Tami Neilson – SASSAFRAS! tour

2 August, Century Theatre MTG
By Jess Soutar Barron

With blunt bangs and a bob she’s become a brand. So, when we first see her we go all ‘groupie’ and shriek. Tami Neilson opens with Miss Jones and calls us to Get Up Get Up but we can’t. We’re locked into the upholstery of the Century Theatre. From the get-go we want to shimmy but it’s impossible. We’re stuck, rocking on the inside.

Tami is a sassy lady and we want to be sassy with her, but the space insists we sit, neat and nice, and behave. It’s not Tami’s fault. With big voice, tight band, a certain hand clap, a shake that makes sense of the fringe on her dress, she’s got it all going for her. She’s a star. But here’s the rub. She gets and deserves big audiences and there’s nowhere here we can put her… and dance. So, we sit and watch but we’re itching to push back the pews and lindy hop. Just imagine if we saw her in a club! Like I saw Big Bad Voodoo Daddy in The Dresden Room in ’98. Ahhh memories. Because this music is so polished and technicolour, it’s cinematic. It imprints.

But there’s another way to look at this whole situation of being stuck in the confining rows of cattle class while the good time gal up the front has all the fun. Let’s recast this Guy Natusch concert hall as a live studio. It has a certain Grand Ole Opry air about it. And this isn’t a gig after all. It’s a SHOW.

Tami Neilson is touring with her band to promote her latest album SASSAFRAS! (caps and screamer all hers). It’s vintage country/rockabilly foot-stomping celebration music. I’d call it Americana but she’s Canadian. And because she is she brings a humour to her on-stage presence. There’s a shine to this music and to Tami herself but also a humble humanity. She laughs up to those in the balcony, twanging: “I haven’t coloured my roots. We’re in a circle of trust here”.

Layers of sound made in mid-air bring with them the realisation that produced studio music starts with this: a five-piece with a collection of strings and skins and vocal chords, and truckloads of skill. Hand claps, maracas, tambourine, each paired back and only used when useful add extra dimensions to a sound that builds. The secret weapon is Neil “Attitude from Te Atatu” Watson, a consummate and seasoned guitarist who plays a deadly pedal steel guitar. He’s a wizard and it’s a delight to see him perform.

Tami herself is a maestro with a control over her voice that comes from years and years of practice. And the songs she writes are bespoke to that voice. She knows her voice so well she knows best what will work well with it. She’s a fantastic lyricist, writing anthems for a new generation of bolshie broads. She has complete understanding of the elements of a great song. She brings complexities while ensuring her songs are inviting and sticky.

Much of her discography honours her family – ancestors and descendants – but there are universalities that make her music instantly accessible. Good Man will be sung at weddings. Stay Out Of My Business will be chanted at rallies. These are classics in the making. And tonight we heard some new songs, yet to be unleashed, that lift that ferocity – that sass – up a notch.

Tami may have started as just another country singer but in this current age she has become a role-model, she’s taken up a responsibility for speaking truths. There’s bold feminist themes in her current album and it’s not just refreshing, in this male-dominated industry, it’s necessary.

At a mid-point Tami changes her costume from fringes to: The Sassafras Dress. Hot pink, suggestive snakes, sequinned bananas. It would be easy to drape clichés like bombshell, vixen, pin-up over Tami Neilson. But that would diminish her hard-work, her talent, her resolve, her artistry, and her showmanship.

After a while we settle back and relax into this Show that she has created for us. It’s clear there’s nothing we can contribute but our adoration. We can be the squeals in the background; leave the spotlight to the star.

Photo Credit: Ashley Church





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