Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Russians Take Christchurch

Well, a small part of it anyway. Last Friday night I was dropped off at the intercity depot: as I walked around to the YHA, I noticed a new cafe which, highly important given my need to depart at a ridiculous time on Saturday morning, would be open at 7 a.m. Arriving back there bleary eyed, I was a bit confused to see that the sign said something about Russian cuisine - sure enough, the Red Square cafe on Worcester Street is run by some charming Russians and features Russian food on its menu. Not for breakfast, alas. I had to make do with pancakes, very thin pancakes rolled up like cigars. The place was very nice looking - an exposed brick wall down one side, a white painted wall down another, with a few black and white photos (of ultrasounds, my second examination revealed!) and paintings and decked out with smart black tables and red chairs. My disappointments were that (a) the butter and honey were served in plastic sachets and (b) the coffee was weak - but on my return visit, that had been remedied. I still have not had a chance to try the Russian food, but I will - thanks to the marvels of Grabaseat, I have a four day weekend in Christchurch coming up.

But Christchurch was not my destination last weekend. Oh no, I was on my way to Wellington to see Bill Callahan (Smog) and Joanna Newsom. When I'd heard she was coming to New Zealand, I didn't really think much of it - I'd heard snippets from her first album and dismissed her as a gimmick. But a friend started raving about her second album Ys to the point that I procured a copy for myself. Then I heard that Callahan was coming, and I was in: I've been listening to Smog for a decade, ever since I came across Lets Move to the Country in a Melbourne record store. So glad: it was an amazing night.

When I arrived at the San Francisco Bath House (still Indigo to me), the place was packed, but I struck it lucky. I had gone past the front of the stage to use the facilities; as I came back, those sitting on the floor were being asked to stand. I seized my chance and found myself leaning against the crowd barrier, right in front of the chair which was soon occupied by Bill Callahan. I was really surprised by how young he is: when I first heard him, I thought he was old (i.e. Johnny Cash old) but he must have been in his twenties (Wikipedia says he was born in the late 1960's). He has a very subdued stage presence - I think he did thank us after each song, and at one point commented on how quiet we were, despite it being dark so the "please don't talk" signs could not be seen - but puts a lot of effort into getting his songs right (at least if the grimacing he does as he sings is a signifier of that, he does). He started with "Lets Move to the Country" and "River Guard" before giving up a couple of new songs off his forthcoming album - one featuring a Sycamore tree. There were others to follow - they're all just an enjoyable blur now.

As for Joanna Newsom, her stage presence was the antithesis of her partner's: she has an elfin presence, plenty of chatter, the occasional funny story and what appears to be a genuine gratitude that we enjoy her music. It took me a little while, maybe three songs in, before I noticed how hard doing what she does must be. Playing the harp doesn't look like an easy thing to do, particularly when you're as intricate and precise player as she is. And her songs - they're ten minute plus torrents of words, hard enough to just keep up with when listening, and here she was , singing them as she played the harp. An amazing musician: my summary dismissal of her earlier CD was churlish. I still haven't heard The Milk Eyed Mender, but most of the songs she played came from Ys, together with a cover of a Scottish folk song. She has also formed some sort of group with some other traditional musicians, and played a new song they have worked up in their honour.
I respected their wishes for no photography, but once the show was over, I had to take a photo of this harp, taken from where I had been standing for the entire gig. Afterwards, I went into Midnight Espresso for a coffee: I was followed in by none other than Joanna and Bill. I didn't jump up and worship them, although I contemplated it: someone from the next table did and while Joanna was all sweet and did a wee genuflection of thanks, Bill just stood there and looked at the menu. My friend who went backstage to see them at their Lyttleton gig reported a very similar experience.

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Blogger owens valley tomatohead said...

Good grief, I had no idea that Bill Callahan was that young, either! Dress Sexy at my Funeral is so biting and I can't resist it.

Hope you will be able to finally catch the Phoenix Foundation in your neck of the Mainland. Enjoyed your not so wee tour in the new wheels.

Will buy a copy of Garlic and Sapphires when we recover from this spending blip based on your review.

11:45 AM  
Blogger Barry said...

Phoenix Foundation play here this Saturday: I'm definitely going. More to the point, I hope you get to see them when they head to the USA, since it isn't as easy for you to catch them as for me.

As for Smog, I haven't even got my head around Dongs of Sevotion - I only bought it just before I went on holiday, so will have to check Sexy at my Funeral out.

10:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Russians have already taken Auckland.http://www.viewauckland.co.nz/review_2933.html

2:44 AM  

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