Jewel and Don Henley – TSB Arena, Wellington – 22 March 2017

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Originally featured in www.13thfloor.co.nz

With a three night stint in Aoteroa Henley rounded off his landed his four decade time machine in the Capital with much ado and little fanfare.

Jewel Kilcher kicked off the evening with a simple solo set, beginning with a simple and stark a capella rendition of Somewhere Over The Rainbow. I haven’t see her perform since she performed in Wellington over 20 years. When she did that gig she was in her prime and she was very young, too. Her first album was out and she was enjoying the novelty of her first world tour. “This place is a barn” she remarked, noting the lousy sound and high reverberation. Back then the TSB really was a barn. Roll on a few years. Times have changed. Thanks to the shows like WOW (World of Wearable Arts) the place has come up to speed. And sound systems are definitely much better these days. All the better to hear Jewel. I’m still amazed at the purity of her voice. It’s still unique and so very clear. I don’t think it’s changed at all over the years. She still possesses the ability to jump octaves in a single song. The best example is during her big hits Who Will Save Your Soul and You Were meant For Me. The latter she does with such aching passion that there’s not a dry eye in the place. She also rattles off a couple of others like Intuition, Hands, Standing Still and Foolish Games. Most of her material comes from the early albums. They all sound great in this stripped back format, as they were originally written.

Her slightly nervous, slightly flaky stage presence has toned down a bit over the years, too. I can remember her jittery audience rapport from the last time I saw her. At one point, tonight she changes songs after a few lines because she’s lost concentration. Another time she scolds the audience for talking in her set. “I can hear everything up here,” she quips dryly, like a schoolteacher.

In the middle of her 40 minute set we are reminded of how she has an abusive father; how she grew up on a farm in Alaska (which features in a Discovery Channel TV show The Last Frontier); how she was homeless in LA and how music saved her. You can read up on these and many more fun-facts in in her second memoir available in the foyer (Never Broken: Songs Are Only Half the Story). Oh, and by the way she’s also launching a new website imparting her wisdom gleaned from those harsh years. Now 42 and a mother with a five-year-old she’s still strikingly pretty with an amazing voice and determined to do it her way.

“Your all in a good spot”, announces our headliner, “Don’t ever move. I’ve love my country, but it’s has gone to bat shit at the moment.” It’s not an original line. He said the same thing to his Auckland audience. And probably Christchurch, too. It’s an easy and cheap shot to gain a bit of respect, early on. Not that he needs it. The ‘Don’ is a legend down here. As plenty of vintage Eagles T-shirts on aging beer guts attest.

Under a cloud of vintage radios the Don Henley show rolls in to deliver a two hour time capsule of songs from his solo career and his time with The Eagles, starting off with one of my favourites, Seven Bridges Road, done a capella by the whole ensemble up front and centre. He’s brought along a big crew. I count 13, including 3 backup singers, a five-piece brass section, bass, drums, a slide (and sometimes violinist) two pianos and two lead guitarists – manned superbly by long-time collaborator Steuart Smith and Chris Holt. Both tag-team their way through most of the solo from this set that spans nearly four decades from early Eagles to Henley’s most recent collection of originals and covers Cass County. They pretty much stick to the well published set list but there are many highlights. For me these are the tunes that bookend the big singles, although Life In The Fast Lane, with added brass and more sharing of the lead guitar solos deserves special mention. One of the deeper dives into the catalogue was dedicated to a woman Henley met in Aspen – “before all the Gucci giggery”, says Henley referring to the advent of the ski culture affluence that is now there. He gives us a bit of the backstory to how he met a particular Czech exile in a bar and ended up staying with her in her cabin in the woods. The Last Resort is a wonderful old song that closes Hotel California. It’s totally 1970’s but it still works well today done up in a most Broadway fashion. It has a similar immigrant sentiment to Neil Diamond’s Coming to America. Somehow it also seems like yet another dig at the hypocrisy of Trump’s America. Although Henley plays country, he’s no GOP redneck.

Another great moment is New York Minute, from Henley’s End of Innocence album. The band do it with a wonderfully lush treatment. This one definitely feels like a show tune.

