8 December 2018, Common Room, Hastings By Michael Hawksworth
I was standing next to a guy and asked him what brought him to this gig. “Oh I listen to them all the time on Spotify, its just really cruisey music, easy to listen to while you’re doing stuff. You can’t not like it. You can put it on in any situation when people are around and they’ll be into it.”
I’m old enough to remember a time before Fat Freddie’s Drop, remarkable as that may sound, when the brand of soul and funk inflected Pasifika-reggae jam-age they pioneered was not the default aural wallpaper of every bar and café in the country. Back in those days, the foggy ’90s, it was Café del Mar et al. Before that, Paul Simon’s Graceland. Before that Fleetwood Mac. The kinds of records you’d find in every home or hear in every place when you went out. Uplifting, hip, easy, homogenous perhaps, kind of impossible to object to – unless its to their very ubiquity. And it’s the swelling ranks of bands purveying that “roots inspired sound” since the stunning success of Fat Freddie’s 2005 album, Based on a True Story that has lead to the pejorative appellation “barbecue reggae”.
This is simplistic and perhaps a bit unfair. Much of the material so consistently toured to such large grooving crowds by the likes of Trinity Roots, Black Seeds, Katchafire, etc., is actually a winning stew of dub, soul, funk, r ‘n b and performed by players who really know their shit both in terms of their sources and their musicianship. Not only that, but they’ve forged a very Aotearoa New Zealand sound from international genres and exported it to Europe and the UK – a little dash of Antipodean sunshine ‘n optimism to relieve those inner city pressures. Of course, the trick is to keep the style fresh.
Tunes of I are definitely exponents, but they do come with a thang of their own. Of course they’re still preaching from the gospel of unity and understanding and getting blazed on a beach somewhere, and naturally there’s no less than six of them including horns. But the group’s leader, singer and guitarist, Conway Jeune, is a less predictable presence, wearing an eye-bafflingly psychedelic two piece ensemble and bearing more than a passing resemblance to ELO’s Jeff Lynne.
The band launch straight into a trudging skank, and the capacity crowd know it’s on. The groove is tight, heavy, but there’s air in the playing. Unlike the local support act, Sweetwater, superficially similar, who tend to shift genre gears from sing to song (e.g., here’s our straight-up reggae song, here’s our r ‘n b number, this is our quiet storm, etc), Tunes of I have a beautifully fluid knack of shifting through multiple genre-stylings within a single song. There’s something really quite ‘70’s prog-rock about the way they do it, not to mention the liberal and breezy use of early 70’s vibes, from Roy Ayers and Shuggie Otis’ jazz-funk to Steely Dan and 10cc’s funky FM rock.
Through it all, though, is the groove, and it knits the Common Room together and comfortably fulfils, I suspect, everyone’s expectations, whether you’ve heard Tunes of I before or, like me, not.
Here comes the summer!