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Graeme James - Gig Review: Graeme James @ The Tuning Fork, Auckland - 13/08/2021

15 Aug 2021 // A review by Roger Bowie

On a cool spring evening (spring always started in August where I grew up, down south) the Tuning Fork is nicely staged with a clutch of instruments neatly arranged in anticipation.

The modest crowd bunches up to form an intimate cluster and a familiar face takes the stage in the form of Chris/Albi without the Wolves, or at least half of them because the willowy, billowy puppet-like figure of Pascal Roggen also joins him on half a dozen instruments more commonly known as the violin. Seems like Pascal has a night free so he feels like playing. Which must mean he never stops.

Albi on his own (well, almost) allows a different take on old songs, with the acoustic coming through stronger and the voice more present, especially if Pascal’s string shimmer turns specific words into sound, in a kind of reverse onomatopoeia. Fall With You opens the set, and because I am immured in the Looking For Alaska version, this sounds like a fresh new song, when it’s just a great old original. New songs, old songs, how many ways can Pascal play that fiddle songs, friendly rivalry songs as competition drives the highest falsetto (ah, the power of competition), a same old story song and The Hundred Days song which features long-time collaborator, the man himself, Graeme James, for whom Albi & The Wolves opened two centuries ago in Canada, way back in 2019. Even a typically boisterous take on This Is War does not detract from the essence of intimacy which is this cut-back Albi. Magic still, third time this year notwithstanding, and a fourth opportunity next month with Jackie Bristow. Ubiquitous Albi whets unquenchable thirst.

Graeme James is a man clearly comfortable in his own skin. Comfortable in sharing his tradecraft, comfortable in opening up his heart though his lyrics and his stories, comfortable in crowd banter, comfortable in complexity, frailty and error. Comfortable. But also deep; deep in the mysteries and meanderings of the human psyche, deep into historical significance, and deeply into the weather.

Hence his current work which embraces the seasons as a metaphor for life, inspired by the clarity of seasonal distinction which one enjoys in the Northern European hemisphere. Four EPs recently released on digital services, but yet to be seen in physical form, with the most recent being a paean to summer. Field Notes on an Endless Day was reviewed by this writer on Muzic.net.nz, so you can read it and be spared any repeat of biographical detail. Let me just add that Graeme James joins an illustrious cohort of ex-buskers who have conquered the world by elevating their sound from the street to the stage, in some cases the biggest of stages, using the genius of the loop to redefine the tradition of the one-man band. Just ask Ed.

Tonight, he starts with summer, possibly because he wants to end with spring, and a song from the Summer EP, The Wild. But before we get the song, we get the prep, a meticulous stacking of the rhythmic components, caught by the Loop, and voila! the magician reveals his trick, and the art of constructing and producing the product called song is laid out before us. Like a master chef baking a cake, the base is an overlaying of variations on a theme, awaiting the icing of lyric and melody. The song as layer cake. It’s methodical, somewhat repetitive, but its live – where’s that spatula, where’s that spoon, where’s that capo (behind you!!!), where the fuck is that tune?

Once you get used to this approach two things become apparent: mix in the story behind the song, create anticipatory expectations and attention to subtle shifts in rhythm (bass, drum, violin, ukulele, guitar, maracas, tambourine), personify the tension and the stress (why didn’t I write this down?) deliver the lyric and the melody (oh, the relief), and this is a show, not a concert. Secondly, as alluded to earlier, great thought and introspection goes into each theme. The song as philosophical poetry. Complexity in 150 words. Deep.

Not always. Summer is wild, it’s about road trips, being found by love, but it’s also about taking field notes on the subject of an endless day. In an ideal world, summer never ends. Life is perfect.

Autumn screws it all up. Everything dies in an explosion of colour and defiance and intensity. That’s the thing about seasonal change: intensity. Rage, rage against the changing of the light, to bastardise Thomas. And the thing about autumns in the 2020's is the disturbing notion that the metaphor extends to existential proportions. Has the world reached autumn? An autumn of lies?. Where post-modernism and political gangsterism have unwittingly formed an unholy alliance in the perversion of truth. Everyone’s personal reality is valid and just another version of the truth. And if that doesn’t suit, there are always alternative facts and fake news. The song is The Difference. “I just want the truth to make a difference”

Aha, this is not a new song, it’s an old song, I discover as I explore the Graeme James back catalogue on repeat. Tonight’s seasons are drawing from all his work, not just the new. The metaphor has pedigree.