The show has a number of covers, the best being Garth Brooks’ It Don’t Matter to The Sun. They do this with some tenderness and retain its down home feel, despite the large number of players involved. That also works well on a very hokey version of Bramble Rose (a Tift Merrit Cover) and a song about internet stalking That Old Flame which features a duet with one of the backing singers, Lara Johnston. He also duets with another singer, Erica Swindell on an old Luevin Brothers number, When I stop Dreaming. Along with Lily Elise, the three ladies get their own turn to sing as a trio, doing Henley’s own I Don’t Want to Hear Anymore, while the man himself “steps out for a smoke and a pancake”. They do a fair job on it but I think it’s best to leave this one to the man.

Of course, everyone was waiting for Mr Smith to strap on his white double neck and start up the first chords of Hotel California. The band’s version was blistering, proving that even though they’ve played it a 1000 times, there’s still some life to be lived. A surprise that finally got everyone up dancing, despite the wilting protests of the party pooper usher team, was Tears For Fear’s Everybody Wants To Rule The World. “This is therapy,” Henley joked, eluding to America’s political environment again. Yes it was.

Given Henley is fast approaching 70, and that this the last night of the tour Downunder, he’s in fine voice and looking pretty good. He doesn’t try to over exert though, leaving out any theatrics like leaping around the stage and the show is delivered right on script. It started on time and finished with in a cat’s whisker, with two (planned) solos and no improvised components. Nobody was adding any extras, despite it being finals night. This was never going to be a challenging show. It was just a great night out, with good music from a man who knows how to write a good song.

While most of Wellington was either at Adele or wishing they were, there were about 4000 fans down on the waterfront who were very happy re-living their teenage years with great tunes like Boys of Summer and Dirty Laundry still ringing in their ears as they headed out the exit doors. There were at least a handful of punters that I overheard on the way out who were going to go hunting for their cassettes in the garage when they got home. And chances are they were as happy as I was that they’d stayed home and gone out this weekend, too.

Launch of ‘Hit and Run’ at Unity Books 22 March 2017

Originally published on www.13thfloor.co.nz

“On 22 August 2010 New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) elements, operating as part of a Coalition Force in Bamyan province, Afghanistan conducted an operation against an insurgent group…
Nine insurgents (not 12 as reported) were killed in the operation which targeted an insurgent group in the area where Bamyan province borders neighbouring Baghlan province…
Following the operation allegations of civilian casualties were made. These were investigated by a joint Afghan Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Interior and International Security Assistance Force Assessment team, in accordance with ISAF procedures….
The investigation concluded that the allegations of civilian casualties were unfounded.”
New Zealand Defence Force – Media Release – 20 April 2011

Six years later, to the day, investigative reporter Nicky Hager and war Correspondent Jon Stephenson have released a book (Hit & Run: The New Zealand SAS in Afghanistan and the meaning of honour). It reveals what they believe to be the truth behind the “tragic and disastrous SAS actions” and allege that “at least 21 civilians were killed or injured – many of them women and children.” They have even recorded their names and documented their lives in the book, including 3-year-old Fatima, who was killed as her mother, carrying her, tried to dive for cover.
They also claim that the attack went further, leading to the blowing up and burning of at least a dozen houses by SAS and US forces and then later, a second village raid destroying more property before one single insurgent was caught. He was handed over to the Afghan secret police and tortured.
Hager also claimed in his press conference, held after the launch that the real insurgents, still very much alive, had actually attended the funerals of the civilians (from that 21). This he said was recorded on video and sold to authorities. He hadn’t seen the tape, he conceded.
This book, he said, was an investigation into the truth behind the story of these raids and the cover up that was conducted not only by the NZDF but also by The Defence Minister at the time, Wayne Mapp and the Prime Minister at the time, John Key, who had actually authorised the attacks by telephone.
He made no bones about linking the connection between the raids and the recent death of a New Zealander, Lt Tim O’Donnell, who was killed by a roadside bomb in August 2010. One journalist asked if this was a revenge attack that he was alluding to but he was careful not to answer this conclusively.
Hager said that he and Stephenson had been given the story, they hadn’t sought it out. And that was one of the compelling reasons to pursue it. Both Hager and Stephenson emphasised several times during the book launch that the book was based on ‘numerous and extensive interviews with people involved in these events, including New Zealand and Afghan military personnel as well as residents of the village.” Hager did also add that he had not approached Key or Mapp for comment because he believed that although they may have known the truth they were not likely to reveal anything or even to reply in any way.
Hager’s book was released today and will be available through most of the usual retail outlets. Below is uncut audio of the media conference, held in the foyer next to Unity Books.

