Flight of the Conchords, NIA, Birmingham
Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie's anti-folk television duo are superstars of comic pastiche, now the Conchords show they're also top flight on stage
Reviewed by Simon Price
Sunday, 16 May 2010
In spite of two hit HBO series syndicated worldwide, millions of DVD and album sales, and now big enough to fill 12,000-seater hangars such as the NIA, Flight of the Conchords still don't look the part, with the indie/lo-fi sensibility of the show, the zen stoner feel and the in-jokey nature of its humour.
Flight of the Conchords â€“ real version (or semi-real, but we'll come to that) â€“ are the genius double act of Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie. Half-Maori Jemaine is the nerdy, bespectacled Jeff Goldblum lookalike in a plaid shirt whose speciality is putting on super-falsetto or basso profundo voices while playing an unconvincing Mr Loverman. Bret (or "Brit" in his Kiwi accent) is the bearded pretty boy in a washed-out Silver Lions 20/20 T-shirt who specialises in pulling the mock-soulful facial expressions of the pseudo-sincere rocker.
Flight of the Conchords â€“ fictional version â€“ are an anti-folk duo from New Zealand living illegally in New York trying to break America. It's the comedy of failure; it's a subtle satire of the immigrant experience, and it's also an elongated buddy movie in half-hour instalments. But the real hook â€“ the reason why it's adored by so many â€“ is the music.
The plot premise that the Conchords are desperate genre-hoppers allows them to tackle any musical style they choose. Their pastiches are never too on the nose, executed with the subtlety and wit of men who know music inside out. The joke's always ultimately on the Conchords themselves.
We get homages to Prince on "The Most Beautiful Girl in the Room" ("You could be a part-time model ... an air hostess in the Sixties ..."); Barry White on "Business Time" ("I take off my clothes, but I trip over my jeans, and I'm still wearing my shoes ... but it's OK, because I turn it all into a sexy dance"); Marvin Gaye on "Think About It" ("Why are we still paying so much for sneakers when you got them made by little kid slaves? What are your overheads?"); a 10cc/John Waite denial song in "I'm Not Crying" ("I'm cooking lasagna ... for one"); and the charity fundraiser "Epileptic Dogs" ("There's a golden retriever that's having a seizure ...").
Regardless of the humour, these are brilliant songs. The ultimate, also unplayed, is lighter-waving anthem "Pencils in the Wind", an extended stationery metaphor which is as silly as it is genuinely touching. I actually had it played at my wedding.
Tonight, using an assortment of miniature instruments and the New Zealand symphony orchestra (who is one cellist called Nigel), the Conchords perform highlights from their song-book, expanded to include verses unheard on TV, as well as a handful of brand new tunes, raising hopes that there may be a third series after all. "1353", a medieval folk ballad about "wooing a lady" and featuring duelling recorders, is crying out for a video.
A heckle of "Where's Murray?" (a reference to their hapless manager, played by Rhys Darby) is slapped down thus: "He's with all the other fictional characters of the world ..." There's an undeniable fiction/reality continuum with these guys. Bret and Jemaine are playing Bret and Jemaine, as proven by the knowingly tedious tour anecdotes about eating muffins in the hotel (not in the Aerosmith sense). How these perennial losers ended up playing the arena circuit is a hole in the plot that has yet to be explained, but everyone's laughing too hard to care.
When they aren't laughing, they're making ovine baas. Which eventually becomes too much for Jemaine, who's clearly encountered this one before. "You think you're so clever, but you probably don't know what you're saying in sheep language."
Flight of the Conchords @ The NIA, Birmingham
May 16, 2010 at 1:30 pm (Comedy, Live Review) (Bret Mckenzie, Flight Of The Conchords, Jemaine Clement, NIA)
The venue is huge, the tickets are expensive and at the merch point, youâ€™ll be charged ten pounds for a poster. Yep, through no fault of their own, the Conchords have turned into the Metallica of comedy acts. So at least itâ€™s nice to see that thereâ€™s no huge pyrotechnics, flame jets or massive production on offer: Bret and Jemaine each walk out with a cardboard box on their head adorned with large flashing lights and launch into Too Many Dicks on the Dancefloor. Actually, thatâ€™s quite flashy for themâ€¦
It was difficult to know quite what to expect from a Conchords live show. Part of their appeal lies in the endless quotability of their musical material, but at the same time, why bother going to see them perform songs you know off by heart when you can just watch them on DVD? The simple answer is that youâ€™re in the presence of the most charming comedians in recent memory. Bret and Jemaineâ€™s dry, deadpan delivery between songs is reason enough to spend an evening in their company, an equally important component to the music on offer. Perhaps the best aspect is how they deal with the incessant stream of female screams of love, heckling, sheep noises (Jemaine: â€˜You might laugh, but you could be saying something very stupid in sheep languageâ€™) and shouts for certain songs. Just as Bret had sat down in front of a tiny drunk kit and raised his sticks to begin a song, a fan shouts out â€˜ALBI!â€™, to which Bret responded by heading over to a small piano to begin tinkling out that most famous of children television shows intros. Itâ€™s a show that lends itself to that amount of flexibility, as all they have onstage are a few microphones and a large selection of instruments, allowing them to play whatever whenever.
As the evening winds down, the lights go out towards the end of a rousing rendition of Bowie. When they come back up, the boys are wearing the most ridiculous sparkly shellsuits youâ€™ll ever see before beginning an amazingly lo-fi rock version of Demon Woman, with Bret weilding a tiny Flying V guitar and Jemaine sporting a huge white flowing scarf frozen in a comically mid-air position. The Conchords are more than happy to look a little silly for a laugh, and their charm still lies in the fact that they donâ€™t take themselves too seriously, onscreen or onstage. The only real downside of the evening is that you know all the words to all the songs, so itâ€™s down to Bret and Jemaineâ€™s credit that what could have ended up being simple, tedious performances of tunes already tattooed into your subconsciousness turned into a hilarious, charming and entertaining evening. In short, the Conchords are just as awesome in front of 10,000 people as they are on your TV screen, which just makes it even more of a massive shame that we wonâ€™t be seeing a third season of the television show featuring two of the best comedians alive today.
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