11 June 2017, Napier Conference Centre
Her backing band, the Hot Rockin’ Rhythm Band, shuffles into rhythmic formation with the studied deference and sharp matching suits of “authenticity” we’ve come to expect of the Mark Ronson, Dap-Kings school of Nu Soul. The playing is effortless. People are clapping the beat already and they’ve barely started. She (black beehive, A-frame dress) takes the stage, and an actual physical prickle, a thrill, ripples up your body when you hear that voice. Its flat-out firepower is, in a sense, the show. It blasts across the Napier War Memorial’s sizable conference room, through a sold-out seating of 350 appreciators, right to the very back, where I am, with no trouble at all. But it takes a lot of wind to pump that fire – you can tell, because she’s audibly quite puffed out as she fills us in, between songs, on the origins and inspirations for “Tami Neilson sings Songs of Sinners”.
The much lauded and awarded singer-songwriter certainly has the credentials to tour a show devoted to Gospel – she sang in church as a child (so did I but with little effect) and is most definitely an ardent fan. Black Gospel Music seems like an evolutionary miracle to me. How vital and subjugated African cultures embraced with such rapture and musical imagination an identification with that morbid European martyr, the “man of sorrows, despised and rejected, and acquainted with grief” and how, through its sheer libidinal power, that devotion gave birth to “the devil’s music” is beyond rationalisation, beyond explanation, wholly holy.
But, you know, now we’re used to encountering art with attendant explanation, extras, a clip-on legend, a guarantee sticker of cultural value to reassure you that even if you didn’t ‘get’ it, or like it, or maybe even feel it, it was, you can be sure, the real thing. So you get rockumentary lite illustrated by the experience. Or, if you prefer, the presentation of a style with interesting production notes. And when Tami inevitably calls for her audience to get into the spirit and perform congregation-hood, it simply reduces this music to a kind of vaudeville. “Can I get an AMEN!” (…not from this atheist corner, sister.)
Tami’s ever-competent voice is sometimes precisely the problem – it never quits, never fails, never finds a quiet hollow, it just rolls on reliably, in consummate showbiz style.
Her choice of songs to cover is always interesting, ranging from pious traditionalists like Mahalia Jackson to Tom Waits’ paranoid character study, “Way Down in the Hole”, but she often doesn’t find the voice that’ll open the fearful or vulnerable heart of the song. She connects more convincingly, when the song has a muscular rock dynamic like the menacing trudge of “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” or the ecstatic fury of “Reap What You Sew”, by Otis Rush. These were the absolute highlights. Finally, the band shakes off its affable cool and gets lost in some real intensity, and Tami ditches the history, the show and the sacred and grasps the profanity I was waiting for, because she’s the sinner I want to know.