Sometimes the most rewarding concerts are ones where you go along not quite knowing what to expect. I remember a fabulous night at the Wellington Bluegrass Society’s unprepossessing Petone venue back in the early 90s when we were entertained by a slick Seattle-based, female-dominated alt-country outfit called Ranch Romance. I hadn’t heard of them before and I haven’t heard of them since, but what a performance.
It happened again with Lil’ Band of Gold, a bunch of mellow New Orleans music veterans who played the San Francisco Bath House several years ago. And possibly the greatest concert I ever had the good fortune to attend: Brian Wilson and a cast of thousands (or so it seemed) performing Smile in Wellington. I fretted beforehand that Wilson – my musical hero since 1964, but notoriously erratic – would let me down. I needn’t have worried. When I came out of the theatre I thought seriously about booking a flight to Christchurch to hear it all again the next night.
Conversely, the shows you attend with high expectations sometimes turn out to be a disappointment. Example: Steely Dan at Church Road a few years ago. Nothing will change my view that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker are two of the cleverest musicians of the rock era, but live in concert? It was just like hearing their records, but with actual people on stage (and Walter Becker saying “fuck” a lot, which became tedious). Even more of a letdown was Emmylou Harris, who so lacked any stage presence when I saw her in Wellington that the audience hardly noticed when she came on. Mind you, she’s still up there in the galaxy of great country singers.
But I digress. At the latest house concert hosted by Simon Burt and Pip Steel at their rural Wairarapa home last night, the entertainment was provided by the Bend. Never heard of them? Neither had I. But you might recognise some of the individual names. Fane Flaws (guitar), Peter Dasent (keyboards) and Tony Backhouse (bass) have a remarkable collective pedigree that stretches back to Blerta, Spats and the Crocodiles. They’ve been playing together off and on for nearly four decades. On this occasion they were joined by a young (well, younger) drummer named Andrew Gladstone.
Why “the Bend”? Well for a start, it’s an ironic play on the name of a slightly more famous outfit from Canada. The Bend do irony very well. But as Flaws explained, the name was also inspired by a young lady who sidled up to Dasent years ago after a performance somewhere down south and inquired, in classically pinched, nasal Kiwi vowels, “Aren’t you with the bend?”.
This little anecdote set the tone for a wonderfully entertaining night that was rich in sly, subversive humour but impossible to categorise musically. Think Talking Heads mashed up with Lou Reed and Frank Zappa (or so I was assured by someone more familiar with Zappa than I am) and an occasional hint of the Beatles, and you’re somewhere in the ballpark. At least that was my take on the Bend’s songs, but I admit to not being familiar with the musical territory these guys range over.
The first half of the night was – well, not exactly conventional (the Bend don’t do conventional), but at least there was something recognisable in the repertoire. It was energetic, raw, punkish (but always disciplined) rock and roll. After the interval, however, they spiralled into a different realm altogether – slightly deranged, with elements of cabaret (think 1930s Berlin, but with Fender guitars and a type of humour that you wouldn't encounter anywhere but New Zealand) and a madcap quality that had me thinking Spike Jones.
But here’s the thing: it was astonishingly inventive and (like Spike Jones) musically literate. Dasent (who played on the recent Last Waltz 40th Anniversary Tour, in which New Zealand performers paid tribute to the Band) looks too much like a librarian or mathematician to be in a rock band, but he’s a musician of enormous virtuosity. He’s quietly witty, too, subtly sneaking snatches from the theme tunes for Dr Finlay’s Casebook and The Avengers into a song about watching TV. (At least I think that’s what it was about.)
Backhouse, besides being an impeccably fluent bass player, has one of New Zealand rock music’s most distinctive voices. It has an almost operatic quality. And then there’s the charismatic Flaws, the band’s front man, who played and sang with manic energy. In fact you had to admire the whole band’s energy levels, considering this was their ninth gig in 10 days.
Behind it all, Gladstone, whom I’d guess is a generation behind the rest of the band, fitted seamlessly into all the inspired weirdness – a tragedy in one so young.
A terrific night all round, and a hard act for Simon and Pip to follow.