live review

The Brunettes, SFBH, Wellington

The Brunettes, SFBH, Wellington

November 06 2009
The San Francisco Bath House, Wellington

Reviewed by Courtney Sanders
29th March 2010

THE BRUNETTES with support from Sarah Blasko and The Family Cactus
Friday 6th November 2009
San Francisco Bath House, Wellington

When one thinks of The Brunettes they think of innumerable amounts of people partaking onstage, usually innumerable amounts of people in a tiny venue or outdoor location of sorts and innumerable, unrelenting amounts of sun-swirling energy throughout the set. Which is why, come Friday night at SFBH on the first tour they had played since parting ways with American representation Sub Pop and releasing new full lengther Paper Dolls, their exceptionally lackluster performance entirely as a result of their own rather than any circumstantial activities was so disappointing.

There were several things working against them: but they were all as a result of decisions The Brunettes had made and therefore entirely self-inflicted. Firstly – sound. The Family Cactus and Sarah Blasko had opened proceedings and played extremely efficient sets, ripping through crowd favourites as well as newbies and generally professing an attitude of professionalism and likeable, somewhat emotionally inflicting tunes. A SFBH stalwart back from mixing Die!Die!Die! had been commissioned to man the desk throughout both sets adding to the absolutely professional air (and as I interviewed said person recently for a piece in another publication, I quote “the best thing you can do as a sound engineer is go completely unnoticed” and this was exactly the case come this show). The Brunettes therefore made a questionable decision which pre-empted a flurry of equally questionable occurances. Their tour manager, sometimes saxophonist and backing vocalist took mixing duties. Why would you have an exceptional musician and stage-presence behind the desk when he could be adding a horn section – something I would consider a crucial part of The Brunettes sound – plus vocal depth and atmosphere to the overall shindig. Backing vocals from the mixing desk? Come on. Also, you couldn’t hear the xylophones at all, leaving that DIY cutesiness that is ultimately the cornerstone of a lot of their tracks, left for dead.

To further nail that element of charmish boyhood and girlhood down into muddy depths was Heather’s fairly obnoxious attitude throughout. The ‘50’s clad, long haired ingénue of the band was sick. Did you hear Heather’s sick. OMG, Heather’s sick – did you know that? Heather is sick at this gig. She is totally sick. And so it went on, telling the crowd, the staff and anyone who would listen. Poor Jonathan Bree, trying to calm the situation by cracking lines like “oh, but you’ve got your hot tottie on stage right Heather?” the way The Brunette front people are supposed to and have traditionally heckled each other. Heather was not having a bar of it, and neither by this stage, were the crowd.

And I think the reason the crowd were having such a horrendous time ultimately comes down to one thing. Because although the sound was bad, and Heather was in a right foul mood, if the tracks had been played and Jonathan had cajoled them hard enough, they could’ve got their handclapping twee groove on quite nicely. But the tracks just weren’t there. A set consisting entirely of new album (bar one of the singles) with only ‘Boy Racer’ from the Boy Racer EP – one of their lesser known oldies – and ‘Her Hairgami Set’ from Structure and Cosmetics. No B-A-B-Y, no ‘Record Store’ – sadness ensues.

Patience started to wear thin, people stopped being charged on the door, a general banter was building as a lack of focus on the band at hand began to surface. All of this malfeance gradually turned into a discussion about what had happened between The Brunettes and Sub Pop to cause them to part ways. I’d heard through several channels that Sub Pop hadn’t provided appropriate support or representation for record releases and/or tours in the States and as a result The Brunettes were taking responsibilities in-house while exploring other options. “Nah” says an-in-the-know-person I was having this conversation with. “They got dropped”.

And I have hearted The Brunettes ever since discovering Holding Hands, Feeding Ducks – they have been my summer sound-track for almost half a decade along with almost every other release from the Lil Chief back-catalogue. Perfect sundrenched Jonathan Richman inspired ‘50’s twee pop against a Southern Hemisphere barbequed summer. It all used to fit so well together – and their concerts with the ultimate celebration of kiwi-togetherness – the Lil Chief family on-stage, sharing instrumental, vocal and general party time duties to deliver a truly memorable experience to all in attendance.

Whether it’s the fact that other Li’l Chiefers have moved on (read: Lawrence Arabia and Ryan McPhun solo careers) or something else more abstract at the heart of this bands troubles is questionable, but what isn’t is that if they had played many shows in the States at the same level as they did at SFBH that night, I would have dropped them from my roster too.

Courtney Sanders

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