San Francisco Bath House
Saturday, January 26
As he sings of everyone “mucking in”, it’s apparent, instantly – everyone on stage mucking in so beautifully, so perfectly – that James Milne (working name: Lawrence Arabia) has, over the last half-dozen years, built and shaped a sound-world around him. The on-stage character all but living within the songs.
There are hints of Ray Davies and John Lennon and Harry Nilsson in the songwriting approach. There is something remarkably Kiwi about it all too; so instantly identifiable, a songwriting voice that is both tongue-in-cheek and utterly sincere, often at the same time.
There’s the voice – falsetto and pure – and there’s the way it sits on the strings, elevated by them, eventually allowed to soar above them.
All of this is close to perfect. And the best aspect of the evening – performance-wise – was knowing that everyone really was mucking in; there are no egos on stage. Almost every performance by almost every band features at least one look at me-moment. There are none with this band on this night. Instead it is all about several listen to this-moments. A concert full of them. Everyone so proud of the sound they’re assisting.
When Lawrence Arabia debuted songs from The Sparrow last year they stood head and shoulders above the other work – more sophisticated, more dramatic even if the band (and Milne) were ever so slightly less confidant about presenting them. Now the sound and style is fully integrated.
The Sparrow is a new benchmark in excellence – for Milne and for New Zealand songwriters. It’s a gold standard. But the players have bonded so well they now serve the (excellent) material from the Lawrence Arabia’s self-titled debut (2006) and 2009’s Chant Darling in such a way as to create a flow, it all feels right together. The songs might have birthmarks to distinguish them but dressed up in similar clothes you hesitate at times to guess the correct age.
Apple Pie Bed still explodes out instantly into summery pop because of the guitar lick but it sits nicely alongside The 03, The Bisexual, Bicycle Riding and Early Kneecappings from The Sparrow.
Opening Sparrow track, Travelling Shoes, feels well travelled now, this band has walked more than a mile in (with) that song. It’s greeted like an old hit. It has a familiarity about it – as the opening track on the record it felt like a reminder of Chant Darling’s sound and style; a link back. In concert it exists in its own space.
But all of the songs do now.
A huge highlight was hearing The Beautiful Young Crew – its classic chug anchors the song, it could be a millstone but on this night it sounded like a milestone, the train-rhythm coming to life with horns and strings and shakers to assist the journey.
The sound was brilliant – better than last year’s Opera House seated show. The playing was understated, nice to see – and hear – players prepared to, if anything, underplay, undersell.
James Milne is New Zealand’s greatest contemporary songwriter. I’m sure of that. I’m now sure he leads one of the best bands in the country – a deeply intuitive musical unit. And he is a charismatic, committed musical director, offering his heart and soul, his optimism and cynicism in song and in the performance of those songs. There is biting satire. But there is a heart and mind engaged, so passionate, so real. So good.
This was a stunning show. A masterclass.