Last week international acts Beach House, Rhye and Four Tet played at the Auckland Arts Festival. Lauren Spring went to all three shows.
I arrived in Auckland from Wellington, thoroughly wiped out. My very humid arrival in Auckland was heralded by a very painful tattoo on my ribs (I 100% screamed like a little bitch), the subdued, earthy tones and fluttering voices of my friend’s Grey Lynn flat, and a Jacinda Ardern sighting at Masu which left me all aquiver.
With gigs scheduled for every night of my trip and very little motivation to leave the safety of my air mattress sanctuary, I was struck by a question that I very rarely ponder – why do I go to live shows? Why spend an inordinate amount of money on an ephemeral experience that is unlikely to live up to the expectations created by the sheer joy of listening to an album while riding my bike through Newtown’s midnight streets, slick with fresh rainfall? Why contend with jostling, overly enthusiastic bros whose glares so clearly wish to convey ‘you will never understand and connect with this music like I can’ and eye damage incurred from dozens of photo-takers too fucked up to turn off their flash? Why endure the sore back from hours of standing, the stilted pre-set conversation, the overpriced drinks?
The gigs that I got to attend courtesy of the Auckland Arts Festival and my own dwindling bank account over three nights last week provided some kind of answer to that question.
Monday: Beach House, Auckland Town Hall
Tum bursting with an incredible, buttery daal, I was ready for my first Arts Festival outing: Baltimore-based musicians Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally, who create woozy, textural shoegaze inspired pop, and have a 15-year career and seven studio albums under their belts.
Beach House’s first proper show in New Zealand in ten years, festival sets aside, was at the Town Hall – a particularly apt choice of venue for their expansive, lustrous tonal palette.
The show began with an almost alarming amount of billowing smoke and some very bold coloured backlighting, so that the three members of the band, stationed behind their respective instruments, could only be seen as dark silhouettes. In other words, a perfect visual backdrop for the kind of emotional catharsis Beach House’s music so unabashedly attempts to evoke.
This brings me to the primary difficulty I have with Beach House’s music. The reverb-laden vocals, the textural, Cocteau Twins-esque guitar, the strong, affecting synth lines, the lush meld of dream-pop and shoegaze; they all create the kind of sound we have come to associate with deep emotion. However, listening to their records, it feels to me as if, rather than truly feeling and channelling emotion through their music, they are performing emotion instead of embodying it. Going through the (e)motions, if you will.
I felt the same way at their live show. While it was technically adept, other than during singer Victoria Legrand’s endearing little forays into between-song banter, I struggled to feel anything during the performance other than appreciation for their evident musical prowess. For anyone familiar with my deeply sensitive water sign self, this is fairly out of character. I have been known to cry at particularly rousing adverts.
This allowed some level of answer to my original question – I go to shows to feel something. I’m not just there to see a slick performance that sounds like the record. I want to be really, genuinely affected by what a show provokes in me.
That being said, the closest I got to true emotion during the show was basking in the hazy, silken delight of Victoria Legrand’s voice, which is even more of a sonic wet-dream live and in stereo. The band rolled efficiently through a 90-minute set, showcasing a decent spread of cuts from across their seven album career. Standouts for me were ‘Lemon Glow’ and ‘Drunk In LA’ from their newest album, entitled ‘7’, mostly because those songs embrace a darker, more twisted side of Beach House, a change which was even more apparent live.
The band’s light show and use of the Town Hall’s enormous screen was perfectly executed, timed impeccably with their most stirring drum fills. The live projected close-ups of Legrand and guitarist Alex Scally going to town on their respective instruments added an interesting extra dimension to the show.
Ultimately, Beach House were a flawlessly well-oiled machine and a fairly nice night out, but I woke up the following morning thinking about where I might find myself some nice omega plums, any remnants of the show already banished from my mind.
Tuesday: Rhye, Aotea Square Spiegeltent
As I arrived at the Spiegeltent in Aotea Square I felt a familiar dread inch its way down my spine as I realised how closely it resembled the tent I had spent a dreary summer working as a circus usher. But on entering the tent my spirits were raised by the garishly joyous stage design for the acrobatic cabaret Blanc de Blanc, which had set up shop there for the duration of the Arts Festival.
Performing alongside a flashy white staircase and railing, a glittering curtain drawn across the stage, and in front of a significantly older, designer-clad audience, Rhye – AKA singer Mike Milosh – and his cheerful six-piece could have been the world’s most heavenly cruise-ship band.
