Neneh Cherry and Rocketnumbernine – SpiegelTent, Auckland Arts Festival – 4 March 2015

Here I am queueing outside the venue, so polite for a rock n roll gig. Shout out to the guy behind me who knew Neneh Cherry did an album called Raw Like Sushi, and had a song he loved called Seven Degrees. (ah, Seven Seconds, but sure, bro).

Once inside, the room is being pumped full of hideous dry ice (aka Mr Lightingman’s fave showoff gimmick), pouring off the stage. Oh, and look, it’s completely seated. Uh oh. Let’s see how this plays out.

Neneh Cherry and her two-piece band Rocketnumbernine (clock that Sun Ra reference, kids) come on 20 mins after the advertised start time, as previous show was running late, apparently. They open with Across The Water and follow it with the title track of her latest album, Blank Project, which was produced by acclaimed electronic artist Four Tet (Kieran Hebden).

It’s all driving rhythms, pulsating bass and swirling red lights, and makes me suspect whoever booked Cherry and then decided to fill the venue with seats probably didn’t give this album a  close listen – it’s dance music, which generally makes you want to dance – NOT SIT – especially when you hear it live in all its loud, booming glory. But oh well.

Cherry introduces Spit Three Times by mentioning Churchill and his famous reference to the black dog (ie depression), and says this song is about getting out from underneath the black dog.

She quotes some political lyrics, telling us they were from The Last Poets, then grins and quotes one of their more risque lyrics, about the alleged temperature of Eskimo pussy. She tells us how great it is to see us all here, SITTING, but if we want to stand up and dance, please go ahead. It’s okay guys, Ms Cherry said we can dance.

She then launches into Weightless, one of the highlights off Blank Project, a magnificently heavyweight bass-driven monster of a tune. The ability of her two piece band, Rocketnumbernine (aka brothers Ben and Tom Page, on keyboards and drums respectively), to cook up such an intense sonic experience is really rather astonishing. They can play their arses off.

Talking to the crowd, Cherry says its some kind of cosmic coincidence that The Pop Group are also playing in Auckland tonight, as one member is the father of her first child, and some of the members of that band asked her to join them in Rip Rig and Panic, her first band, and without them, she wouldn’t be here – “So there!”

Some folks down the front cheer and yell to get her attention, and she says “Oh, you must be the cousins. This is the cousins of Ben and Tom. Pleased to meet you in this unusual way.” She  then talks about where she is in her life, saying she’s entering her 51st year, and she still feels vital – “Don’t give me no sell by date!”

The crowd really get up and groove when she plays an oldie, Manchild. Halfway thru the song she jumps offstage and raps amongst the crowd down the front.

Next is Woman, followed by another newie, Everything. “I got told if I was a good girl, good thing would come to be, but I don’t know about that….”

Neneh Set listThe guy next to me leans over and asks me if I’m taking down notes for I say no, and he says I should put it up there (the setlist). Because apparently I can be an even bigger music nerd than I already am. Didn’t think that was possible. Left the house, learned something new. Boom.

Out Of The Black gets a slightly delayed start – Neneh tells us the drummer needs ten seconds to get ready. “Come on drummie… that’s $5, $10, $15, $20…. $25… oh, you aint getting paid tonight, motherfucker!”That classic James Brown ‘fine the band’ routine. She then praises his excellent drumming. Damn, she’s funny.

The venue got insanely hot, no aircon and a delightfully humid Auckland night, but let’s face it, if ya wanna lose some weight, that’s a hell of a lot more fun than going to the gym  – and the soundtrack is way better. Neneh danced up a storm all night, cos she’s a B-Girl at heart – she can cut some shapes! She is a hugely charismatic performer, who pulls you into her world.

She tells us “We are not so tidy, but we come hard… so, we’ve arrived at the last song, Dossier.” Some of the crowd sigh in disappointment. No Buffalo Stance?

Dossier is a great pounding uptempo rhythm to close out on, reminds me of the dance grooves of LCD Sound System, and makes me recall how great that band’s drummer (Pat Murphy) was/is.

They finish, we call for an encore, and the band come back out and start a staccato, jazz-funk vibe, and I’m thinking I wonder is this is..… and sure enough, Neneh starts rapping Buffalo Stance over a cleverly reimagined take on her big hit. It’s really freaking cool.

Neneh’s live set whipped up a storm that managed to cut thru a huge chunk of her musical history, from punk-funk to rap to trip-hop, and all the while sounding utterly contemporary. It was a splendid, joyful night of brilliant music.

– Peter McLennan