Last night’s event was not a performance by a band, but they have a name like a band... Actually, it was more like a live jam session by a bunch of like minded, super-creative and talented musicians... sounds pretty grown up doesn’t it? The Congress of Animals are Bret McKenzie (Flight of the Conchords, Video Kid), Age Pryor (Fly My Pretties, Woolshed Sessions, Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra), Justin Firefly (Fly My Pretties, Woolshed Sessions), Nigel Collins (Flight of the Conchords, Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra) and Ben Lemi (Trinity Roots, French For Rabbits). We were also introduced to a singer who had been performing throughout the Strange Caravan Tour, but due to last minute arrangements, was uncredited on publicity - indie-folk singer Deanne Krieg (Ida Luna, Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra, Pacific Heights). Krieg was also featured on the latest single from Congress of Animals titled Burning Sun. Support for the show at the Hollywood Cinema in Avondale, Auckland came from Jess Bailey (Fables).
In the press, Mckenzie had called the Strange Caravan endeavour a ‘small bar tour’, which was appealing, but not entirely relevant to the size of the Hollywood Cinema... Still, the band/not band delivered polished performances, and it did feel like solo artists playing together at times, which I think was the intention. This is the ninth time the Congress of Animals have played together live during the Strange Caravan Tour across New Zealand.
Opening was a solo act with a traditional folk vibe; singer and guitarist Jess Bailey. The emotion-laden and yet effortless vocal ability of Bailey reminded me of why I love folk music. There was moments where her vocals were so powerful I thought of how much some of my long-standing favourite artists like Tori Amos had been heavily influenced by the storytelling and harmonies of folk music.
Jess played the acoustic guitar like it was an extra appendage. It was a beautiful sound and it was also a test bed for the acoustics of the Hollywood; they did not disappoint. Jess finished her set with How To Be Comfortable. But, before the song began; she quickly remarked that it was a constant thing she had to try to do - well it didn’t show, or perhaps the music and her performance were cathartic. This was authentic and perfectly delivered live music.
So the sound was pretty awesome, in the decidedly retro venue, the Hollywood Avondale, which is also known for its quirky and interesting film screening programme. I was last here to see an arty short film, little shown and with cult status. There’s something special about a venue that chooses to go against the popular tide. For the Strange Caravan, the choice of venue rang true with their ‘back to roots’ and slightly anti-establishment ethos (Mckenzie has talked about how this musical endeavour had been inspired by working across in LA and wanting to pursue his own personal musical passions). I’m new to Auckland so I’m not sure if gigs are a common occurrence at this historic spot... but hopefully they are. There was plenty of room for people who wanted to lean against the stage edge for the full on sound experience, as well as those of us who quite fancied a sit down. The upper stalls were also ideal, both sonically and for the view.
Congress of Animals are making music decidedly reflective of their generation and it feels timely, original and promising.
I had listened to some early tracks released by Congress of Animals and at the gig, Age shared that another set of tracks were due to be released on Friday 7 December... news that was received with cheers from the audience. But when I’d looked to see what genre Strange Caravan belonged to... it had been described as 70’s and psychedelic. I’m not sure this expectation was quite met, which was fine. It was obvious there was influences from that era, and at one point I could hear the upbeat tone that Elton John infused in songs like Bennie and the Jets in 1973.. There was hip nostalgia to the music, overall.
I was completely thrilled by the numerous guitar solos from Justin Firefly... I’m a fan, and actually who doesn’t love a fast-paced electric guitar solo? It was stupendous and centre stage, Firefly looked like he was enjoying himself too. There was also great plinky-plonky keyboard in many of the songs.
By not calling Congress of Animals a band, it resists classification but also the obligatory requirement to continually collaborate. Whatever the motivation for the musical grouping, it was successful. Age commented that they were 'finding themselves' as their audience found them. It was an unpretentious approach and that was refreshing.
Highlights for me during the show included the varied visuals which accompanied the show and changed with each track. At one point, the moon was spinning on two circular discs whilst in the background, meteorites flew through a dark, starry sky. Space age feels; this along with the tracks made me think of the world created by writer Douglas Adams... comical and surreal. Congress of Animals are making music decidedly reflective of their generation and it feels timely, original and promising. The projections were produced by Erica Sklenars from Lady Lazer Light and stage lighting by Ariana Shipman.
Many tracks had strong and brilliant vocal harmonies. Ben Lemi’s vocals were distinctly different and his songs were some of the best ones of the set. Krieg’s powerful and sometimes soulful vocals added a new dimension to the music of Strange Caravan. She played guitar as well as sang on numerous tracks and the female vocals were a very welcome dimension to the emotional tone of the set.
There were a couple of blips... once when a synthesiser went awry and Mckenzie joked that it sounded like The Prodigy. But the second more pronounced miss was the penultimate track Uh oh which unfortunately sounded a bit like crowd muttering and that someone had turned the amp on lead guitar too much.
There was a return to form for the encore as Mckenzie led a track he introduced as catchy and an uptempo tragedy. The song with a chorus line "The world is broken..." was like watching the news... political lyrics that accurately reflected on the the problems we face globally with a jaunty edge and an opportunity for audience participation. Finally, the show ended with a group sway to a song by Firefly, yes we really did. I think I nearly knocked out a couple with my enthusiastic motions.