Beware all ye who enter here. Up these sweeping steps and between the crumbling pillars of the once-grand Mercury Theatre, a beautiful haze of existential angst awaits. Shayne Carter is preparing to unleash his one man blues explosion, and a string quartet is about to usher SJD’s latest album, Saint John Divine, up into the heavens.
Carter prowls onstage with his acoustic guitar and launches into a set that features songs from his Dimmer, The Adults and Straightjacket Fits back catalogue. He opens with a version of Evolution that has the theatre’s English Baroque plaster detailing shaking, and then rocks some heartfelt guitar on protest song Short Change, which he dedicates to ‘the man’. It’s Shayne Carter as we’ve never seen him before – raw, rocking, and tearing up the stage like a blues legend.
Carter warms us up to many of the songs with an introduction. “This one is off the much-maligned third album,” he says of Burn it Up. “Have you read My Dark Places by James Ellroy? I wrote this one after reading it,” he says of Drop You Off. And of Seed, he says with a glint in his eye, “This is about doing bad stuff that you know is bad for you… but you can’t help it and you keep doing it anyway.” And with the addictive deep notes calling from the rolling guitar you wish you were doing whatever naughty thing he’s been up to.
He covers Jimi Hendrix’s If 6 was 9 (also about ‘the man’) before playing What’s a Few Tears To The Ocean, on which the opening notes fall like teardrops through the vast theatre. His guitar’s not always cooperative, but you get the feeling Carter could play a cardboard box and still be captivating, cool and constantly surprising.
In contrast to the spikiness of Shayne Carter, Sean James Donnelly and his band are as smooth as silk. Musicians James Duncan (guitar), Sandy Mill (vocals, percussion), Chris O’Connor (drums), Mike Hall (bass) and Claire Cowan (keys) look as good as they sound, and they sound as good as they look.
Donnelly and the dream team play the Saint John Divine album right through – accompanied by a sophisticated string quartet. An urgent swarm of strings opens I Saw The Future before jaunty keys take centre stage on Little Pieces. A cello helps build tension on Unplugged, and Donnelly sings the lyrics “everyone is happy now” with the same ecstatic tone as Brian Wilson.
Not all the songs feature strings, and they could have been a fun addition to Donnelly’s whoops and yelps on I Wanna Be Foolish (a catchy tune with lovely backing vocals), and a soaring accompaniment to Change The Channel.
We enter a parallel universe in which a small Auckland town is “a never-ending Hell on earth.” Helensville features a dystopian guitar solo and a clutch of humorously sad lyrics, such as: “no reason not to cry in Helensville. I hold back tears but they so often spill – way out here in Helensville.”
At the end of the set the audience rise to their feet in a standing ovation, and the band returns to play the twinkling Southern Lights, the wistfulBad Karma in Yokohama, the spacey I Wrote this Song for You and of course show-stopper Jesus. Sandy raises the roof with her gospel-flavoured vocals.
The band members leave the stage again and then peek around the curtain to see if people are still waiting for more. They return to playBeautiful Haze and a spellbinding Superman You’re Crying. James Duncan employs some guitar pedal wizardly that evokes the spinning of the planets – a fitting end to an evening of evocative songs that have swirled through the antique theatre like cosmic dust through space.
Kathryn van Beek
Click on any image to view a photo gallery by Tim Armstrong:
- Short Change
- Burn it Up, Straightjacket Fits
- Drop you off
- If 6 was 9
- What’s a few tears to the ocean?
- Dialling a prayer
- I saw the future
- Little pieces
- Jet Planes.
- I wanna be foolish
- Invisible Man
- Change the channel
- Through the valley
- Was I always here
- Southern Lights
- Bad Karma In Yokohama
- I wrote this song for you
- Beautiful Haze
- Superman You’re Crying