The world of reviewers is a small one, and many of us are in touch with others in all parts of the world, and it is through this network that I know Nick Hudson, a Dunedin lad who writes for The Progressive Aspect and now resides in the UK. He in turn introduced me to Linz Eel, a well-known musician who is back in NZ after spending some time overseas, and at the beginning of the week he in turn contacted me to ask would it be possible for me to go and review a young singer-songwriter? While being asked to review gigs is nothing new, it is quite uncommon for someone to make direct contact with me who isn’t in the band themselves, so I was intrigued. I was supposed to be at another gig last night, but as those plans fell through, I thought why not? I confess to not getting over to Avondale very often, but perhaps next time if I am reviewing a gig in the area on the same night the All Blacks are playing, and every pub is full of people watching the game, then I will leave earlier. I eventually found somewhere to park made my way into The Portman and was somewhat surprised to see it was a small pub filled with tables and a stage in the corner. I made a beeline for the stage and was soon chatting to Bianca Rae, who was so grateful that I had come to see her play. Of course, I never go to a gig and review just one of the bands playing and had also been in touch with Burn The Bridges and she introduced me to those guys as well. We had some wonderful conversations about music, and people we both knew, and this all went on somewhat longer that it should have as the sound engineer was not here yet. The band were supposed to load in and soundcheck at 8, but here we were at 9 and it still had not happened. Fortunately, when he did arrive, he was quick, and it meant we were set to go at 9:30. I was sat on a small stool right in front of the stage, used a chair in front of me as a table and decided I was not going to move even when all the other tables and chairs were taken away. This meant I was right against the stage, with people dancing and going crazy around me, but I think I only got hit two or three times, beer spilled on my back once, while one guy thought I had amazing handwriting (you’re kidding, right?) and another shook my hand when he discovered I was reviewing.

There is something special about one person and a guitar, and it takes some guts to get up and play in a pub when no-one is really paying any attention. Bianca has an interesting approach in that she does a cover as a first song, knowing that in many ways it is a throwaway number but gets people to pay attention to her so that she can then play her own material, which I thought was a very good ploy indeed. Bianca exudes confidence and self-belief, and deservedly so as her vocals have far more age and beauty in them than one would expect from someone so young. She has worked with Burn The Bridges previously, so much so that they sent her the bones of a song they had been working on and asked her if she wanted to do something with it, and this was her first real number of the night, Gypsy. Her vocals have an edge to them, they are strong and clear with a great deal of restrained power behind them. I later discovered she and Emily Rice of Aro are friends and first met up in Berlin when they were both overseas, and like Emily she also uses a device to generate her own harmonies. But she uses it very sparingly indeed, which means that when it comes in it has great effect. I also liked the fact that instead of using a dynamic and driving stomp box in a way similar to the likes of Chris Dent (Albi & the Wolves) she uses one which is a tambourine. I don’t know how many could really hear that away from the stage, but I felt it added some nice finesses and polish. She also uses quite a lot of reverbs on the vocals, and I certainly felt I was being drawn into a musical spell. 

Flower has some nice fingerpicking, but the guitar is always just there as an accompaniment for her wonderful vocals and songs. This one has a nice folky roots side to it, with hints of singer-songwriter and Americana. I also felt there were times when she was hitting the chords quite hard on this one, and that strike provided a stark harshness and additional dynamic. The Wolf was one of the highlights of the set and has a powerful singalong chorus and is full of energy. All her songs are full of hooks and really grab the listener, but it is her vocals which really reels the listener in. She invited drummer Sam Bennett to the stage for Summer Loving, and it was interesting to hear the change in dynamic. The kick drum made quite a difference, but she lifted her voice and easily cut through. She was back on her own for Sundown which sadly was the end of the set, which had to be cut short due to time constraints, and yet again she was full of passion and power. I came away immensely impressed and look forward to hearing her again in a much larger setting with a much longer set and I am sure it is not going to be long before that happens.

Then it was time for Burn The Bridges, yet another band new to me (one thing about writing for for the last year has proved to me just how little I know about the NZ scene, but I am making up for lost time). They have released material on both Bandcamp and Spotify (where they have just made some more songs available), and have been a gigging band for some time, both in their own right and supporting the likes of Albi & The Wolves. Something I noticed from the off was that their setlist tonight was incredibly long for an originals show in this type of setting, but bassist Matthew Piggott told me this had been requested by the venue. Still, they were playing 17 songs which was about 90 minutes in length, so quite something in a pub. The quartet is completed by singer/guitarist Caleb Green and C.P. Moore (Rhodes, piano), who was situated on the floor as the stage was really only big enough for a drumkit and two other musicians. 

They describe their music as “Americana meets Kiwiana. Playing a mix of country, blues, soul and folk, sometimes with a touch of New Zealand reggae sound”, but it would possibly be easier to just describe much of their influences in a much shorter manner, just say The Band. While I have always loved Bob Dylan and have even had the misfortune to see him in concert (he was awful), if I am going to put on an album of his for sheer listening pleasure then it will be Before The Flood, the live album they did together. There is something about the power of that unit which cannot be matched, but tonight here was a band taking huge elements of that and doing it in their own way and having fun while they were doing it. A good band is one which is better than the sum of its individual components, and what we witnessed tonight were four wonderful musicians who when they combine take it to a whole new level. Matthew is the one who keeps it grounded, always playing the right measured note while also providing wonderful harmony vocals, drummer Sam is constantly changing his approach and sticks to provide different sounds, the dapper Mr Moore (love the hat) has a delicate touch on electric piano which sounds both dated and modern, while Caleb is always in the moment. There were times tonight when he seemed lost in the music, concentrating on the vocals, and not even bothering with the guitar. Having a real pianist allows the band to switch and move, as the songs often have a different base, with the keyboards sometimes driving the melody, at others they are in harmony, while others they are in the background waiting to come forward.

Right from the beginning the music got people moving, and as the set progressed, they only got more and more frantic (I was keeping a close eye on one guy next to me as I was sure I was going to get glassed at one point as he was so into the music). The rhythm section provides a solid foundation for the two melodic leads to do their thing, always with that early Seventies Americana style, and I think everyone chuckled when some wag in the audience cried out “More cowbell!”. The guys are obviously incredibly comfortable with each other, in the manner which only comes from playing together repeatedly. The vocals were extremely good throughout, and the harmonies worked very well indeed, with songs such as Honey really building with the drums taking it on and the bass keeping it centred. At times Caleb switched to acoustic, and it was here that the Americana bent became even more prevalent, although it never went too far away. There was just one cover in the set, Charlie Parr’s 1922 Blues, where Sam started with a shaker, then brought in the kick drum, and by the end was belting the kit as the song just kept building. In many ways this felt quite different to their own material but was a great fit in the set. Notebooks was one of the highlights for me, another slow burner with the piano holding the melody. At the end of the lengthy set they were of course called back and closed with the high energy Take You Out, and left with the crowd baying for more. 

It was a heck of a night, and I am really glad I made the effort to get out there and will definitely catch both these acts again.   

Kev Rowland