22 Oct 2019

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  • Congress of Animals - Gig Review: Congress of Animals @ Leigh Sawmill Cafe, Auckland - 01/12/2018

Congress of Animals - Gig Review: Congress of Animals @ Leigh Sawmill Cafe, Auckland - 01/12/2018

05 Dec 2018 // A review by Steve Shyu

On a humid and rainy Saturday evening, myself and the gig’s designated photographer drove to the dimly-lit town of Leigh to check out this new band that features the Kiwi household name Bret McKenzie (from Flight of the Conchords) and his mates, Congress of Animals on their Strange Caravan tour.

I attended with very little prior knowledge except that Bret is performing with a couple of members of Fly My Pretties. What was I in for? Will there be soul? Reggae? Some rock? Will there be a cover of Albi the Racist Dragon?

I'd also never gone up to the Leigh Sawmill Cafe before, and I was surprised by the sizeably wide stage, facing an unexpectedly broad venue floor – A visually warm establishment all set in a big ol’ cabin in the woods. An array of instruments decorated the stage: A keyboard, a mandolin, a standard-sized drumset, a plethora of effects pedals, and guitars of both electric and acoustic forms. One can immediately tell the show will be eclectic in genres and styles and it should be a bit of fun.

The six congressional members took their positions, and straight off the bat, treated the audience to a blend of smooth lullaby-like vocal melodies over a slow entry of drums, with warming layers of sound to match the warmth of the venue. What a nice way to counteract the cruddy weather outside. In the thirty minutes between arriving at Leigh Sawmill Cafe and the band appearing on stage, the floor of the venue went from near-empty to packed, full of eager eyes and craning necks.

With an upbeat, country-inspired pop tune served as entree, after a quick rotation of members and swapping of instruments, the sound and style changed. It quickly became clear that making full use of the entire band’s multi-instrumentalist abilities was a theme for the night, swapping drumsticks for microphones, and exchanging keyboards for a bass guitar, and so on. As a result of the rotating personnel between songs, styles and genres shifted round and round, and the pace of the set shifted up and down. From the mellow reggae vibes of Look Out, to a waltzing blues in Bradford, and to the bold gospel-like qualities of The Well, the mixing and changing became quite an impressive and engaging feature of the band.

One of the band leaders introduced himself as Age Pryor, whom I guessed was a Fly My Pretties musician. Throughout the course of the night, all individual members of the Congress were introduced:

Ben, the dreadlocked dude who often played drums and sang with an awesomely powerful baritone voice; Justin, aka. Firefly, the bearded singer and guitarist who was absolutely superb at blues-rock solos; Nigel, the meek acoustic guitar-handler who resembled a tall Hobbit; and Deanne Krieg with the awe-inspiring soul vocals which made me shudder with amazement; then there’s Bret McKenzie on guitars, keyboards, drums and – of course – singing.

As a fan of hard rock, an easy set highlight was Astral Tumbleweed, largely a swing tune with a tempo faster than the rest of the set, pumped with oodles of mood-lifting energy, which appears to be just what the audience needed, as many grooved and bounced around to this one. At the climax of the song was a dual-guitar solo between Age and Firefly, and near the final moments of the solo there was even an Iron Maiden-like harmonised part that was particularly awesome to witness. Because of course the two dudes with long, shaggy hair would work out a solo that badass!

After rounding things up with the dramatic Burning Sun, the group bade the crowd goodnight, but before a guitar could even be set down, let alone anyone exiting stage-left, demands of an encore rose high. The members of Congress simply smiled and picked up their next instruments.

Bret McKenzie, who surprisingly said very little until this point of the night, thanked the audience and announced the next song, World Is Broken. It became obvious Bret was the primary songwriter behind this one, thanks to the tongue-in-cheek lyrics counting the ways mankind is screwing up the planet, all matched with a jovial, happy-as-Larry melody. From the back of the stage, Bret led the infectiously simple chorus of “This world is broken!”, which was sung back with smiles and great enthusiasm from many, if not the entire, venue. Ah, the irony. One is reminded of the R.E.M. lyric “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine”, but was helpless in joining in, singing the four-word refrain.

By the very end of the set, the front half of the Saturday evening audience had only just begun to warm up, ready to party, crying out for more. There was a likelihood a sizeable portion of the crowd (myself being one) came along, attracted by the neon-light name of Bret McKenzie, expecting a little more Conchord-esque songs and banter. Which, if that was the case, is totally okay, but between the stripped-back, moody, soul tunes and the complex, alternative-rock atmospheres, there was a little something in the night’s set for everyone.

I guess the group could be summed up as a tasteful, groovy, live rendition of a Kiwiana compilation CD filled with blues-rock and soul-pop ditties, made to have brunch with whilst chilling at a cafe in Te Atatu. If multi-genre journeys of experimental aural blends is your kind of live gig, then be sure to catch the next Congress of Animals show near you.


About Congress of Animals

A collective of renowned kiwi songwriters and solo artists, tracing lineage to many of NZ’s most loved bands, join forces this spring to bring you The Strange Caravan Tour.

The tour features Bret McKenzie, Age Pryor, Justin 'Firefly' Clarke, Nigel Collins and Ben Lemi, whose musical projects include Fly My Pretties, TrinityRoots and Flight of the Conchords to name but a few. This five piece ensemble now congregate to showcase new original songs in intimate live settings across the country this November and December.

Starting as a series of jam sessions between old friends, the group of songsmiths has blossomed from an ad hoc hangout to full musical partnership over the last eighteen months.

Visit the muzic.net.nz Profile for Congress of Animals


Congress of Animals
Year: 2018
Type: Album

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