in particular was under-rated: having mostly been written out at Piha on Auckland’s wild West Coast, it is the great New Zealand beach album. It could have been called Barefoot and Pohutukawa Christmas, which would have really confused things in the States. Check out the coda to ‘Into the Sunset’ in particular: never has the soaring flight of a seagull been evoked so well in music.

Stand-outs in the long concert were a surprise ‘Whispers and Moans’ (always a favourite from Woodface), ‘Silent House’ (which works so much better on Time On Earth than on the Dixie Chicks album) and the first TOE single ‘Don’t Stop Now’, which is one of the great car radio songs of 2007. Oddly they didn’t do the second single ‘She Called Up’, which has such a great groove and Wurlitzer piano (though the chipmunks’ hook would be better with some uncharacteristic Crowdie touch, like a horn section). ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’ came early in the set, and the best songs from TOE were highlights (‘Pour Le Monde’, ‘Heaven That I’m Making’) that earned their place alongside evergreens such as ‘Distant Sun’ and ‘Private Universe’.

Humour is just as essential to a Crowded House show as those songs, and jamming, though I could have done with a lot more of the former than the latter. Their musical references are always great fun – ‘You Sexy Thing’ and ‘Puppet On a String’ made an appearance – but pointless “wigging out” in outros seems to be a way of showing that the band is edgier than its small, perfectly formed, highly crafted and accessible songs may suggest.

It was getting close to midnight when Neil said it was bedtime with ‘Better Be Home Soon’. But no one could have gone home dissatisfied, or that Crowded House is genuinely revived as a band. I certainly needed the long drive back to the country to wind down.