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  • Tami Neilson - Gig Review: Tami Neilson @ St. James Theatre, Wellington - 06/10/2023

Tami Neilson - Gig Review: Tami Neilson @ St. James Theatre, Wellington - 06/10/2023

09 Oct 2023 // A review by Tom Langdale-Hunt
It’s one thing to experience an increasingly rare high-attendance Rock n Roll Revue, but it’s another thing entirely to have been successfully transported into a time period decades before your existence.


In a freshly renovated St James Theatre, Tami Neilson’s Rock n Roll Revue marks my first time back in the lush venue since my childhood – an experience that somewhat lines me with the rest of the crowd in association to these songs and performance style.

At 24 years old, and save for a few children in accompaniment, I am the youngest in the audience by quite some margin. Amongst a sea of whitening hair, I appear out of place, and yet I feel right at home within the clasp of this exalted rockabilly, the very likes of which my family would go to great lengths to expose me to when I was younger. This is a throwback in every sense, and the vibe of the audience is unmistakably nostalgic, eager for a trip back in time on a Friday night out.

The night begins with a brief performance from The Up-Doos, in line with how (as I understand) these revues would traditionally begin in their heyday. The Auckland-based female trio took to the stage with confidence, their matching chequered dresses complimented by a tuxedo-clad band against a purple-curtain backdrop and rowed feature lights. Soaring through standards that can be enjoyed by anyone aged cradle to grave. It’s My Party, Be My Baby, These Boots Are Made for Walking, each singer demonstrated their incredible power and range.

The St. James Theatre opened in 1912, which is ludicrous to think that this is closer to when these songs were written than they are to now. The Up-Doos shone through the classics with synchronization, banter, and charm, much to the excitement of the audience. My greatest fear in this setting would have been in a kink in its greatest strength, which was the nostalgia itself. It would be easy to play such a wealth of sentimental songs to be met with snobbery in how it should be performed, sparked with one audience member exclaiming repeatedly that it was “too loud” (it wasn’t), however, the Up-Doos seemed to ease my concerns as the attendees stomped and swayed in their seats to the lively performance. Any twang of a Kiwi or Australian accent is quelled with the smooth inflictions and inspiration of American soul of the era, furthering the themed authenticity.

Notably, it was a delight to see Esther Stephens participate in this trio, having last seen her in the role of Kate Sheppard in the sublime musical That Bloody Woman, a performance where I initially became aware of her finesse and no-nonsense presence, which was very apt in a night of entirely female-led music.

With no break, the trios set concluded, pulling their microphones stage left into a backing singers position to make way for the rock n roll hall of famer herself – the incomparable, Dinah Lee.

Last touring the country in 2007, Dinah is beaming at the reminder that she is once again taking to the stage in the city that she now calls home, commenting “that’s a long time between drinks, isn’t it?”

Along with everything else, her comedic timing is impeccable. She is clearly not afraid to poke fun at herself and the absurdity that she is still in the game. As with any performer in their golden years, we’re reminded that this brings a wealth of not only experience, but tales and memories that are to be cherished and shared. She has had the pleasure to play alongside Johnny O'Keefe, as well as Ray Columbus & the Invaders. Reminiscing of when she was interviewed in 1987, a reporter had asked her where she saw herself in 10 years, to which she answered that she would be “retired, driving a Mercedes Benz, and her dog wearing a diamond coat.” Now, she joked that she was “80 years old, driving a Fiat 500, her dog wearing a coat from K Mart, and she was still doing the Do the Bluebeat”, the crowd responding with elated laughter.

Knocking back one classic after the other, she held the crowd in the palm of her hand, slowing down only to pay tribute to her long-time friend and collaborator, Max Merrit, who passed away during the pandemic in 2020, delivering a heartfelt rendition of his 1975 hit Slipping Away, the love and emotion clear in her recital. With Tami Neilson herself joining her onstage, the force of the rendition was almost tear-jerking, serving as an opportunity to reflect on the many performers who would not see the stage again in a post-COVID era.

Her voice is gruff with age, but full of personality and a commanding timbre that has created a new life of its own. It is now tough as nails – a real Jimmy Barnes-esque growl.

With the knowledge that the bulk of her songs were recorded in the 1960's, I could only be along for the nostalgia trip with the help of the stage setup, the cream white telecasters, the synchronization of the backing Up-Doos, and the masterful renditions themselves. Everything appeared to be as it may have been, with the exception of mobile phones and tablets to replace clunky music folders, as well as the presence of….a bag of Copper Kettle chips?

When her set concluded, we were provided with a welcome intermission. Audience members around me elated from seeing the music legend grace us once again. The row behind me exclaimed that they had just witnessed “a real treat” with one gentleman explaining that it “was the equivalent of seeing Lorde perform in 40 years' time after a long hiatus.” I was grateful for the analogy.

In the style of continuity, the backing band remained as such for the entire night. A simple four piece displaying their musical prowess with tight, well-toned accompaniment, made whole with the stellar backing vocals from The Up-Doos. A wall of bluesy slap-backed telecaster tones and thumping rhythm was all the introduction the Kingmaker singer needed. Strutting across the stage in a vibrant pink and light-blue dress and tonnes of immense confidence, Tami Neilson enthralled us from the get-go. Her powerfully sharp, polished voice ripping through the opening Big Boss Mama, taking her place as host and hypnotist. Having been a fan of her music for quite some time but never witnessed live, I was both delighted and shocked to hear that she sounds exactly as she does in her recordings, bringing a new level of authenticity to her works to reflect on in future listens.

