04 December 2008

'Everything sounds better backwards'

Liam Finn (& friends)
Scala, London
2 December 2008


(Pics by me, from Wireless Festival performance, 04.07.08)

Yes, Liam Finn is the son of pop legend Neil Finn, and the nephew of another pop legend, Tim Finn. Perhaps this meant he had a few extra helping hands and wise heads to point him in the right direction when he started out with his friends in their teenage band Betchadupa, that went on to become a talented New Zealand indie rock act. And Liam certainly had great opportunities not befalling many of his peers: I remember seeing him in 1998 when he had only just turned 15, playing backing guitar on stage for his father's gig at the Royal Albert Hall. And then he went on tour with his dad for a series of 11 acoustic gigs across Europe, according to this comprehensive Neil Finn gig list. Not bad for a teenage guitarist!

Despite having certain advantages in his music career, Liam Finn would not have attracted anywhere near as much attention as he has if it were not for his appreciable talents. Success in New Zealand and Australia was always likely, with his committed Betchadupa fanbase and the overflowing goodwill of thousands of Finn fans. But as his first solo album, I'll Be Lightning, took shape it became apparent that there was a wider interest in his material when Rolling Stone named him as an artist to watch in November 2007, and after a particularly exciting performance of the single Second Chance on Letterman on 28 February 2008, the buzz in America grew ever larger:



Liam's London concert last night occurred at the end of a frenetic 18 months of touring to support his new album, during which time he had already performed in the UK on several occasions. Al and I had an all-too-brief taste of Liam's live show when he performed a 30-minute set at the Wireless Festival in Hyde Park back in July (my video clip of one of his frenetic drum solos is in my blog report on the Festival). He's not a big name in the UK yet - fellow New Zealander Ladyhawke is far more scene-y in London at the moment. This low profile is despite favourable reviews like the Guardian's, in which he was described as 'a proper wild-eyed oddball of a man (in a good way) [who] writes irresistible songs that hum with riotous melodic invention'. Fortunately, that means it's possible to see Liam perform for a measly £13, which is just about as cheap as a decent-sized gig gets in London.

While the album is an accomplished mix of folky tunefulness and exuberant rock numbers, Liam's live shows are an exhilarating mix of creative impulses and talented musicianship, with songs veering off in unexpected directions as the fancy takes him. He performs as a two-piece with Eliza-Jane Barnes (the daughter of Aussie rocker Jimmy Barnes) who describes herself as 'a daggy folk singer at heart - but [I] like to shriek and wail very much...', and it's an inspired musical pairing. They make great use of recording loops to build a bigger sound and enjoy themselves at the same time. Liam holds centre stage and might start a song on lead guitar before setting up a guitar loop and playing duets with it, before changing his guitar settings with a foot pedal and accompanying himself on bass, and lastly rounding out the multi-instrumentalism by capping the performance with a rib-shaking drum solo while the loops play on. Barnes is the perfect foil, building sweet harmonies and maintaining the tempo with a little percussion stand (she plays a mean cowbell!) and occasionally breaking out a portable theremin for a space-age jam.

It's in these jamming minutes that Liam and Eliza-Jane provide the most inventive and lively moments of their performance, broadening the now-narrow scope of modern rock performance with a hippie sensibility of experimentation and free-forming musicianship, building loops and backwards tapes into a skilful sound collage; in one moment of stage banter between songs when Liam was wrestling with his tunings, Eliza-Jane joked that 'everything sounds better backwards'. But the material never descends into parodic self-indulgence, which is always a risk when drum solos are involved! The songs always loop back into crowd-pleasing harmonies and melodies before delving anywhere near the excesses of the musical Guantanamo of prog rock or jazz fusion.

And it's the quality tunes that stand out in the performance, elevating Liam's music above a squadron of similar indie performers. Not only is he fortunate in the heredity of his rich yet subtle vocals - once a Finn, always a Finn, it would seem - and the fortunate upbringing with access to music legends and no doubt a great record collection; Liam Finn is a gifted performer with the ability to achieve real and lasting success in the pop world.

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The main support for the evening was New Zealand band Lawrence Arabia, who impressed with their tuneful folk-rock numbers, which benefited from a well-honed pop sensibility and quality lead and backing vocals. Earlier in the evening, the whimsical experimentation of Connan Mockasin endeared with its avante-garde spirit and the good-natured squeaky-voiced daftness of songs about the futility of unrequited love for Scarlett Johansson or a sinister snake-rat hybrid known as 'The Snat', which was accompanied by a member of the touring party dressed as a mummy wearing a Mexican wrestler's mask. In a sane universe concert-goers attending a £13 gig and hearing this sort of material from a second support act would probably tear up the stage and set fire to the venue. It's a credit to Connan (who appeared later to sing I'll Be Lightning with Liam and E-J; turns out he co-wrote the track) that the opposite occurs: his set is a charming glimpse into an alternate universe. Aw bless, it's like watching your little kid brother up there...
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