14 April 2018, Sitting Room Session, Haumoana Hall By Rosheen FitzGerald
On Saturday night a crowd is gathered outside Haumoana Hall – in itself not an unusual sight, as it’s the venue of choice for local shindigs. But tonight, a little known, heretofore ignored peculiarity of zoning laws leads to the covered outdoor area becoming the designated BYO bar, the inner sanctum preserved for musical appreciation. The hallowed interior has been gussied up with charmingly cobbled together accents – bunches of cloth hydrangeas hang from the walls, uplighters straight from someone’s sitting room act as house lights, and socially awkward sunflowers – they look in every direction but face on -complete the aesthetic. There’s cups of tea and cakes, baked by Jamie McPhail himself, with the same love and attention he puts into all that he creates. Mike Heynes’ projections of painstakingly created model towns, filmed via spy camera, cast a Wes Anderson-esque patina on the evening, the gilded swan boat guided by a yellow capped gnome adding just the right amount of whimsy. Old school benches provide the seating, with standing room only at the back for this sell-out show.
Performers eschew the stage in favour of setting up right down on the crowd’s level, this is a homecoming show, and these are their people. Veins of sepia tinged nostalgia run through the singers’ words, as well as their music. Reminiscences of parties on Shrimpton Road, and being ejected from this very hall for youthful transgressions feature. Indeed, a significant section of the audience is made up of parents of childhood acquaintances, who tended their scraped knees, dried their tears and provided endless cheese toasties in another lifetime, and have returned to bask in the glory of local kids made good.
Plain faced in an understated vintage trench coat, frontwoman Ebony Lamb introduces the opening act. Rosy Tin Teacaddy are a ‘post-folk’ pair of onetime Hawke’s Bay locals relocated to Paekākāriki. With buttoned-up shirt collars, sporting a bushy beard (him) and femullet (her), they fit the country archetype. Dreamy, harmonious melodies evoke an air of frustration and disappointed love that touch on topics as relatable as reneging on a promise to chop firewood. We are treated to the first public airings of several new numbers – testing out material on the folk back home – that are polished and poignant.
The main event, presented in two acts, is announced with a tongue-in-cheek, ‘Welcome to the Ball’. They’re clearly tickled to hold court in a location so soaked in childhood memory. It’s a sultry slow set, replete with emotion of which the eponymous Eb is a master. The boys at her back build a rich tapestry of sound, woven with percussion (all the drums), strings and horns. There is an easy communion between musicians, adding touches of improvisational flair to the tight accomplishment of their third studio album, Seeing Things, as well as drawing on their earlier works, and a couple of carefully selected covers. Toes tap and hips sway but word has it we can’t compete with the free-spirited Nelson folk, who purportedly danced from the first. The exceptions are three generations of Ebony’s female kin who whirl and reel in the aisle, prompting an auntly, ‘Calm the Farm’ from the pulpit.
It’s a whole hearted musical offering that expands to fill the space it inhabits, a celebration of the gamut of bittersweet feeling that takes comfort in the depth of its sadness. There’s room for joy too, particularly when Chris Winter breaks out the brass, lifting the lid on the tension so expertly cultivated by complex confluences of guitars. All is bound together by Ebony’s honey-over-thunder vocals, which, in their peaks and troughs, hold the audience in her thrall to the very last note.