Live shows from long ago… Shriekback

Shriekback, Christchurch, New Zealand.

Evening Post, 17/4/87

In 1987 Shriekback toured NZ in support of their fourth and biggest album. GARY STEEL reviewed their show in Christchurch.

 

Note: For this review, Shriekback’s record company (or was it the promoter?) sent me to Christchurch the night before their Wellington gig assuming I’d love the show. I didn’t. I’d been an enthusiastic fan of their first album, Care (1983) and an admirer of Andrews’ keyboard skills in XTC and Robert Fripp’s League Of Gentlemen, and expected to like their show more than I did. I had to phone the review through early next morning to the elderly woman who took dictation of stories at the Evening Post so that it would make that afternoon’s edition. When I saw the review the next day I was in a state of shock. There were 34 typographical errors and quite a few omissions. It was a mess. The following is an attempted reconstruction.

 

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Shriekback’s secret hides behind a well-camouflaged exterior. The English cult band is big in New Zealand. Why the allure?

Leader Barry Andrews is like Uncle Nick in Lost Empires – illusionist, conjurer and master of ceremonies. Like Uncle Nick, Andrews and co perform true to the tradition of British music hall within an altogether different subcultural context. As with music hall, the entertainment value is derived via a suspension of disbelief – a desire to believe in Andrews’ schtick.

And like English music hall, Shriekback’s theatricality dresses up and puts feathers and girdles on imported (American) music. What English music hall did to jazz in the ‘20s Shriekback does to funk in the ‘80s.

Shriekback’s novelty presentation has captivated New Zealand and captured its rock and roll dollar. The illusion has worked. Last night, thousands of Christchurch fans – from excited adolescents to bearded hippy-types – demonstrated just how much they like sitting in the palm of Barry Andrews’ hand.

I found the image forced to a point where the mirror cracked. Andrews’ belief in the implicit pretensions of his presentation ultimately robbed his stance of life. Dressed in a cavernous white robe, shaved pate gleaming in the spotlight, his spider jiving looked as if he was dangerously constipated. The Partridge Sisters, clad in equally silly costumes, trilled away while accomplishing the odd dance gesture, and another shiny-headed Andrews clone stood in for Andrew on synthesiser.

The song subject matter is an extension of the illusion. Lyrics hint at things mystical, playing around with a mild intellectualism. On the most recent material, the lyrics seem obsessed with the nature of plant and animal life. I applaud Andrews for rejecting the standard Moon in June subject fodder, but I wonder if he’s replaced it with anything more meaningful.

But we’re still on the camouflage. What about the real Shriekback? The real Shriekback reared its head regularly in concert. It’s a huge, lumbering funk thing, with a distinctively English bent, a riff-dominated style that enables this extremely tight band to express itself in a rhythmic sense.

Dave Allen’s highly distinctive bass murmur is the guts of Shriekback, but last night the highlight was the guitarist’s manic squeal, which fits somewhere between Robert Fripp’s dissonant beauty and Eddie Van Halen’s anarchic metal.

At times this machine is lethal.

But when the novelty starts to wear thin, the audience will detect their inability to create any half-decent vocal melodies, and when the pretensions become exposed, life under any upturned rock will be revealed as competent English funk – no more, no less.

Consumer information: Shriekback’s first Town Hall tour features many of last year’s concert favourites, but is reportedly substantially a different show. There is lots of Big Night Music (including a brave selection of quiet material), dead certs like ‘Nemesis’ (encore), ‘My Spine Is The Bass Line’ and ‘All Lined Up’ (first song and last song).

A couple of new songs are played, and yes, with three encores – by which time the audience has its arms raised in unison. Shriekback gives great value for money.

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