Busting out some excellent harmonica playing, she tears and swings through the comedic Ain’t My Job, a track that pokes fun at the hypocrisy of what men (traditionally) expect of a partner and how ludicrous the notion of finding that unobtainable idea of perfection really is.

The themes of her songs reach all corners of a male-dominated society, most notably the music community, with Tami pointing out between songs that only 8.4% of the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame inductees are women and that when she is asked if things are getting better in that field, she always answers with a flat “No.”

She refers to a 2023 interview recently published by one of the aforementioned Halls board members where they are quoted as saying that the reason for the lack of female representation is due to women not reaching “their intellectual level”. The frightening absurdity of which, causing the attendees to erupt into a fit of laughter.

Balancing depressing realities with her own brand of comedy, she remarked how happy she was to be home having just spent the last two years on the road in North America with her entire family in a 36-foot motor home, drawing appreciated sympathy from the crowd.

Her admiration for the great Dinah Lee is clear, telling us that she was only made aware of her residence in Aotearoa by chancing upon a friends Instagram post. She advised us that within an hour of learning this, the Rock n Roll Revue tour was booked.

Make no mistake, this was not a Tami Neilson gig. This was a celebration of both her music, and the women who paved the way before her in this industry who are rarely mentioned in the same breath as Elvis or Little Richard.

Educating the audience appeared to be a large intention of this tour, blasting through Hard Headed Woman by Wanda Jackson and Hound Dog by Big Mama Thornton to use as examples of female songwriters shunted out of the spotlight by the success of their male counterparts covering their songs.

She wears her inspirations on her sleeve, or in one case, her guitar strap, fashioning the word ‘Sister’ in reference to my personal highlight of the covers suite – the one and only, Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I was in my final year of high school when I learned of her works and guitar mastery, something that prompted me to build an electric from scratch to be modelled off her own Gibson SG. I was delighted to hear Tami belt an incredible rendition of Didn’t It Rain to salute a queer woman of colour who is largely credited with creating what we know today as modern rock n roll as early as the 1930's.

Stomping her way through Careless Woman, a track inspired through the vexation of intergenerational sexism and submission, as well as the disgust of reading quotes from a certain “orange skinned, orange haired politician”, she furthered messages of tearing down the status quo that keeps this detrimental rhetoric in circulation. The music and the lyrics are simple, making it all the more absurd that the status quo remains. She makes it clear that she does not believe that the ringleaders in the music industry will be the ones to make the change as they profit too much from the way things are, so any fundamental change must happen at the ground level with the collaboration and voices of the artists and the audiences. Tami thanked us all in attendance, pointing out that 1,000 people bought tickets to an all-female lineup and are building a table that women traditionally do not have a seat at.

Closing her set with the adored Holy Moses, I was disappointed to see security guards stopping audience members from lining in front of the stage to groove. I can understand the precautions that venues and artists must take, but there was still a great tinge of irony to it given the rebellious themes of the night. This changed entirely when the whole crowd were on their feet at the encore to welcome Dinah Lee back to the stage where her and Tami dueted Ray Columbus's She’s a Mod, reveling in each other's presence. There was nothing the security could do to stop the swarm then.

I betted on a powerful set of performances from two living legends – the Queen of Mod, and the proclaimed Queen of Kiwi Country, but like these titles, the night captured so much more. While providing more-than awe-inspiring sets, the roots of the night ran deeper than I had anticipated with prompts of reflection on how one can use their voice for insisting progress, whether on stage or not. It became a stark and energized reminder that we are at a tipping point on so many fronts, and we not only have the opportunity (it is October in election year, after all), but the privilege to open the dialogue further and create real, meaningful change in how we move forward and actually realise these vital necessities. It’s a rare thing to consider something so simple as a female-led rock n roll show to be a highlighter of what must be transformed. One who might complain about the lack of male representation tonight would be laughed out of the theatre and underscore the exact problem in wider society, so why am I confident that in 2023 there would be a similar reaction to the reverse in many countless other settings?

Challenging narratives, paving the way for those to follow and lifting others into the spotlight – that’s rock n roll.


Photo Credit: Stella Gardiner Photography
Tami Neilson Photos
Dinah Lee Photos
The Up-Doos Photos

 

About Tami Neilson

With a soulful voice straight from the golden age of country and rockabilly music, Tami Neilson has been described as "A red-hot honky-tonker, somewhere between Patsy Cline and Wanda Jackson with perhaps just a little bit of Peggy Lee sophistication.” - Nick Bollinger, NZ National Radio

Winner of the New Zealand Music Awards Best Country Album 2009, 2010 and 2012

Tami Neilson was raised in Canada, by parents with a closet full of sequined stage costumes and platform shoes.

Visit the muzic.net.nz Profile for Tami Neilson

Releases

Dynamite
Year: ????
Type: Album
Red Dirt Angel
Year: ????
Type: Album
Kingmaker
Year: 2022
Type: Album
Chickaboom!
Year: 2020
Type: Album
Sassafrass!
Year: 2018
Type: Album
Buy Online @ Mightyape
Don't Be Afraid
Year: 2015
Type: Album
Buy Online @ Mightyape
The Kitchen Table Sessions
Year: 2010
Type: Album

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