3 Aug 2018

REVIEW: The NZSO and the Phoenix Foundation Celebrate

From RNZ Music, 9:09 am on 3 August 2018

Last night The Phoenix Foundation and the NZSO played the first of four NZ shows that celebrate 20 years of music making for the well-loved Wellington band. Hadyn Green reports back. 

Samuel Flynn Scott of the Phoenix Foundation

Samuel Flynn Scott of the Phoenix Foundation Photo: RNZ/Kirsten Johnstone

Standing at the front of the stage, in a “dorky hat” that kind of grew on him and wireframe glasses without lenses, backed by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Samuel Flynn Scott admitted in true kiwi humility that “this is buzzy as”. He wasn’t wrong.

It was easy to be blown away by the music. At times the orchestra played in support of The Phoenix Foundation, floating under the melody, buoying them while accentuating certain parts of the music, filling the background with a beautiful ambience. Then, suddenly the full NZSO would rush in, soaring past the band and filling the hall with the massive sound you only get from an orchestra in full flight, like some sort of mythical bird.

Only at one point did the entire orchestra stop and sit back while the band jammed.

The Phoenix Foundation looked like they were still getting used to having a conductor. At times both Samuel and Luke Buda seemed nervous and apologetic to Hamish McKeich, as he tried to get their eye and keep them in time with their “extended band”. 

Conductor Hamish McKeich

Conductor Hamish McKeich Photo: RNZ/Kirsten Johnstone

The song matches were perfect. I can’t think of another contemporary New Zealand band that would suit the NZSO treatment as well.

Most of the songs chosen for Celebrate!, were from the band’s first two albums: Horse Power and Pegasus. Perhaps it was because, as Samuel put it, “we thought we were an orchestra back then, so this seems apt.” And when you listen to those songs on their own ('Cars of Eden', 'Twilight/Morning Pages', 'St Kevin', 'Let Me Die a Woman', and 'Wildlife') you can hear that orchestral sound in them.

Even with later songs, The Phoenix Foundation’s low-fi groove fits so well with an orchestral backing. After 'Burning Wreck', Luke quipped, “that may be one of only five orchestral songs about a Johnsonville service station”.

It’s hard not to compare Celebrate! to the original NZSO/band collaboration with Split Enz, ENZSO. Both were given the full orchestral treatment, but unlike Split Enz, The Phoenix Foundation’s songs weren’t altered and the band played a full set that, even without the backing orchestra, would’ve been mind-blowing.

There were also two new songs, 'Miserable Meal' and 'Transit of Venus'. Both had those melancholy, domestic lyrics we’ve come to expect from the Phoenix Foundation over the years. Watching the transit of Venus, from my kitchen, while I do the dishes.

Phoenix Foundation drummer Chris O'Connor

Phoenix Foundation drummer Chris O'Connor Photo: RNZ/Kirsten Johnstone

The thing that struck me most was the drums. As with their Zappa-themed Shed Series concert, the NZSO sounds very different when you add the booming percussion of kettle drums and a massive bass drum to give a constant underlying beat. I often found myself amazed at how loud The Phoenix Foundation’s drummer Chris O'Connor was before realising that he had three other musicians backing up his sound in the percussion department.

The xylophone player was especially impressive as he ran back and forth between instruments, including rocking out on the triangle on 'Give Up your Dreams'. That song had every piece of the orchestra working hard behind the band and building to an impressive crescendo. This was the build up to the finale: 'Eventually' and 'Buffalo'. 

The entire gig felt fairly short with the first four songs flying past. In part this was because Samuel and Luke delayed their famous banter until they were about halfway through, so songs just faded out and then went straight into the next one. McKeich kept up a swift pace with the orchestra too, so there wasn’t too much downtime.

It was an amazing concert, with sensitive and exciting orchestration from Gareth Farr, Hamish Oliver, Chris Gendall and Claire Cowan.  

The Phoenix Foundation and the NZSO play Auckland Town Hall tonight (August 3), Christchurch on August 30th and Dunedin on the 31st.  

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