Another autumn song, he doesn’t share this one, I’ll call it Autumn Mystery, because this is folk music, once the song is out there, it belongs to everybody, notwithstanding futile concepts like copyright.

Autumn is also about mid-life crises, and the song is not the Dylan The Times are Changing. Cook up a chorus, engage the audience to sing along, flattery gets you everywhere. We’re hooked. We’re singers in a band, we’re part of the show…

Oh shit, it’s winter, what to do when everything is dead? Think about your last day on earth. Life exists only in the context of our mortality. “In a short time this will all be a long time ago”. No Memories of Tomorrow. Try going deeper than that!

Well, you can’t, it’s too depressing. Let’s use winter to reflect on courage against all odds, and faith in the hereafter, it’s the only way to get through it.

And so, lovers of history, let me (Graeme) take the time to tell you the story of Ernest Shackleton, a tale so tall it defies belief, except it is summarised in Wikipedia, so it must be true. And there are books written, indisputable facts, that’s the nature of books, and the song is The Voyage of the James Caird, which is a lifeboat.

And then let me take you to the goldfields of Otago, where Pascal comes on stage to join me in a gospel stomp, because the only way out of the mud and the mire of winter in the Central Otago goldfields is to go Way Up High with the audience joining in like a good old Southern Baptist hoedown.

Of course there has to be a happy ending, because there’s one more show the next night, and spring is in the air, if not already here, as I (the writer) do contend. Alive is the song, and optimism in the strength of humanity and the human condition is the only way forward.

Graeme James writes hook-laden folk songs that make you think. And dance. And stomp. And survive against the indomitable odds of four seasons in one life.

Matthew does a grand job on sound, and the Tuning Fork is as always a warm and endearing place to be.

Photo Credit: Steve Bone
Albi (solo) with Pascal photo gallery
Graeme James photo gallery


About Graeme James

Folk singer-songwriter Graeme James didn’t decide on a life in music until it seemed his very existence depended on artistic gifts. In 2012, circumstances outside his control essentialized his life and he found himself sleeping in his car and busking by day to get by. There and then he made the fateful decision to leap into the unknown and pursue a life as a professional musician. Now, four albums in, the New Zealand artist is firmly entrenched in this life path. Yet, he remains reflective of the emotional and physical transience of the path. In the 6 months before relocating to Europe in mid 2018, Graeme recorded his latest album, The Long Way Home. His Nettwerk debut is a warmly insightful, lushly layered modern folk album.

“This album has a calm-before-the-storm perspective. It was written before leaving New Zealand when I felt like had no idea what the future held which was both terrifying and exciting. Uncertainty definitely makes for good songs,” Graeme says with a good-natured laugh.

Graeme is a critically-acclaimed artist rooted in folk’s rich storytelling and musical traditions. He furthers the lineage with an imaginative textural approach in which he carefully crafts multi-instrumental soundscapes. Graeme’s dynamically layered compositions feature him playing violin, electric violin, guitar, bass, baritone ukulele, mandolin, harmonica, percussion, and beatboxing. He produces his own albums, and he faithfully recreates his textural tunes live in real time with a loop pedal. To date, Graeme has issued a pair of endearingly quirky cover albums; a record of all originals; and now, his first label release, The Long Way Home. Graeme’s self-released debut album, News From Nowhere (2016), has garnered awards and critical acclaim back home. He is one of New Zealand’s most streamed indie artists, and his shows regularly sell out. Graeme’s total Spotify plays surpass 20 million, with most of these streams coming from outside of his native New Zealand.

Visit the muzic.net.nz Profile for Graeme James


The Long Way Home
Year: 2019
Type: Album
News From Nowhere
Year: 2016
Type: Album

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