|Neil Finn / Photo by Catherine P.|
San Francisco Bath House
Cuba St, Wellington
3 December 2011
Neil and Sharon Finn's new home-studio project Pajama Club has taken on a life of its own, with live performances around the world and TV appearances to boost their profile. It's not like Neil Finn needs the exposure, of course - his rock pedigree and status as one of the elder statesmen of songwriting is long established. But the music world is often wary when veteran performers decide to get their spouses involved in the business - just mention the word Yoko and any band will instantly understand. (Or, for that matter, Coco).
But it's fortunate that the familial jamming that over time has given birth to the musical career of Liam Finn and his younger brother Elroy has also now included their mother Sharon. While the injection of Sharon's bass playing and soothing vocals into the mix has added a new dynamic to Neil's music, it has also been accompanied by a strong performance in the song-writing department, with perhaps the best collection of Finn material since Neil's solo album Try Whistling This in 1998.
Touring the self-titled Pajama Club album, Neil and Sharon have been joined by multi-instrumentalist SJD (Sean James Donnelly, who wears a Badly Drawn Boy beanie and, it should probably be mentioned, is not the same person as the Sean James Donnelly who was convicted of manslaughter in March) and drummer Alana Skyring, formerly of Brisbane band The Grates, who bears a slight resemblance to Kristen Schaal and attacks her kit with a ladylike glee.
I have to admit that I hadn't actually heard the Pajama Club album when I attended the gig last night with long-standing Finn devotee Catherine, although I bought the CD today now I've heard it performed live. The album's early-80s electric groove echoes both the strutting funk of Split Enz's Dirty Creature and the art-rock of Talking Heads, and while it still permits Neil to issue his fine vocals and seemingly effortless guitar outros, Pajama Club is a pleasing stylistic side-step for the Finn brand.
My favourite audio highlight of the gig was the booming chords of Suffer Never from the 1995 Finn album, in medley with the pulsing, droning crescendo of Gary Numan's Cars. Later, in an entertaining impromptu gesture a chap in the front row of the audience was invited to play keyboard effects - well, he was wearing a Kraftwerk t-shirt after all! And the taut yelping chorus of These Are Conditions impressed too: it's a classy number both on the album and live.
In case Finn fans were worried that Pajama Club might be too obtuse or experimental for their tastes, let me assure you that this was plain and simply just a quality rock performance. The experimental touches made for an interesting and appealing sound, but the core tunefulness and command of melodic hooks that the Finn clan are famous for are well to the fore. See them live if you can, and if you can play a bit of keyboard be sure to nab a spot in the front row!
Here's Pajama Club performing with Madeleine Sami and Ladyhawke on Later With Jools Holland, 27 September 2011:
Earlier, local support act The Dreamers provided a glimpse of their contemporary soul style, with some catchy songs. Opening a show is often a thankless task with few of the audience members paying attention, but the band showed real promise, particularly Conor McCabe's lead vocals. Aside from the generic band name, a stronger stage presence and a bit more effort in the wardrobe department might pay dividends - with their baggy t-shirts and lack of stage chemistry it did look like The Dreamers were playing in their garage rather than in front of 200 people.