FRANCES CHAN reviews a beguiling, bizarre evening of connoisseur songs of love and loss featuring some of our most admired music figures.
They entered waving incense and burning candles. They were silent and stoic, not a smile in sight. They only wore white, red or black, like a troupe of gypsy dancers or perhaps escapees from a neo-pagan cult.
Who the heck were they? Shayne Carter, Delaney Davidson and Theia were pictured on the bill, but they appeared as other-worldly versions of themselves. Intrigue hung heavy in the room. Or in this case, the superb Civic Club, in which the audience is seated at tables and on bleachers on stage with the band – an ingenious concept for the Auckland Arts Festival.
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The only clue to the night’s proceedings was the title, Spell On You, and a blurb about “soaring the heights and plummeting the depths of love…” But when they opened with a stirring ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’, we knew this was going to be summat grand.
This eclectic band of troubadours was the brainchild of former New Zealand Arts Foundation Laureate Delaney Davidson, a multi-instrumentalist prolific in the folk, country and blues genres, perhaps most known for collaborating with Tami Neilson and Marlon Williams. On guitar tonight he channelled the spirit of Sun Ra with gold headwear and red eye shadow to match his jacket while his deep Johnny Cash-like resonance added gravitas to their unexpected song choices.
There were faithful covers of the country-styled ‘Blue Crystal Fire’ and ‘My Love Will Never Die’, a great homage to The Verlaines with ‘You Cheat Yourself Of Everything That Moves’ and pensive renditions of Delaney’s own ‘Shining Day’ and Shayne Carter’s ‘I Know Not Where I Stand’.
The much-admired NZ Music Hall of Famer brought his sartorial A-game tonight. Swapping out his usual brown cardi for a silky red shirt added a seductive edge to Shayne’s performance on vocals, guitar and keyboards, especially on duets with Theia. She creates experimental pop, but in this alt-universe she explored a darker dimension, leading the band in te Reo for two Maori folksongs and bringing particular intensity to their inspired versions of ‘Bad Romance’ (Lady Gaga) and ‘Beautiful’ (Aguilera, not Snoop Dogg).
An early highlight was ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, Joy Division’s angst anthem of the ’80s, where Nell Thomas from Wellington’s avant-garde Orchestra Of Spheres found a baritone even lower than Ian Curtis. Sporting a black and red toga-tunic with arms raised in praise, her a cappella had a hymn-like quality before Chris O’Connor’s pulsating drums kicked in, the band went hell for leather and Nell busted out the theremin like nobody’s business. Wicked. She also played the harp on a few tracks to shimmering effect.
Chris was the perfect choice for this ensemble. His experience ranges from established artists, including The Phoenix Foundation, SJD, Neil Finn, Trinity Roots and Jonathan Crayford, to composing for theatre and dance, sound art and free jazz improv. The fervent interpretations in Spell On You benefited from his colourful expression on percussion, kit and Irish bodhrán.
On bass and keys, Jol Mulholland is another multi-disciplinary talent who has worked with numerous musicians and runs his own studio, The Oven. I particularly enjoyed his bass solo and the group harmonies on Rose Royce’s ‘I Wanna Get Next To You’. Their other glorious ’70s tribute was a sultry ‘I Feel Love’, where Shayne and Nell’s vocals entwined with a pounding disco rhythm.
A crowd favourite that spanned the generations was ‘Song To The Siren’. Whether you were a Tim Buckley or This Mortal Coil fan, the band did this exceptional song proud, adding slide guitar, a pottery flute and a gong for spookiness.
How do you end a show about love and loss? With a haunting arrangement of the time-honoured ballad ‘Always On My Mind’, which faded out in breathy whispers. I marvelled at the different combinations of voices throughout the evening, including all six at some points, creating a collaborative frisson greater than the sum of its parts. A one-off show or the start of a new religion?
- Spell on You was performed at the Auckland Arts Festival
- You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling – The Righteous Brothers
- E Pa To Hau
- I Know Not Where I Stand – Shayne Carter
- Dambala – Nina Simone
- Love Will Tear Us Apart – Joy Division
- Blue Crystal Fire – Robbie Basho
- Bad Romance – Lady Gaga
- You Cheat Yourself of Everything That Moves – The Verlaines
- My Love Will Never Die – Claire Wyndham
- Song To The Siren – Tim Buckley
- I Wanna Get Next to You – Rose Royce
- E Hine E
- Shining Day – Delaney Davidson
- I Feel Love – Donna Summer
- Beautiful – Christina Aguilera
- Always On My Mind – Willie Nelson et al