Thomas Oliver

2 October 2017, Spiegaltent, Havelock North
Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival

On a Monday night the Spiegeltent is at capacity, with barely standing room at the back, as the crowd turns out in force to support a local boy done good. It’s sold out tomorrow night too, and he’s even fresh out of CDs, so popular were they on his recent two-week stint in Europe. It’s clear that Thomas Oliver’s liquid countertenor has tapped into something with his soulful heart-centred songs.

In his signature fedora he begins unassumingly enough, with a couple of simple but intense numbers that highlight his vocal range, harmonising soothingly with Bella the backing vocalist. Only when he takes a seat and breaks out the Weissenborn, joined by bass and drums, do the extent of his gifts become apparent. The magic of his method, placing guitar across his lap to pluck and slide, produces a depth and richness that is echoed and enhanced by the supporting musicians, to whom he humbly gives numerous credits and solos. It’s a gentle form of rocking out that suits the seated crowd.

Between tracks he engages with the audience affably, despite owning the challenges of chatting and tuning. He shouts out to his family, occupying the front row, and the Village that raised him and is now creating a cultural environment that will allow him and other artists to thrive. Indeed, many of his songs of love and loss could equally apply to his relationship with his home place of Havelock North, to which he refers often. He returned to his parents’ house here to put the finishing touches to his latest album, Floating in the Darkness, from which the majority of his set is taken. The real culture shock happens when you come home.

Lyrically, his expression comes across most authentically when reflecting on personal experiences, divorced from romantic relationships. At his finest, in Boy, he articulates the pain and confusion of coming of age in a culture that denies its youth a significant rite of passage. Bad Talkin’ Man, from 2011’s Baby, I’ll Play is less convincing. Anyone who can express such genuine public affection and gratitude to his parents is clearly too much of a sweetheart to play the bad boy. He does pull off a brave attempt at audience participation in schooling them to sing along with the chorus. They gamely play along to the closing bars at which point self-consciousness takes over and they cease abruptly. He teases that the gig is being recorded so they’ll have to listen to themselves. No doubt it can be edited in post-production, as presumably will the inebriated heckler who harangued the audience with ‘That sounded like shit. That sounded like middle class New Zealand. I bet you all voted National’.

But words are just utterances, Oliver works best when he says what he needs to say then lets the music take over, building to a complex instrumental crescendo, a sophisticated layering of sound that conveys a wealth of raw emotion. It’s a fusion of bluegrass, jazz, funk, motown and something else that is all Thomas Oliver, building to a frenzy that is an essential aspect of the live experience, one that is impossible to relate in a studio album. Something special has happened here tonight and, on their feet cheering effusively, the audience know it.

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