Agnes Obel hails from Denmark but has resided in Berlin since 2006 wearing many hats…composer, musician and singer. To describe her music as a neo-classical barely scratches the surface of what she and her band mates created last night in Avondale.
It’s a Tuesday night in a West Auckland, at a rejuvenated neo-classical building (1915), a Town Hall converted into a cinema in the 1930s, a place in the 1970s and 1980s where Aucklanders went to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show, almost lost but reinvented by a wealthy and insane film-noir in the 2000s, a survivor of Covid and one of the best live music venues in the world. The stage is set.
Motte (Anita Clark) who describes herself self as a Violin Witch on her Facebook page, hails from Lyttelton, a creative hub of artists and a containership port. You may have already encountered her ethereal spell casting from works with such creative luminaries as the Royal New Zealand Ballet, The Renderers, The Phoenix Foundation, Nadia Reid, and Don McGlashan. Tonight, she has a short window to share her new album Cold and Liquid. She swaps between her violin and a borrowed guitar (Don McGlashan’s, but we are not supposed to know that) and an array of magic boxes at her feet. Motte creates innovatively, particularly with violin, the sound is layered (looped), delicate and at times sparse, which can at times be unsettling, but in a dark inviting way, watching her ‘construct’ and perform Plateau was a highlight.
This is Agnes Obel’s first visit to New Zealand (she has been to Australia previously), her press made much of her classical training and used the much ‘over-used’ neo-classical moniker, and this did colour my expectations for tonight performance. However, once inside (after battling the long queue outside!) the stage set up forebode a much more expansive and delicate show to come. Two cellos set either side of the stage, an analog & digital percussion set up, electric piano and a grand piano AND a very impressive array of audio-visual technology in the FoH. Then there are the birds sounds filling the room, is this all going to dovetail?
The show is sold out, there is chatter about new electric cars, builders next door, dinner parties coming up, and other such middle-class priorities, but they queue politely at the bar, and are immensely courtesy as I weave in and out down front. Agnes Obel and bandmates take their positions to enthusiastic cheers, and launch into the magnificence of Red Virgin Soil a driving rhythmic minimalist instrumental from her third album Citizen of Glass quickly followed by Dorian, a slower emotive piano and vocals closer to the Satie-inspired compositions of her first two albums.
After just two compositions, we all, I mean the audience, are aware we are at something astoundingly special, we hang on every softly spoken word uttered, watching, swaying and consuming as we are enwrapped in powerfully and carefully constructed soundscapes. Agnes’s use of dual microphones diligently conveys her ethereal voice over an ocean of piano, cello, percussion, and the subdued use of samples. Agnes is the focus of the show, but each of the other band members are artists in their own right, but tonight they work to symbiotic perfection (she does introduce each of them mindset, but no cheesy solos)
Drawing on a decade long repertoire, the group takes the audience on a 90 degree journey. It is easy to delineate compositions from Obel’s first two albums (Philharmonics & Aventine) and the latter two (Citizen of Glass & Myopia) I think Agnes and her bandmates are genuinely surprised that the audience know many of her songs, she repeatedly calls songs from 2020’s Myopia new ones, and beams brightly to the rapturous applause for the likes of Island of Doom and Familiar.
While piano and cello are constant actors in all her compositions, Agnes has gradually incorporated digital percussion, sampling and electronica into her creations. On Myopia she had a replica of a 1920s-synthesiser called a Tautonymy made, added to this, many of the newer songs have a building structure that creates emotional response crescendos dare I say an operatic or heavy metal mentality. The Curse, which would have sounded familiar to watchers of Home and Away (Yes, the Australian TV Series), brings the show to an end, to applause and ‘More More’ there are bows and group hugs, and there are two more to the audience’s delight.
Will Agnes Obel be back? She must come back! But those of us lucky enough to see her in this intimate old theatre setting have been privileged, for when she does return I predict it will be at the Auckland Town Hall or similar. Discover what you missed out on by checking out Agnes Obel – Live from Brooklyn.
Click on any image to view a photo gallery by Ivan Karczewski:
Red Virgin Soil (Citizen of Glass 2016)
Dorian (Aventine 2013)
Camera’s Rolling (Myopia 2020)
Run Cried the Crawling (Aventine 2013)
Trojan Horses (Citizen of Glass 2016)
Island of Doom (Myopia 2020)
Stretch Your Eyes (Citizen of Glass 2016)
Familiar (Citizen of Glass 2016)
Myopia (Myopia 2020)
Riverside (Philharmonics 2010)
Philharmonics (Philharmonics 2010)
The Curse (Aventine 2013)
Won’t You Call Me (Myopia 2020)
On Powdered Ground (Philharmonics 2010)
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