Crowded House, Spark Arena, Auckland, 19 March 2021, REVIEW

Who thought we’d get to see Crowded House perform in these virus-laced times? FRANCES CHAN reports on the Auckland performance, and JUSTIN REDDING takes the visual evidence.

Crowded House at Spark Arena. Pic: Justin Redding

Sorry, rest of the world, I don’t mean to gloat, but New Zealand kicks ass. Surely the biggest show on the planet right now, Crowded House brings the To The Island Tour to capacity crowds around our lucky isles throughout March.

Tonight it was Auckland’s turn to revel in the beloved back catalogue of our most perennial pop export at a sold-out Spark Arena. From the opening jangle of ‘Weather With You’ to the cosy organ notes of ‘Better Be Home Soon’ nearly two hours later, 12,000 punters sang, swayed, whooped and wept to their hearts’ content.

 

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The Crowded House canon has been imprinted in our nation’s musical lexicon for more than 35 years, so it wasn’t surprising to hear the boomers and Gen Xers in full voice, lapping up the familiar refrains from their first four albums. What makes this iteration so special is seeing the fruits of the ultimate nature-AND-nurture experiment: Neil’s sons Liam on guitar and Elroy on drums. The apples certainly don’t fall far from the tree – what could be more simpatico than hearing Liam and Elroy harmonise with their dad? Neil’s vocals and musicianship are still peerless, and he looks spiffingly sprightly for a nearly 63-year-old, with his dapper suit and mop of unruly (now silvery) hair.

Crowded House at Spark Arena. Pic: Justin Redding

On top of that skillset, the band’s original producer Mitchell Froom finally sealed his spot at the keyboards, after flying in from California and completing his MIQ. He who helped massage the sound of their first three albums. He who composed the adored organ solo on ‘Don’t Dream it’s Over’. He who has been a tad too busy over the years with the likes of Paul McCartney, Los Lobos, Suzanne Vega and Elvis Costello to tour with Crowded House. Until now. He may have struck an unassuming presence behind his wall of gear but his innate muscle-memory understanding and love for the repertoire shone through.

The stage was complete with founding member, bassist Nick Seymour, solid as a rock but also ever-effervescent in Aussie wit, and resplendent in a black kilt. His journey here couldn’t have been more surreal – from a year of lockdown in his Ireland home to a reunion with one of his oldest mates and the Kiwi crowds who embrace him as our own. One of the many chortles of the night came when Nick hit a bung note to end a song. “I wasn’t even looking!” he chided himself. Liam’s cheekiness also makes for good goading, and his best on-stage trick was throwing his guitar up like a juggling ball; its dramatic fall only cushioned by his own prone body.

Crowded House at Spark Arena. Pic: Justin Redding

The dark horse was percussionist Paul Taylor, who embellished just a few songs with shakers and bongos, but with the perfect amount of colour. Using an African clay udu pot, he conjured up beautiful atmospherics for ‘Private Universe’. Having lived overseas for several years, Paul flies under the radar in his hometown, but now that he’s back to ride out the pandemic, he’s got the highest-profile gig in the country.

In the first hour they cranked through favourites such as ‘Mean To Me’, ‘World Where We Live’, ‘Fall At Your Feet’ and ‘Pineapple Head’ (the lyrics of which were borne from the ramblings of a fever-induced Liam when he was seven), and a highlight was the absolutely barnstorming ‘When You Come’ where Liam shreds a solo and the lightshow sprays its most impressive display.

When the band settled into the reflective ‘Four Seasons In One Day’, who knew this unassuming sub-three-minute morsel would get the crowd up and fervently waving like Parachute festival-goers of yesteryear? Not a bemused Neil Finn, who claimed it “fuckin’ great” and “historical and hysterical” that Aucklanders would choose the slowest number to get off their bums. From there we never sat back down as the hits kept coming: ‘Nails In My Feet’, ‘Locked Out’ and ‘Distant Sun’, all accompanied by sometimes subtle, sometimes whimsical animations projected on floating abstract screens.

Crowded House at Spark Arena. Pic: Justin Redding

With the city free of Covid community cases and still buoyant from our America’s Cup win, the sense of relief was palpable, no less from Neil himself, who dedicated ‘Something So Strong’ to Team NZ, and in a helluva cover, Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ was performed in the encore to thank all our frontline workers as illustrations of Kiwi heroes including Ashley Bloomfield, Jonah Lomu and Dame Whina Cooper graced the giant screen.

Skipping the band’s reformation albums of 2007 and 2010, they showcased three songs from their upcoming seventh album Dreamers Are Waiting. ‘To The Island’ is a punchy pop capsule glaringly reminiscent of a Beatles or Beach Boys record: a steady 4/4 shuffle, catchy melodic progression, harmonising vocals and a cyclical form. It’s nothing new, but Neil has made a stellar career of recreating this wheel, and long may it last. The chorus swelled in numbers with the help of support act Reb Fountain and her band, who also added harmonies to ‘Whispers And Moans’.

Crowded House at Spark Arena. Pic: Justin Redding

On that note, singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Reb Fountain played an impressive opening set with dark swagger and witchy undertones. Not knowing what to expect, I immediately felt the spirit of Nick Cave, Patti Smith, Leonard Cohen and The Veils in the room as Reb’s brooding baritone (contrasting with the odd chilling caterwaul) expressed raw emotion, her face mostly obscured by her long auburn tresses.

Whaddya know, Finn Andrews of The Veils appears on her newest and fourth album, and she has done covers of Nick Cave and Patti Smith in concert. Even though her bluesy folk-rock sometimes wears its influences very much on its sleeve, ‘Samson’ and ‘Don’t You Know Who I Am?’ stand out to be future classics of her oeuvre. Her current band includes her co-producer Dave Khan on guitar and keyboards, and the slick Karin Canzek on bass, who cut a striking presence in a sleek black leather mini to match her long shiny locks. Not to be outdone by the familiar dreads and soulful drumming flair of Earl Robertson (ex-Chills, Peter Stuyvesant Hit List). If melancholy informs Reb’s modus operandi, it was refreshing to see her lighten up doing BVs for Neil & Co.

Thus are the nuggets we take away from a Crowded House concert – self-effacing banter, the lingering lines of classic tunes and a life-affirming attitude that is most certainly an antidote to these vexing times.

Full setlist:

  1. Weather With You
  2. Mean To Me
  3. World Where You Live
  4. In My Command
  5. Whatever You Want
  6. Fall At Your Feet
  7. Whispers And Moans
  8. Playing With Fire
  9. Pineapple Head
  10. When You Come
  11. Private Universe
  12. Four Seasons In One Day
  13. Nails in My Feet
  14. Locked Out
  15. To The Island
  16. Something So Strong
  17. Distant Sun

Encore

  1. Chocolate Cake
  2. Heroes
  3. Better Be Home Soon

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