OooooooooooFlight of the Conchords hit crowd turbulence at live show
What was true of the "Flight of the Conchords'" second season on HBO was true of their Tuesday concert at Chicago's Arie Crown Theatre as well. Though both had their high points, I was ready for them to be over when they were over.
Actually, I was ready for the concert by the New Zealand comedy-music duo to be over before it was over.
It's easy to list the best parts: the guys doing their unsexy dance moves after they left their chairs and sang "Sugalumps" at the edge of the stage ("Stop objectifying me!" Jemaine Clement shouted as he gyrated); the strangely compelling, even elegiac rendition of "Bowie"; and the jaunty version of the gleefully silly "Foux de Fafa," which is never not funny. Don't ask me why a series of French phrases ("Jacques Cousteau!" "Soup de jour!" "Menage a trois!") punctuated by Charles Aznavour-style growls is hilarious, but it always is.
(Another high point: The opening set by Eugene Mirman, who has a small recurring role on "Flight of the Conchords." At the end of his set, musicians Jon Langford and John Wesley Harding came out to sing a folk-song version of Mirman's hilarious rant against his least favorite airline.)
During the Conchords' set, Jemaine's gravelly baritone gave the "Space Oddity"-era tribute that is "Bowie" sonorous yet humorous intensity, and he brought down the house when he announced that his rapping on "Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymenoceros" had made the ladies in the first three rows pregnant ("Congratulations, [expletives]!").
Bret McKenzie, who is normally even more laconic than the very laconic Jemaine on the HBO show, is a sight to see when he becomes animated, as he did during "Foux de Fafa," the Conchords' classic "The Most Beautiful Girl (in the Room)" and "I'm Not Crying," which is about those times when you're not upset, but for some reason, your "eyes are just a little sweaty."
But the real tension of the night came not from the songs, a good number of which were either unmemorable new songs or mediocre Season 2 numbers, but from the way Jemaine and Bret alternately riffed off the crowd and showed their disdain for its tendency to shout at them. You never knew whether they were truly annoyed or amused -- much of their show, after all, revolves around misunderstandings and minor annoyances. But I'd venture to guess there was some real irritation underneath the deadpan Kiwi cool they're known for.
The concert took on the air of one of the show's famous "band meetings," which are usually high points of their HBO program, a comedy about a fictional version of the Conchords trying to make it in New York. On the show, Rhys Darby plays Murray, the duo's comically clueless manager, who hates chaos so much that he takes meticulous attendance at every band meeting. I didn't quite expect Bret or Jemaine to whip out Murray's ever-present clipboard at the concert, but I bet they wanted to from time to time, in an effort to keep a firmer grip on the agenda.
It was certainly a change from their mellower 2008 concert in Chicago, which was at the much more intimate Chicago Theatre. The Arie Crown is a punishing barn of a space (and when the band got loud, the acoustics were tinny and very unpleasant). And this time, there were more than 4,000 spectators in the crowd, a fair number of whom wanted to personally communicate with the guys.
To write that Bret said, "That's a terrible heckle" after someone brought up swine flu as the duo introduced "Think About It," their "issues" song, doesn't convey the fact that it was said jokingly (I think). Earlier on, Jemaine said to another would-be conversationalist, "Just because you're loud doesn't mean you make any sense."
A deadpan look and the Kiwi accent defused whatever might have been confrontational in that sentence. But despite their adept handling of the crowd (and their excitement at receiving a fan-made Conchords portrait on banner made of silver cloth), you had to wonder if the audience interactions interrupted the flow of between-song banter, which can be the best thing about the Conchords' live show.
This tour, the Conchords shared the stage with the "New Zealand Symphony Orchestra." That's actually a guy named Nigel who played cello and some other instruments, and he was a wise addition: The songs sounded fuller and richer and Nigel's accompaniment allowed Bret and Jemaine to focus more on the comedy of the show.
But the most perplexing decision of the night was to play "Demon Woman," an unexceptional Season 2 song, as an encore. Where was "Business Time"? "Robots"? "If You're Into It"? (I can just hear Jemaine saying, as he did on Tuesday, "We're not a jukebox.")
