A night with Lawrence Arabia and his big band

July 25, 2012 § 2 Comments

It was hipster heaven at the Wellington State Opera House on Sunday night. Many of those gathered to watch Lawrence Arabia play songs from his new album, The Sparrow, wore their badges of hipster cool. They had come to see one of New Zealand’s brightest (and coolest) indie pop artists.

From the beginning, we could see this was going to be no normal rock gig. A big stage, four string instruments and a bolstered brass section had been commissioned to add nuance and subtlety to Arabia’s songs – textures that might have gone missing in a more conventional Wellington rock venue like the San Francisco Bathhouse or the Bodega.

It was a carefully chosen list of songs, representative of all three Lawrence Arabia albums but picked for active listening and less for dancing. The lighting was muted, the mood was atmospheric and the music was angelic.

Lawrence Arabia plays songs about unrequited love, requited love, best friends, former best friends and nostalgia for ships that pass in the night. The highlights included the drama filled The Crew of the Commodore, the heartbreaking Look Like A Fool and the ironic Talk About The Good Times.

But to call the show wistful and mournful would be to do Lawrence Arabia – real name James Milne – an injustice. I defy anyone to find a better exponent of writing perfect pop hooks, and, as if to make this point, he and the band played Apple Pie Bed as if to break up the show’s languid, graceful tempo.

For me, the night peaked with Dream Teacher, the last song on his second album, Chant Darling. It filled the cavernous space with fragile harmonies and made us grin about what could only be an autobiographical portrait of Milne’s infatuation with a teacher from his school aged days. I only wish I had captured it on my Flip recorder. But I did manage Early Kneecappings, an ominous sounding song from the new album.

The crowd could have been bigger and Milne and the band deserved better, even on a rainy, wintry, Sunday night in Wellington. Days before, I had been warned by a phone call from an Opera House staffer who was calling to advise those of us who had bought seats in the dress circle that it had been decided to create a more intimate show in general seating. In other words, it wasn’t going to be a sell out. But Milne was gracious as he thanked the fans from the “capital of culture” for making the trip to see him.

The videos here are nothing special. I was too distant from the stage to get close images and the lighting was subdued. But the sound is pretty good – a tribute to the wonderful arrangements and an excellent sound engineer. For posterity’s sake, it’s a partial record of an enthralling show by a New Zealand artist who continues to find new peaks to scale in his pursuit of musical adventure and brilliance.

After a two song encore, as the crowd at hipster central broke up and floated home, we were all left to reflect on how we could have stayed all night, if Lawrence Arabia had let us.

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