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  • French For Rabbits - Gig Review: French For Rabbits @ The Tuning Fork, Auckland - 13/05/2022

French For Rabbits - Gig Review: French For Rabbits @ The Tuning Fork, Auckland - 13/05/2022

15 May 2022 // A review by Kev Rowland

So it was back to The Tuning Fork for the first time in quite a while. I am struggling to remember the last time I was there, but possibly it was for Dragon, which was well over a year ago. Coming into the venue I was rather surprised to see it set up as fully seated with low and high tables, but this provided a really intimate feel for a show I had been looking forward to for quite some time. It was also nice to be able to catch up with Penelope Esplin before the show, as we have been chatting on Messenger for quite some time regarding both French For Rabbits and Grawlixes, and it was lovely to finally meet in person.

Before coming out tonight I had undertaken some last-minute checks and I was rather surprised to see there was a late change in support acts with Fables no longer playing. It turned out that she was unwell (get better soon), and it must be said that COVID does appear to be ripping through Auckland bands at present, as a few of us had been trying to find someone to play on Saturday night for a different event and many of them were in the same position. This meant that I was being given the opportunity to see Jazmine Mary for the first time, who admitted before the show that they were somewhat frazzled as they had only just been asked so was not as prepped as they should be.

Still, they was not going to let anything get in the way of providing a strong performance, and right from the opening of Skeleton they had the audience entranced. With just some reverb on their vocals and their picked electric guitar, they then laid bare their soul in a way which is quite different to most solo performers I have come across. Jazmine performs folk noir, which means incredibly emotional vocals sung in a somewhat lower register than one might expect, with leaps of style which has more in common with punk at times. Feelings of Marlene Dietrich and PJ Harvey came to mind, and it was almost as if they were taking elements of the Dunedin sound and taking it in a whole new direction. It was compelling and entrancing, with a huge sense of melancholy. This came through particularly well in Rodeo, a song they dedicated to a friend whose birthday it would have been that day, and one could really feel the sense of loss and grief.

Watching Jazmine perform is a strange experience as there are times when they appeared completely vulnerable, exposed, and naïve, and others where it is clear they are in control of everything taking place and full of confidence. They ended with Move Me, which felt as if it was deeply entrenched in the late Sixties and not in modern music at all. This was a fascinating set from a quite unique artist, and although this was the first time I had come across their music I am sure I will be hearing a lot more from them in the future.

Soon it was time for FFR, whose The Overflow album is one of my favourites from last year and one to which I often return. They set the stage in a somewhat unusual manner in that Brooke and Penelope share the centre of the stage with their keyboards, guitarist John is to the side of Brooke, almost off the stage, drummer Hikurangi is hidden at the back, while next to Penelope is additional singer Letitia with bassist/guitarist/vocalist Ben to the side of her. The reason for having Penelope right at the front next to Brooke is soon apparent, as many of the vocal lines are dual, and while it is Brooke who is the lead Penelope can often be seen and heard providing the support and depth which adds to the ethereal beauty.

They kicked off with The Weight of Melted Snow, which was a lovely introduction to their music with Brooke providing vocals and acoustic guitar and Penelope additional vocals with the rest of the band offstage. With multi-instrumentalists in the band, it means they can change the dynamics for different songs and during the night we would see people swapping instruments, and even leaving the stage. Everyone was onstage for The Dark Arts which saw Penelope pick up the bass so two guitars could be utilised. This song is a real builder, incredibly dramatic and atmospheric with powerful accompaniment in stark contrast to the ethereal vocals which are so important to their overall sound. Brooke has a clear emotional voice which cuts through, and the vocal arrangements are key to the overall sound as there are times when it is just her, or her and Penelope, then Letitia is also adding parts as well. If that were not enough there is also Ben, who often sings in a higher register to blend his voices in with the others, but there are others when he drops into a sweet tenor which provides a delicate contrast to the female sounds.

Just two songs in and I was in absolute awe of what I was seeing and hearing, and that feeling only continued throughout the night. One of the most special gigs I have ever seen in NZ took place in this very venue on Troy Kingi’s Holy Colony Burning Acres tour when it was filled with aroha, and tonight the sound was everywhere and everywhere was the sound as we were transported to some magical place with the spell only being broken when a song finished. Looking at my notes I can see at one point I wrote “transported and transfixed”, which really does sum it up. Penelope and Ben kept swapping what they were doing, and Middle of the House was nothing short of a masterpiece as it switched through different sections, a progressive folk classic moving in so many different directions.

After that it was almost as if we needed a breather as we awoke from what had been happening in front of our eyes and ears, and Brooke must have felt the same as the men left the stage to the three ladies who performed Money or the Bag with just an acoustic guitar and those wonderful harmonies. The three of them kept going with Leech, with Brooke now on piano, and it was again an enthralling performance as the vocal arrangements carried us aloft. Everyone was back for Walk the Desert and it felt like we were being given the opportunity to see so many different facets with the band shifting styles, instrumentation and even personnel. A real highlight of the evening for me was Ouija Board, which is undoubtedly one of my favourite songs from the album, and now they were a quintet with Letitia leaving, Penelope on electric guitar and Ben on bass. This is more spacious and jagged than much of their other material, so sharp that one could be cut by the notes as they go floating past. It is psychedelic, folky, poppy and simply glorious all at the same time.

They finished with The Other Side, but even after 10 songs there was no way the audience was going to let them leave and they came back for two encores. This was a truly magical evening, a very special event indeed, and one I feel incredibly honoured to have witnessed. Here we are in May, and this is certainly my gig of the year so far, as this felt much more than just a musical experience. The tour may have finished, but if you ever get the opportunity to see French For Rabbits play then you need to take it with both hands, as they are something else. Until I see them again I will keep playing their music, but I know I will see them again, as bands like this are rare indeed.

Photo Credit: Chris Zwaagdyk / Zed Pics


About French For Rabbits

Hailing from New Zealand, haunting dream-folk duo French For Rabbits have been quietly building a reputation for their sad yet brave songs. Since releasing their debut EP Claimed By The Sea in March 2012, they have gathered a dedicated fan-base around the globe with handwritten letters and home-assembled albums.

The authenticity of their songs and their engaging live shows has resulted in student radio play in New Zealand, support in the UK from BBC 6 presenters Gideon Coe, Tom Ravenscroft and The Shed’s Mark Coles, and a nomination for Best Folk Album of 2013 for the New Zealand music awards. They have also received funding from NZ On Air for a single and video due out later this year.

Brooke Singer, who is the fragile voiced songstress and writer for the duo, began performing with guitarist John Fitzgerald in 2011. Determined to overcome an acute fear of singing in public, the pair shifted to Wellington from their hometown of Christchurch and set about tentatively performing at an intimate open mic at a local café. They have since toured nationally in New Zealand, and played alongside the likes of Jess Chambers, Darren Hanlon and Tiny Ruins.

Visit the muzic.net.nz Profile for French For Rabbits


The Overflow
Year: 2021
Type: Album
The Weight of Melted Snow
Year: 2019
Type: Album
Buy Online @ Mightyape
Year: 2014
Type: Album
Buy Online @ Mightyape
Claimed By The Sea
Year: 2012
Type: EP

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