Album Review: Wire – Silver/Lead

As UK’s original post punk pioneers are about to enter their fifth decade they are still writing with a natural worn in style that still has the flair of their first albums, if not quite the immediacy.  Despite many years of innovations and countless influence Wire’s best songs are still those that feature uncomplicated riffs, solid, if angular melodies and strong powerful lyrics that question modern day living and progress.

Can you believe it? 2017 will be the 40th anniversary of the release of Wire’s highly influential landmark debut Pink Flag. This was an album that flew in the face of the big studios and shunned the temptation to make lavish productions, instead combining of harsh minimalism, fragmented hooks and twisting lyrics that swirled around the subject matter without ever truly landing on the point. Art-school ambiguity mixed with plenty of plenty of pseudo-cockney ‘Oi’ in the attitude, to add authenticity and punk cred (These day, ‘Punk’ has become a euphemism for DIY production – albeit with an arsenal of computers and tech equipment that no punk rocker in the 70’s could ever hope to squeeze into their squalid bedsit). That approach became the band’s trademark, a model for the years to come. Not that it was easy. There have been many stops and starts; reformations; rebirths and changes in course. Even their more recent material, which is considered more ‘straightforward’ still is brain-taxing. They’re a tough group to pin down. Which is what makes them all the more fun.

As music goes, Silver/Lead, their 16th album to date, is as straightforward it gets. Despite innovations of our age, there’s no auto cue, synths, samples or overdubs. Perfect hooks, simple riff driven numbers with clear, clean production – although the murky vocals of earlier works are, understandably, gone now. That was a ‘youth’ thing and doesn’t really wash today but the challenging lyrics and the implied darkness behind some of these tunes still imply darkness. Every song is like a streamlined airliner, cutting through the sky in a perfect flight path piloted by smooth, subdued vocals (mainly from Colin Newman, with the rest from Graham Lewis).
As always, Lewis’ lyrics remain a puzzle. They intentionally border between abstract and vague. So much so that they are almost meaningless but there is one line that could give a clue about this album: “The path that is progress is under repair.” To me that seems like a change in expectations. We look for silver but often find lead. The lead weight that drags you down. Our optimism turns to sour disappointment. This is why we have to fix ourselves.
If there’s a theme or common thread on here, it seems it’s through the voice of a narrator whose intent on moving forward. Yet they’re unsure how to do this. There’s many references to roads, boats and rivers throughout this album – constant indicators of motion and direction. The more I listen the more I hear the voice of a man who’s making a futile attempt to escape himself. “My reasons for living were under review…Standing in the road, where would I go to?” (A Short Elevated Period).
There’s a tension between moving on and dwelling on the past comes during the pep talk style of Diamonds in Cups: “The course of creation is often quite strange/Keep your mind open, be willing to change”. Put another way, you can always gain energy from uncertainty because a lack of finality opens the door for opportunity.

On the oh-so-simple-hook laden This Time you get the time honoured reassurance: “This time it’s going to be better. This time I’m gonna be strong”. My first guess is that he’s talking about relationships but then it could be anything. It all starts with an open ended statement: “Some folks believe in magic/ Does voodoohoodoo do it for you?/ Some folks claim they know all the answers/ And for a price they’ll share them with you” There are later clues: “Some folks have the gift for living/ Others make a living hell/ Some folks take love as a given/ And can’t stop falling under its spell.” But somehow I’m not convinced. ‘Love’ in this case has been reduced to a personality or an ‘thing’. But then what?

