A Tour Called Henry 28 July 2018, Common Room, Hastings By Heloise Valdivia
Common Room has once again cemented itself as the little bar that could. Word of mouth and repetitively good experiences are spreading through the musical fraternity in NZ resulting in the critically acclaimed Fabulous/Arabia choosing to play this venue, as one of only two dates in the country.
The event was sold out long before doors opened, and many like a group of 15 in front of me were turned away. With high-calibre bands choosing the limited capacity venue, I imagine we are all going to have to get better at buying tickets ahead of time.
Inside the atmosphere was humming, with a crowd of people who had travelled from around greater Hawke’s Bay to be here and an over-representation of HB musos. Akina Vinyl Appreciation Society were spinning some laid back tracks.
The main event kicked off with the arrival of Prince Butt (alter ego of Ricki Gooch), looking half reggae, half tired American gangster in a dreds wig and shades. He delivered a high-energy DJ set that was confrontational in the era of #MeToo. Suggestions like fourth base on a date is anal drew some nervous laughs, and sampling “chop that ass down” to supposedly highlight too much plastic in our oceans was a provocative choice. However he certainly ignited the dance floor, pulling the crowd forward to the stage. It was a short sharp set that certainly meant almost anything else was possible after it, adding a touch of crazy to the anticipation.
Fabulous/Arabia is the musical collaboration of Lawrence Arabia (James Milne), and Mike Fabulous aka Lord Echo (also of the Black Seeds); both have made, and continue to make, significant contributions to NZ music. The story goes that Mike sent James multiple tracks of his musical compositions which James then wrote lyrics to. These were honed and came together as the critically acclaimed album Unlimited Buffet (released 2011). Jump forward seven years, and they have come together again to release their new single ‘Henry’, the reason for this two-date tour.
In ‘Ballad of Highway 1’ smooth vocals slide you back in time to 70s smoky lounge bar nights, while the lyrics are “sprinkles of the kind that will routinely blow your mind” – sharp witty observations of us. The wall of sound from the perfectly matched sax and trumpet was divine and I kept waiting for something to fully utilise this later – hinted at but never fully materialised.
The first set comprised of nine songs from their 2011 album, with the new single sandwiched in the middle. ‘Eugenics’ with its beautiful guitar melodies belying its message of our “fall in a storm of social disgraces” dovetailed neatly into ‘Perm’ with its’ unabashed nod to funk. James let loose his falsetto, and the whole group deftly played with sliding harmonies and half tones – nice use of the strident synth over the top too.
‘Henry’, labelled as Tudor reggae, concerns the gentrification of Wellington – where there once “was a bowling club, they are now selling $15 beers” – a lament not lost on the audience (most of whom were 35yrs+).
Halfway through ‘Up to My Neck in Shit’ I became aware of a giant floor-to-ceiling crucifix as stage backdrop. Intentionally or not, the curtains behind were parted to reveal a waterfall of light, with a low-hanging bar light suspended horizontally across it. With James’ face uplit in blue from below, and an almost angelic chorus of backing harmonies, it seemed eerily disconcerting to hear him singing of “the living dead”.
My favourite song of the night had to be ‘It (Will Kill You)’. The whole band was obviously having a blast. It was like we were all at bandcamp for a practice and they just let rip. The didgeridoo-sounding bass and drums drew out a great rocking crescendo that elevated the energy in the room to another place, and then it was over and we were brought down again with the lullaby-like, loungy ‘You Won’t Remember’.
I also savoured the image “I’m off to town with my crown of thorns” as we martyr ourselves to a social life in ‘Southern Gentleman’, Fabulous/Arabia again showing their mastery at having the more gritty lyrics wash over you in a wave of beguiling stoned-haze harmonies.
Surprisingly the encore set were all covers of Doobie Brothers, Boz Scaggs, and Dr Hook among others. As a group of consummate and highly skilled musicians it was obvious they could turn their hands to most styles, rolling through swing, soul, funk, big brass, and reggae, sometimes all at once. ‘What a Fool Believes’ was definitely just a show boat for James’ falsetto and although there were a couple of bung notes to start with he absolutely nailed the chorus. The problem with covers is that no matter how well done, unless you make them your own, they are just that; it’s like getting aspartame instead of honey in your lemon and ginger, it just leaves a bit of an artificial aftertaste.
Having said that, the crowd didn’t stop dancing from the minute Prince Butt started to the last note. The small room was at capacity to the very end, and the obviously happy crowd (myself included) were loud and vocal in their support and appreciation of what we had just been a part of.
Overall I feel lucky to have seen and heard this collaboration live. Their original work was sophisticated with moments of pure sparking brilliance, though I sometimes wished, with such talent on show, that it had been given scope to develop further. But it was the musicians’ obvious enjoyment and ravishment at playing together that really carried the night and made this gig so much fun.
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