I found myself wanting to hear those songs, and wishing that the Conchords' fame, and the venue, were both smaller. Intimacy suits this band, which isn't about the big rock gestures -- they're about self-deprecation, clever wordplay and goofing on the idea of big rock gestures.
"They were better before they got big" is the most cliched thing you can say about a band. The weird thing is, I wonder if the Conchords themselves agree. Comments
FYI, the "issues" song is "Think About It", not "Inner City Pressure".
Posted by: fotc fan | Apr 29, 2009 12:29:14 PM
I looked for you at the concert but didn't find you! Did you go with Jeffster or Crucifictorious? Overall, I enjoyed the concert more than you. The new songs were definitely not memorable, but Foux da Fa Fa and Bowie more than made up for them for me. Granted, I couldn't get tickets to the Chicago Theatre show so I don't have a comparison.
Slight correction -- their "issues" song is "Think About It" and not "Inner City Pressure," which happens to be one of my favorites (Hey man, I just want some muesli). I was disppointed it didn't make the cut last night.
Posted by: Madge | Apr 29, 2009 12:50:44 PM
I'm glad I saw them last year instead. Would love to see that piece of fan-art, though!
Posted by: Diane | Apr 29, 2009 1:15:43 PM
In many cases, you're right, "they were better before they got big" is an annoying, trite thing to say about a band that in reality says more about person saying it, and the misguided way he/she derives enjoyment from liking a band before they got big.
Screw that, in ALL cases you're right. But there's the thing -- the Flight of the Conchods are not a band.
The FOTC are a a comedy act, and yes, it makes a difference. You go to see comedy to be made to laugh. Laughter more often than not comes from surprise -- the more the act surprises you, the more entertained you are. At a rock concert, if the band surprises you once or twice with a rare cut or an interesting cover choice, that's great -- but what brought you there was your expectation to hear the familiar. When you sing along with your favorite band, it's an homage. When you sing along w/ Bret and Jemaine, you're stepping on their gags. You don't go to a comedy show thinking "I hope he tells this joke or that joke" -- why would you go to a show where you figure you'll know the punchline to every joke?
See, the big "joke" of Bret and Jemaine's act no longer makes sense when they're playing to a packed house of FOTC fans. Their act is predicated on the fact that they were an odd little out-of-place curiosity -- but at least in a comedy club, the understanding is that we're supposed to laugh at these people when their sultry slow jam is about brushing their teeth as foreplay, and their "issues" song displays an obvious lack of understanding about the issues. They're setting themselves up as objects of mockery -- and that just doesn't make sense when you've got thousands of screaming fans in front of you.
Also, in comedy, you shout at the stage when the act is lousy, and your intent is to heckle. The comedian's appropriate response is to heckle back, in an amusing way. Now, personally, I don't understand why people feel the need to shout things out to the bands they like at concerts, but they do, and for some reason the convention is for the band to act amused and a little embarrassed by it.
So the problem isn't so much that the FOTC got big, it's that they got decontextualized, and now they're not allowed to act like comedians and their audiences are full of people who don't understand how to go along with the joke. I imagine it's immensely frustrating to them when people shout out songs for them to play, when they should be listening for new jokes in the banter. I imagine they want to shout at the audience "you're doing it wrong!" I know I would. I mean, imagine how, say, the Kings of Leon would feel if they showed up for a concert, and everybody just sat in their seats, listening intently to the lyrics, hoping to be made laugh?
Posted by: Knid | Apr 29, 2009 1:37:08 PM
From what I've seen of other concert writeups, the guys tend to mix up the setlist each night. Here in Atlanta, they didn't play "Hiphopopotamus" or "Foux", but we got "Business Time" and "If You're Into It". The list was too heavily reliant upon songs from S2, though I suppose bands do typically play stuff from the new album. We also got Kristen Schaal as the opener, and she was just delightful. Otherwise, your show sounds quite a lot like ours, down to the obnoxious (and embarrassing to the rest of us) hecklers shouting out requests for every possible song.
Posted by: Alanna | Apr 29, 2009 1:54:06 PMSource