More questions come on Alibi: “Have you got a leg to stand on?/ Have you got a stick to call your own?/ Have you got a peg to hang on?/ Have you a hook to weight and bait?/ Have you got a dread of nylon?/ Are you a man-made island?/ Have you got a head of pylons?/ Have you got the buzz to live?/ Have you got an alibi?” An alibi for what? It isn’t said. Not clearly. Perhaps this is interchangeable. It’ll fit any situation. A song for all seasons.

Ambiguity is all very well but sometimes they’re just too clever. Sleep on the Wing is a great song. There’s a cool, breezy melody but the lyrics are just so abstract. I can only guess this is a comment about leaving a relationship on the other side of the world. Flying home to safety. But I could be wrong: “Ration your thinking to what is good for me/ Partition a sprinkling of what is good for you/ Compress the essence of what is inside your view/ Acknowledge the presence and fashion a frame/ Upward and inward, outward and forward/ Sleep on the wing, fly through the night/ Fell off the page in the right-hand corner/ The morning after you told me Ex-Pat was dead? One of the best – a top spot runner/ Half a second faster, she was pole on the grid!”

As Wire’s turns 40, they still sound natural and their music, at least, is an easy listen. Their lyrics, not so much. There’s nothing revolutionary on this album but then at their age is that possible? Core members Colin Newman, Graham Lewis, and Robert Grey are all in their 60s. They’ll not be jumping around on stage declaring the abolition of the monarchy any day soon. However, that’s also not to say that this is just more banality on the pile. It’s true that they’ve been cranking out material for nearly half a century. They become more beguiling in their dotage. They want to taunt us instead of spit in our face. They tease us intellectually, procrastinating us with ambiguity.

Album Review: The Sadies – Northern Passages

First published: www.13thfloor.co.nz

Introducing The Sadies, a group you may have never heard of – at least in this part of the world. But for well over two decades, this Canadian foursome have been firing off a cannon indie rock, tinged with psychedelia and the occasional nod to Americana. On their 10th studio release Northern Passages, singers/guitarists Dallas and Travis Good, bassist Sean Dean, and drummer Mike Belitsky return after a four-year hiatus with a product that feels like an updated amalgam of Nuggets-era garage rock and country.

Almost intentionally, the band set up an abrupt, jarring juxtaposition between the first two tracks, the down-home pastoral Riverview Fog and the punky garage clamour of Another Season Again. The first is like some campfire melody, an open letter to a long-lost friend, a reaching out to reconnect the severed ties. Having never heard of this band, I was settling in to enjoy some nice soft Crosby styled Americana until Wham! The second tune bullies its way in like a pogo-ing bovver boy and had me jumping around the room. The third tune, There are No Words, is even more fuzz drenched. Like any good Datsuns’ number it’s big, ballsy, grungy. But just as one-punter-mosh- pit in my living room is starting to get sweaty it morphs into a slow cowboy two-step powered by steel guitar and a clop-clop woodblock keeping time. Oddly it works. It’s Easy makes no apologies for being a Neil Young tune. After all they’re all Canadians, so there’s always an opportunity.

The Elements Song swirls along like a slow building tempest for nearly minutes before shape-shifting from a gorgeous psych-rock wig out into a stompin’ honky-tonk hoedown.

Elsewhere, there’s more Americana such as the Byrds’-like country groove of God Bless the Infidels or truck driver soundtracks Through Strange Eyes. And another in a similar style, but utilizing the most esoteric title As Above, So Below.

Hidden amongst all these wee nuggets is the unannounced appearance of Kurt Vile, who adds his guitar and voice to the laid back, slacker tempo on It’s Easy (Like Walking). His laconic delivery works in so well with the bands grunge swagger. I’ve not yet checked but I suspect they have always collaborated well because this partnership seems so comfortable.

So, while this band is new to me, it feels like a band that I know, at least a little. Their material has enough variety and challenge to keep me listening and the juxtapositions between garage rock and Americana and country elements seem to work pretty well. But don’t take my word for it check out a few of their tracks online.
Here’s a link to one of them: