Anthonie Tonnon – Meow April 14, 2018

From the start it was a night of unique and often bizarre stage banter at Meow in Wellington. Vocalist Brooke Singer opened local support act French For Rabbits’ set by calling for 20 seconds of silence for her dads’ cat Nuggets, who passed away that day. An hour and a half later found headliner Anthonie Tonnon delivering a sermon-like speech about the monumentality of the first transmitted radio signal and the power of human connection, as his way of thanking the audience for coming out.

The openers French For Rabbits played a short set of nice ghostly folk songs. While the three-piece sounded smooth and in good voice, Brooke Singer seemed to be having a bad stage day, something she acknowledged. She missed one part of a song and forgot the words, eventually deciding to skip it all together after moments of confused talk with bandmates, while her acoustic guitar took a long time to come through the speakers. This wasn’t improved by the open awkwardness of trying to get the entire room and area around the bar to be quiet before they played a quiet song, an awkward demand from an opening act even though it’s just a case of respect. “My mood right now is very depressed” she told everyone, “but soon it’ll be happy because I’ll be off the stage and Anthonie Tonnon will be on it”.

The headliner and band struck a much different image on stage, the act strongly leaning on their carefully groomed Kraftwerk-inspired rigidity. When not playing, the bass player and drummer stayed still with their heads partially down. Tonnon himself has a theatrical and absurdist stage presence, accompanying his vocals with robotic arm movements and mimed swimming motions and dramatically using a remote to turn on some green lasers. To match this was his purposefully quirky but straight-faced stage talk, which involved leading the audience on a story imagining they’re “former minister for transport Simon Bridges” and getting everyone to raise their fists and chant “I will use technology, technology will not use me”.

True to his word, the controlled use of technology was what drove the set musically. I liked the mix between the sound of the programmed electronic drum loops and the real drum kit that often played parts over them. Tonnon juggled electric guitar and the synthesizer, either playing the keys or using programmed samples, and his voice too was strong throughout the night.

However the best musical moments came from the addition of guest guitarist Sam Taylor, first for the fourth track Lockheed Bomber and then several recurring times throughout the set. I’ve seen Taylor play many times with Nadia Reid, and just like then, his distinctive chiming style really elevated the songs he joined in on.

The other guest was Singer from French For Rabbits, who returned to the stage to lend backing vocals and coordinated hand movements to Two Free Hands, the title track from Tonnon’s latest EP and a standout of the night.

Just like the opening act however, not everything went entirely smoothly. Maybe it was just something in the air that night. Tonnon broke a guitar string, and then started a piece with the capo on the wrong fret, meaning the triggered synth samples came in in a different key.

Apart from these moments, Tonnon’s act revolved around a sense of complete robotic control and composure. It was entertaining to watch him as a performer, and interesting to hear his surrealist tangents, another part of his performer’s characterisation. However I couldn’t help but think that without these elements, the music would have done very little for me. Too often I found it difficult to engage with a kind of wash of indistinctive guitar and synthesizer pop-rock. The best pieces, like clear fan favourite Water Underground, combine a good melody with interesting lyricism, and in this specific instance a soaring guitar solo from Sam Taylor.

His quirky ideas and interesting visuals make Tonnon an immediately memorable performer, which I believe I would still feel if I’d only watched one or two songs. If the music had as much character as his stage act then it would have been a truly great gig indeed. As it was, it was just a fun bit of entertainment.

Ruben Mita.

Setlist –

  • Entertainment
  • When I’m Wrong (Was Away On Business)
  • Christopher
  • Lockheed Bomber
  • Two Free Hands
  • Old Images
  • Leave Love Out Of This
  • Railway Lines
  • Mt. Cargill
  • Water Underground

encore –

  • Bird Brains
  • Peacetime Orders

Click on an image below to view a photo gallery by Lydia Hill: