Greg Fleming & The Working Poor – Wine Cellar November 2, 2017

Greg Fleming and The Working Poor held the release of their ninth album, Working Poor Country at the Wine Cellar in Auckland last night, to a crowd that was thinner than me. It was a crying shame there were not more people in attendance, as Fleming showcased ten songs, (from albums past and present), that demonstrated an admirable songwriter in solid form.

Opening proceedings was Fleming’s long time friend Dom Blaazer, whose songs were melodically reminiscent of a Therapy-era Loudon Wainwright, though without the bite or humour. Blaazer has a wonderful voice, and he bore a confident stage presence and delivery that defied the numbers in attendance: he performed the material as though playing to a much larger crowd, and it would be easy to imagine him charming a whole vineyard, much less the sparsely populated Wine Cellar in which he found himself. Accompanied by a cellist, a pianist (who also doubled on muted trumpet), and a tight backline, Blaazer’s songs of love lost and found, (then found and lost), soared and swept gently through an appreciative crowd.

Greg Fleming and his band of (nominally) Working Poor burst out the gate with Headlights, a four-chord blues rocker that sets the tone well. A brutish slide guitar pushes the ricochet riff, helping to add vital texture to what could otherwise have been a smorgasbord karaoke band tune, a walk-in-the-park affair. This band, fortunately, has some serious chops, and to their enormous credit, don’t go in for any of that MOR, extended “blues” jamming nonsense. These lads keep things tight.

Fleming and his band move on from here to the more sedate, country pace of One Thing, before showing us what Chris Isaak might sound like if he spent more time in West Auckland on Flew In From Vegas. For a brief moment on this number it sounded like Dave Long stepped in to smash out an incongruous guitar solo too. I was beginning to really like what was going on here – the band is not afraid to add unexpected textures to familiar song forms, and the pay-off is that a song you thought you’d heard a thousand times can surprise you yet.

Life Is Short channelled Gomez, feeling fun but not frivolous, and it lived up to its name. Short song’s a good song, right?

From here the band took a brief respite, allowing Fleming to fly solo and show us why Townes Van Zandt was once so effusive in his praise of his song-writing. Only Girl I’ve Ever Loved proves at least that Fleming has listened to Nebraska and absorbed its pathos, the sound raw, giving a sense that whatever, or whomever, inspired it is still keenly felt.

Memory & East follows, a song he wrote for another artist and arrives as the obligatory emotional lull in an otherwise charged set. Fleming nevertheless delivers with conviction a painfully derivative sentiment – it’s not bad, but not essential. Perhaps because it was written for someone else, and done so in ten minutes by his own admission, that it felt like the odd one out in this set. The band returns for Last Names and its great to hear them contribute beautiful vocal harmonies on this track, filling the spaces around Fleming’s more direct, fibrous tone.

Broken Lights New Mexico breathes from the air around Mount Knopfler, circa 1985, and in the best story-telling tradition leads the audience on a tale of the sad, the lonely, and the gutter-dwellers looking at stars.

The rhythm section propelled the songs tonight with the compactness of a small block engine, and this drive helps to sustain what could otherwise be described, if you squinted, as derivative, ‘alt-country’ fare. There’s nothing new on offer here, but that’s no bad thing: the songs are very, very good, and the band is clearly having fun with the material. The drummer betrayed his rare misses with a good natured grin, as all drummers should – life is too short, as are gigs, to take small fluffs too seriously.

This good grace, the fun you could see they were all having up there, made the songs stronger, and ultimately it made no difference as the rest of the band were there to carry the pulse, the energy, to serve the song and the songwriter. The gig was a solid showing. Ten competent and confident country rock songs that revealed a talented, fat-free story teller. The band played like they were performing to a crowd of thousands, and I went home knowing I had heard a song-writer that demands repeat listenings, that I had heard songs I want to hear again, to explore in more depth.

Thom Rutten

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