THE NZSO & THE PHOENIX FOUNDATION (PHOTO: Huup Waagen)

A collaboration, not a culture clash: The NZSO and The Phoenix Foundation, reviewed!

The NZSO and The Phoenix Foundation performed their Celebrate! show last night at the Michael Fowler Centre in Wellington. Mark Cubey was there.

“Anyone can be a success, but it takes real guts to be a failure.”

That’s from a cartoon by Scottish genius John Glashan, who wrote plays and worked as an illustrator, but whose scathing pen-and-ink work captured my imagination as a youth and excite me to this day. He worked for The Spectator, Punch, Private Eye, and the New Yorker and lived until the good age of 72 (brilliant obit here).

Early on, he gave up his dreams of portrait painting and took up cartooning. Sometimes it’s a good idea to give up your dreams. Sometimes, though, it’s better to persist, and the Phoenix Foundation have sensibly shunned the title of their last album and moved to new heights.

Tonight’s concert brought together two of Wellington’s best bands – the six-piece Phoenix Foundation and 48 members of the NZSO – together for the first and let us hope not the last time with three dates to go on this tour: in the Auckland Town Hall (tonight, nearly sold out), then Christchurch’s Isaac Theatre Royal and the Regent Theatre in Dunedin for the last weekend of the month.

If you’re reading this in any of those centres, I urge you to acquire a ticket now to see this collaboration between two great Wellington bands.

Make no mistake: despite the name, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra is a Wellington band. Just as The Phoenix Foundation is a Wellington band, though Sam Scott now lives in Auckland. And that gave me hope ahead of tonight’s concert, because while orchestras most definitely have their place in modern society, and the NZSO is a good, pioneering one (possibly the first orchestra in the world to wise up and get a website), rock bands and orchestras are an uneasy mix.

I blame Deep Purple, who joined forces with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for Concerto for Group and Orchestra, and helped accelerate the whole ghastly progressive rock movement. But let us leave that argument for another time.

The model has worked for the NZSO, first with Eddie Rayner and his 1995 arrangements of Split Enz’s fine-as-they-were songs in 1995 for two ENZSO albums and a whole lot of tours, followed by similar cultural mélanges, as Salmonella Dub and Shapeshifter got the symphonic treatment.

But those two bands, good as they can be, are more like groove merchants, while the Phoenix Foundation have the variety of material to make this work. Plus, they’re from Wellington. (Go the home team!) This was my thinking going in, though not without trepidation.

In the event, my fears were unfounded.

This was a collaboration, not a culture clash, with a band containing at least three proper composers (Sam Scott, Luke Buda, Conrad Wedde) working with four arrangers (Claire Cowan, Chris Gendall, Gareth Farr, Hamish Oliver) and an orchestra with the chops to make nearly everything work after just one day’s rehearsal.

Right from the start it was just right.

The combined ensemble, under the baton of NZSO associate conductor Hamish McKeich – whose idea for the collaboration this was – launched into ‘Hitchcock’, one of three tracks from the album Pegasus to get an airing. And it was gorgeous. (The set also included three songs from Horse Power, with two apiece from Buffalo, Happy Ending, Fandango and Give Up Your Dreams, as well as two new songs – more on those later.)

I’m not a fan of the Michael Fowler Centre; its vibe has killed more concerts than one can shake a naughty stick at. But there were moments during the opener, and frequently during the slower numbers where the supple groove of the band and the lush, spongy bounce of the combined musicians, sprinkled with exquisite percussion (I haven’t heard so many great bells since my last carillon concert), was just perfect for the room.

“It’s like a Swedish Beatles,” said the guy on my left at one stage, later also referencing genus conductor/arranger Lalo Schifrin. Right on both counts, though neither would have come up with “one of the five greatest songs to be written about Johnsonville,” to paraphrase Sam Scott’s outro to ‘Burning Wreck’.

He and fellow frontman Luke Buda were pretty quiet on the audience interaction-front initially, which was a bit of a worry, but after they broke out the disco ball, the ice was broken and banter ensued, until curtailed by McKeich, who was very much in charge. Yes, it was an NZSO gig, if not necessarily an NZSO audience (at one stage applause interrupted what was meant to be a moment, not the end to a movement).

McKeich shares a love for the kind of symphonic soundtrack music that has always underpinned the Phoenix Foundation’s work, and the arrangers largely rose to the challenge with often spectacular results. I heard Latin hustle, European motorik drive, shimmering strings alternating with pizzicato plucking, and deep shades of Scott Walker (makes sense with Samuel Flynn Walker Scott onstage). A member of the nearly sold-out audience said afterwards that it will be hard for her to listen to the instrumental recordings again, so good were the live versions. Good news on that front, the crack team from RNZ were there, capturing the whole thing.

Not everything worked for me. Some of the arrangements were prosaic, plain, and the more straight-ahead numbers were often too busy, with not enough air. I was so looking forward to ‘Give Up Your Dreams’, up until now their most recent great song, but there wasn’t enough of a powerfully choogling bottom-end drive, and Sam’s vocals got a bit lost. But it was a triumphant closer, before a terrific two-song encore, with only McKeich, Scott, Buda, Wedde, Will Ricketts, Chris O’Connor and Tom Callwood leaving the stage… “Surprise!” said Luke Buda on their return.

Every member of the Foundation was on point, with requisite unusual hats, but for me, it was Buda’s night. Such poise and dress, singing so beautifully, the perfect stylish second to Scott’s more erratic leadership. All that time in New Zealand’s best underground wedding covers band has paid off in spades.

And what made it a truly great night were two new songs: ‘Miserable Meal’ and ‘Transit of Venus’. Instant classics, both of them, with great arrangements, and boding exceptionally well for the next Phoenix album.

So, Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin, you are in for a treat. The setlist and arrangements are set, but the combined big band can only get looser and better from here on in. Possibly even enough to do an impromptu encore take on ‘Trifecta’ (the Ricky Baker song from their Hunt for the Wilderpeople soundtrack), or superb drummer Chris O’Connor, cutting loose with Will Ricketts and those fabulous NZSO percussionists on an improvisational jam.

Here’s hoping.

This review originally appeared on The Wellington App.

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