Reasons to be cheerful – Part 25

We continue the occasional series wherein Winston expounds on things that currently make him happy. And two things made Winston extremely happy this week – two new local albums. Well, part-local. Half of one band is local and a quarter of the other band.

But the band that’s only a quarter local was recorded locally. And the other one recorded just down the road. That’s local enough for Winston...

132) Swamp Thing! We overdosed on coverage of Swamp Thing’s show last weekend at Mauao Performing Arts Centre. And with good reason. Swamp Thing rock! They’ve now released their third album ‘Let’s Get Live’, a double live set consisting of a CD and DVD, both recorded at a gig at the Okere Falls Store – it’s on the road to Rotorua – in the middle of last year.

Both previous Swampies’ albums were great but this improves upon them, acting as a sort of “greatest hits” set while demonstrating what a force the band are live.

Since they’re a duo, comprising Michael Barker on drums and vocals, and Grant Haua on vocals, you would think a live album would be sparser and possibly less satisfying, but in reality the opposite is true.

Grant indeed plays guitar and sings: his voice is as strong as I’ve ever heard it and his heavy-driving funky blues chops go from strength to strength. But Michael doesn’t just drum and sing. He also plays bass keyboard, piano, and an array of tonally-varied percussion (heard to great effect on the instrumental ‘Manza’). Add in some guest keyboards from Split Enz’s Eddie Rayner, and a little drum and guitar support from Evan Rangi Pope and you have the band’s fullest-sounding album so far.

It also showcases the extraordinary material they’ve written, not just standard blues tunes but a collection of solid hook-inflected radio-friendly blues-rock songs with a style as distinct as that other blues-influenced duo, the White Stripes.

There are classic blues themes (‘Can’t Eat’, ‘Good Woman’) and a side order of socially-conscious rockers, from Grant’s environmental ‘The Reckoning’ to Michael’s ‘Genius’, a song at once prescient, catchy, and ironic with its lyric: “It doesn’t take a genius to write a three-minute pop song”.

The DVD has a couple of different selections. The camera work and editing are mundane but it’s great to see the band in action, and there’s the delightful story of Michael meeting Nelson Mandela, inspiration for the song ‘Mr Nelson’.

All in all an excellent bit of work, highly recommended.  

133) The Remarkables! You’ve got to be pretty confident to self-apply a handle like that and this veteran quartet certainly earn it. Their album of old-timey acoustic music – ‘Swinging On The Gate’ – is fantastic!

Three of the band are from Auckland: Bryan Christianson, one of the country’s top banjo players, bass player Garry Trotman – both of bluegrass band Wires and Wood – and main singer and guitarist Neil Finlay, a country blues aficionado who toured with Brownie McGhee as his harp player and has also supported John Hammond Jnr and Robert Jnr Lockwood (Robert Johnson’s stepson).

The fourth member is the local connection: Robbie Laven plays mandolin, fiddle, washboard, guitar and train whistle. And triangle. And saw. Yep, this album features a real live singing saw(!) in the closing moments of ‘You Always Hurt the One You Love’.

That song is from 1944 and it’s one of the more recent pieces. Aside from a couple of original instrumentals The Remarkables specialise in that odd nexus from the twenties and thirties where jazz, blues and country music collided.

Here we get, for instance, ‘Frankie and Johnny’, a song that has skipped across genres for decades and is equally at home with Johnny Cash, Big Bill Broonzy or a big band.

The album is a pure joy: ‘Guitar Swing’ swings, ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ charms, and a host of other elderly tunes gain fresh life from the elegantly relaxed and skilful playing. There’s even an excursion into far older music, with Bach’s ‘Minuet in G’ reimagined as a banjo hoedown.

Tim Julian at Welcome Bay’s Colourfield studio has done a great job with the sound and the cover is world class. Actually it’s all world class.

Hats off to everyone involved.

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