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Adam McGrath - Gig Review: Adam McGrath @ The Tuning Fork, Auckland - 18/05/2023

18 May 2023 // A review by Kev Rowland

When I first saw Adam McGrath play with his band The Eastern I came away incredibly impressed, the same again when I saw him solo, and then when I heard his amazing album Good Companions I knew I just had to see him again. It has taken until tonight for the stars to align, but here I am back at Tuning Fork, waiting for the man himself to come onto the stage. But before then, we were going to be treated to Kendall Elise – it was only a few weeks ago when I saw her last time and I said then I hoped I would be seeing her again soon, and here we are!

Last time I saw her she played solo, but tonight was accompanied by Kevin Place on electric guitar and backing vocals while she provided acoustic. She again started with Let The Night In, the title cut of her 2021 album, and while everyone was concentrating on her wonderfully inviting and sonorous vocals with her picked guitar, Kevin was adding touches and nuances in the background. He was being careful never to take anything away from Kendall, but was providing additional layers of complexity which took it to a new level. This was followed by Between Hello & Goodbye, with a funky rock ‘n’ roll introduction from Kevin who also provided some harmony vocals on the chorus. By also taking a small Bert Weedon-style guitar break he was also changing the dynamics, allowing Kendall to have someone to bounce off and play against and I am sure her voice had a much harder edge at certain times. Kevin left the stage for the next song, letting Kendall work her magic on a cover of Maria McKee’s If Love Is a Red Dress (Hang Me in Rags). This was one of the highlights for me last time I saw her, as the way she changes the attack and brings in her whistling skills really does make this one of her own, and you could have heard a pin drop in the audience as everyone was giving her their full attention. When she held the note and put her force into it, it was incredibly powerful indeed, so very different from when she is gentle and lulling.

Kirks Bush (The Long Way Around) tells us about a place near where she grew up in South Auckland, where her mum told her never to go even though it was a short cut to school. Kevin was back for this, adding much more in the way of guitar to provide some menace in the background as Kendall’s voice took on a more dynamic and edgy approach. Honest Hand is one of my favourite songs of hers, and hearing it last time in a purely solo version was quite strange, and here it felt different again even though Kevin was just adding picking as opposed to anything too dramatic. This is quite a bouncy number, and it was nice to have Kevin providing backing vocals on the chorus, and they finished acapella. The last number was far rockier, showing Kendall in a very different style again, away from the country and folk stylings into something which was traditional rock ‘n’ roll, Heart Full of Dirt. It was a belting way to end the night, and yet again I found myself hoping that I can see Kendall again soon as she is a wonderful performer with a beautiful voice and great songs.

Adam made his way to the stage in his normal quiet and reserved manner, shouting out how wonderful it was to be here, and should we have some folk music? He kicked it off with a cover, Cold Chisel’s Flame Trees, and suddenly all that existed was his voice and his guitar – this man can sing, really sing. He takes us with him wherever he wants to, never has a setlist, making it up as he goes along. This means that no-one knows what is coming next, even Adam, but that doesn’t matter as he is a man who lives to play wherever, whenever, and Crow River was extended out to way longer as he told a lengthy story. He also pointed out he was not here to win us over, but here to wear us down.

The next song was for Sam Prebble from Bond Street Bridge who we lost a while back, a truly incredible performer whose album is magical. The song, Sam and Adam's Blues, is from Good Companions, and he of course prefaced it with a lengthy story about Sam, and I only hope those who have not heard of that band will investigate it, driven on by the emotion, power and honesty in Adam’s vocals. There are few who play as much as he does, living for the stage and the road, and his stories are as much of the performance as the songs, all combining to create something very special indeed. There cannot be many who admit they stole a rabbit from a kindergarten when they were a teenager, before being shamed into giving it back, yet that was the story which had everyone’s attention before we went into Air Jordans. Adam is also a performance poet, and he then read War Brother from his book The Dogs Are Up, again capturing the attention of everyone in the venue. He has a power, honesty and passion which is so unusual in these days when everything is plastic and disposable, as this is the genuine article, a hard-working folkie with a punk attitude covered in tattoos who has really lived his life, gathering experiences few of us can imagine and then repeating them back to us.

The house lights were turned up, Adam said he was freaking up on the stage, and then he unplugged everything, and was down among the tables, being the true troubadour he is, and he even gave us a verse of Ewan MacColl’s Dirty Old Town. He then stayed down here, obviously revelling the proximity of the audience and being able to see people and their reaction, although he did apologise to the soundman who was now sat there with nothing to do! Adam has a voice that carries, as he is a force of nature, and even in a dead room we didn’t have any issue hearing him as he told the story and then sang the song of C-City Street Kid. No microphones, no amplification, just a man and an acoustic singing his heart out, and even when it became gentle and emotional there was no other sound to be heard. Emotionally this is real journey, and I do not think I have ever heard so many laughs at a folk gig, and I have been to quite a few, yet there are times when he serious as well, with a performance which comes together on the fly, depending on the reactions he is getting from the audience and where he wants to take them. Apparently I go out way too much as I was one of the few who started laughing during The Bar Lands, but I knew that already to be fair.

Adam had broken the barrier which often exists between audience and performer, which Roger Waters felt so deeply that he wrote The Wall. Adam had already achieved that long before he came down into the audience, but this is where he stayed as he needed to bring his music and his stories to the people, being at the same level and very much part of the experience. He reminded everyone he was working for us as we had paid for tickets, but so far we had let him do whatever he wanted! He then asked for requests and was asked for one of the very first songs he wrote for The Eastern, but he admitted he could not remember it so instead went into Splitters Woe, which he said used the same chord sequence as he stole from himself. By now the soundman had realised he was not going to be called on again tonight, so was sat in the audience enjoying the show, while the lights were just left at the same level and Adam gave us the story of the Cloncurry Muster before he went into Flies of Cloncurry, again from his new album, which really is a masterpiece (and the first album in 2023 which I gave full marks to). There are times when his stories are longer than the songs, but that never matters, as they are just as important as the songs, and his tale of how Jacinda sold her soul to a folkie in Christchurch was very special indeed, and in total contrast to the song which followed, The Great Society, going from laughter to thought provoking comment. He turned around so we could all cheer for more, and when he decided we had done enough we went into the singalong Hospitals, Teachers & Kids. 

Some years ago I was fortunate to be at this venue for Troy Kingi’s Holy Colony Burning Acres tour, and I never felt I would again feel the same amount of love and togetherness as I did that night, but something very special happened here tonight when the artist and audience really did become one.

Photo Credit: Kev Rowland


About Adam McGrath

Lead singer and songwriter from mythical mongrel Christchurch Folk/Country band The Eastern.

Described by influential country magazine No Depression as “One of the best modern roots acts from any country period”, by the NZ Herald as “NZ’s toughest minded songwriter” and by Radio NZ National as a “National Treasure”, an Adam McGrath show is primed and proud to reach your heart, head and boots.

A folk singer in the truest, traditional sense but one who’s songs speak to the times we find ourselves in and the people with whom we share them with McGrath has a virtual lifetime spent on the road around NZ and everywhere beyond. He sees his job as to pick up the stories he finds, siphon them down to the bone and the heart and bring them around to the next place and the next.

Visit the muzic.net.nz Profile for Adam McGrath


Dear Companions
Year: 2022
Type: Album

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