I no longer live in Auckland, New Zealand, a fact that frequently pains me. Especially when I come home to visit in the midst of a relatively bleak Vancouver winter, into a golden summer of sunshine, beaches, cricket and meat pies (all of which I'd experienced within 36 hours of touching down on NZ soil). I spent a great week catching up with old friends, but it wasn't until Friday night that I got to check in on another old chestnut, the Kings Arms.
The Kings Arms goes pretty close to being my favourite venue in the universe, not just because it is normally the best place in Auckland to see everything from local up and comers, to touring international bands that you'd actually want to see, but also because of its unique layout and antipodean charm.
Right at the front of the dancefloor, immediately to the right of the stage are a couple of glass doors which open out into an enormous, sprawling garden bar, with picnic tables and stools spread around a sumptuous lawn. There's nothing better than to wander out there between bands or before the show starts and enjoy a couple of drinks on a warm summer's evening. If you play your cards right, and undertake the correct pre-show maneouvering, you can snare a table where you can still see the stage (as long as nobody stands in front of you), which is a rare treat indeed.
The other neat thing about the Kings Arms is that the "backstage" area pretty much consists of a couple of office partition walls set up in a corner of the garden bar, but this less-than-resplendent green room means that bands often opt to just stand in the crowd and visit the bar with the regular folk during the support bands and after the show. New Zealand seems to have a weird attitude towards celebrity where any action that acknowledges fame is frowned upon. So Julian Casablancas from the Strokes could be standing at the bar next to you and all that anyone will do to recognize this fact is a barely impercetible nod in his direction (although there was the time when my good friend approached Meg White as she was leaving the bathroom to ask if she'd like to accompany him back to his place to watch Dazed and Confused - she politely indicated that while she respected it as a piece of cinema, she had other plans for the evening, and couldn't partake - she's a classy lady, that Meg.)
But anyway, I rolled up lateish on Friday night to catch the recently re-staffed (and pitchfork reviewed) Ruby Suns, and was impressed to see much of the Lil' Chief artistic roster at the front of the audience watching the Nudie Suits, which was a pleasant surprise, as I hadn't seen them billed for this show anywhere. Lil' Chief Records is an Auckland label that puts out releases from a number of local bands that specialize in a particular brand of sunny pop music, with bands like the Brunettes and the Reduction Agents the star attractions. They're a little DIY label that are doing some big things now, and there's almost an incestuous level of member sharing between the various bands, even though each group retains a unique sound and attitude. But everyone was there tonight, a quick head count revealed at least three Brunettes, a Tokey Tone, and a Reduction Agent.
The Nudie Suits, who opened tonight, are a great little 50s themed country rock band, fronted by Mark on guitar and Dionne on Hawaiian Steel guitar (and her sister, whose name I regrettably forget, on violin). They always look the part (but having encountered them at Foodtown Mt Eden (the rockandroll supermarket) I realised they always dress like that), and write witty charming country pop songs about suburban life and black comedians (a topic always close to my heart). Every Nudie Suits show is a good show, and this one was as charming and low key as ever.
The second band were Kill Surf City, who I haven't seen before (at least not that I remember), and I'll have to do them a disservice and admit that I ran in to an old friend in the garden bar between sets, and didn't end up catching too much of them. They seemed to play some perfectly serviceable laid back guitar rock, but I can't remember any particular high points or elements of interest, so I'll need to move along.
However, there are several points of interest about the Ruby Suns that are worth addressing. Like most of the New Zealand population, Ryan McPhun, (the singer and principal songwriter of the Ruby Suns) used to be the drummer in the Brunettes, and after leaving he put together a sunny eponymously-titled pop record, which had at least three pretty fancy songs on it, that used to remind of sunny summer evenings, until I used the CD as a coaster for a candle, and wrecked it. Last time I saw them, they were a six or seven piece multi-instrumental affair, but they always seemed a little bland live. This time, I was a little surprised to see that they'd stripped down to a three piece - Ryan plays the drums and the guitar, with backing guitars, bass and keys shared between the other two members. The guitar/drums combination is an interesting one that seems to be gaining some traction in NZ indie circles, I see Liam Finn (Son of Neil of Split Enz and Crowded House fame) runs a similar setup live (and I don't want to start any inter-band name calling by suggesting who started doing it first). Generally they'll start off on the drums and lay down the beat, and then loop that up using an effects pedal, and play the guitar over the top of it. It makes for some great visual chemistry, especially when they come back to the drums at various points in the song to add different elements to the loop, and I've decided that I've become a big fan of people playing the drums standing up.
Songs off the Ruby Suns new record, Sea Lion, (edit - which was recently Best New Music'd!) seem to have more of a tribal african/polynesian atmosphere to them (or it could have been the singers kaftan (and I realise that kaftan is possibly the wrong word, but it's far as my vocabulary extends, and I don't know if many of the reading audience will know what a muumuu is). The songs also sound a little more focused (at least in a live setting) and it turned out to be a pretty goddamn fun night, which was finished up with their current radio hit "Tane Mahuta", which is sung in Maori, and is about a large tree, of which I am acquainted. I was impressed to see that as soon as the band finished, someone put a record on, and the dancing started (I've been there on nights where people stand tapping their feet waiting for the bands to finish so that the real party can get started), but alas, I had commitments the next day that prevented me from partaking with the gusto I wished to.
I was also a little sad that those commitments prevented me coming back the next night to see James Milne (also ex-Brunette) play in three different bands (The Reduction Agents, Lawrence of Arabia, and Auckland's finest Paul McCartney and Wings covers band, The Disciples of Macca)
and I'm even sadder that I'll be back in Canada by the time the Datsuns and Dirtbombs play a show together. Imagine that - Cambridge's finest, who bleed garage rock when you cut them, and the Detroit collective that feature two bassists, two drummers, and a cross between Marvin Gaye and Iggy Pop on lead vocals. The afterparty for that one will go long into the wee hours, I'm sure.
Speaking of the wee hours, it was awfully refreshing to find myself still dancing to "Teenage Kicks" at 5am the next night, without being forced unceremoniously onto the streets, but that, I believe, is a story for another time.
EDIT - I just remembered a story from Saturday night that is tenuously relevant. While walking outside the casino, we ran in to a young man who looked suspiciously like Luke from the Phoenix Foundation (North American listeners may be familiar with them from the Eagle Vs Shark Soundtrack). So we asked him to wax my colleagues upper thigh, and he graciously obliged. Those New Zealand musicians are always happy to help out their fellow man.