Rhye’s R&B is all soothing synths melded with funk-infused riffs, with strings lovely enough to caress your very soul soaring over the top. But let me get to that voice. My goodness, that voice. Hushed, gentle, billowing, lapping over your face like the sweetest autumnal wind. He flexed his marbled instrument impressively over the course of the set, cooing in and out on trembling love songs and sultry bedroom numbers alike.
The group played an even spread of tracks between 2013’s breakout Woman, and last year’s Blood, which marked Milosh’s break from producer Robin Hannibal, and Rhye’s evolution from duo to musical collective, centred around Milosh’s live touring band.
These musicians clearly truly enjoy playing together, and it was a joy to be let in on their strong, whimsical rapport. The bond between cellist and violinist was a special pleasure, in the way that only watching two over-40s dancing around clownishly making faces at each other and grinning ear-to-ear can be.
The band played competently and everything sounded fairly lush. However, save for sensual song-that-has-no-doubt-soundtracked-many-a-naughty-oral-exploration ‘Taste’, and one absolute ripper of a violin solo, I could have really done without the 120-bar instrumentals on almost every song.
I got the feeling that this particular iteration of the Rhye ensemble had played together live for a good long time, and this was their way of shaking up the set to maintain interest. But their buoyant energy couldn’t quite carry them through the sheer amount of time without Milosh’s divine voice, the very thing I assume most people had come to experience.
Overall, it was a gentle and lovely experience, bolstered by Milosh’s adorably ungainly dad-dancing. Standout track ‘The Fall’ was performed entirely in the dark upon Milosh’s request, and there were some very earnest callouts for crowd participation which were thankfully returned by the audience in earnest. Hand-clapping and tender shhh-ing around me abounded, and the performance ended with the crowd singing out the final lines of ‘Song For You’ acapella. Still, it left me with no more to write home about than the previous night’s show, and the fundamental ‘why?’ still lingering in my mind.
Wednesday: Four Tet, Auckland Town Hall
But then, all thoughts that perhaps I’d be better off spending my nights prostrate, weeping softly to Whitney Houston, were quashed in one fell swoop by Four Tet. The London-based electronic musician, otherwise known as Kieran Hebden, played a two-hour live set from the centre of the Town Hall auditorium, the sizable and appreciative crowd surrounding him on all sides.
It seemed quite remarkable that an electronic set would be commissioned for something so high-falutin’ as an Arts Festival. But there seems to be an increasing appreciation for this incredible artform – and especially for Hebden, one of its most notable pioneers. Once he emerged into the Town Hall the crowd around me was in a low-level frenzy, no doubt egged on by the impressive amount of ketamine circulating. Lit by just two desk lamps, Hebden proceeded to create a brilliant two hour tapestry of blissful ambient and gritty industrial techno sounds, combined with signature samples from his own tracks such as ‘Planet’ and ‘Morning Side’.
Use of the latter during the set meant that Lata Mangeshkar’s enchanting vocal sample didn’t the mix. Instead it weaved, serpentine, in and out of remarkably disparate soundscapes over an hour of the performance. It was a masterful show, something I felt true privilege to witness. The hypnotic precision with which Hebden propelled the enthusiastic crowd through the show was incredible.
The beginning of the set felt like floating on a lilo, the soft waters of the beat lapping underneath my body, inducing it to undulate without seeming to will it to do so. The energy shifted, and I was being submerged in gentle amber waters, floating under the beat but breathing calmly, until another expert switch left me reeling, desperately treading water. There was never enough time to fully bask in the present soundscape before it changed form. The form changes were sharp and unexpected, the revellers often taking a few seconds to fully adjust their bodies, a pulsating mass of figures lapsing out of phase and then back in again.
I could at once have been in a dank Latvian basement, an opulent banquet hall, the Berlin techno den of my dreams, or my own bedroom, Hedben’s work was so transformative and mobile. One constant was thunderous bass drops which did occasionally get a little tired, but the overall finesse of the set was enough to carry the performance.
So, back to my question for the final time: why do I go out of my way to see live music? Four Tet provided me with a visceral, bodily answer to this, one much more powerful than anything Beach House or Rhye could offer. I go to live shows to allow that one tiny period of my life to produce such fervent feeling within me that it recalibrates my world in some small way, allows me to access dormant parts of myself, gives me something to hold on to. It allows admission to a thousand speckled lives of possibility, most of which won’t be realised. But it is the ecstasy of being able to momentarily fully live in this impossible fantasy that is so vital, so euphoric.
And though the elation started to recede as soon as I walked out of the Town Hall’s ornate doors, I know I had experienced something historic, even if only for myself. I know that the change it has created within me, however imperceptible, will stay with me, gently warming my body from the inside.