Over the weekend: Flight of the Conchords at Red Rocks

Flight of the Conchords, Iron & Wine, Arj Barker
Saturday, May 16, 2009
Red Rocks Amphitheater
Better than:
Going to a show to see bands that take themselves far too seriously.

I'm leery about using the word "comedy" when describing the music of Flight of the Conchords. Don't get me wrong, I'll be the first to admit that humor serves as one of the central tenets of the band's musical approach. Still, the description seems to carry a misleading connotation. Simplifying the New Zealand duo's act as pure comedy makes the music seem secondary, as if laughs take precedence over competent playing and well-honed song structures. It's also a false assumption, one that any one of the firsthand witnesses in the audience of thousands at Red Rocks on Saturday night could easily label as bogus, as Jermaine Clement and Bret McKenzie incorporated their skill for side-splitting, dead-pan comedy into an impressive live musical performance, one that drew freely from the soundtrack from the first and second seasons of their HBO television series and deftly alternated between acoustic soul, funk and hip-hop structures.

While the scope of the venue and the sheer size of the crowd lent the night an epic feel, the Conchord's didn't sacrifice the personal, intimate sound to suit the hordes. The band drew on some extra instrumentation -- cellist Nigel Collins joined the duo for the majority of the set -- but ultimately drove the performance with the strength of their minimalism and chemistry.
Indeed, it was a performance that could have seemed just as apt and effective in a small club.  
The group easily jumped between genres and song structures, but the evening's variety was not limited to the band's nineteen-song, two-hour set. Stand-up comedien Arj Barker, who plays Dave on the Conchords' television series, warmed up the crowd with a routine that ranged from Michael Phelps' marijuana issues to pegging the true culprits for global warming.
But it was the opening musical act that seemed to serve as the real departure from the main act's aesthetic.

Iron and Wine frontman Sam Beam offered an opening performance that, on its surface, seemed the antithesis of the Conchords, in terms of tone and topic. Beam sampled from the entirety of Iron and Wine's catalogue, offering songs like "Woman King" and "Naked as We Came," with straightforward guitar chords and lyrics that probe at the meaning of the cosmos and ponder about the existence of God. It was an unlikely introduction for the headlining act, one that Beam himself noted, making a sarcastic reference to his nonexistent "comedic songs." 

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But he quickly dispelled any awkwardness with his warm, resonant vocals and his impressive Travis picking. Songs that received a full ensemble treatment in the studio did not seem any poorer for Beam's solo performance. Instead, tunes like "He Lays In the Reins," "Flightless Bird, American Mouth" and "Boy With a Coin" benefited from Beam's distinctive treatment, which saw vocals that were more varied and guitar playing that was more nuanced than in their studio counterparts.

For his finale, Beam delivered an especially stirring version of "The Trapeze Swinger," a measured ballad that's been released only as a single. The song, which remains one of Beam's most affecting, will close Iron & Wine's forthcoming release Around the Well, which features rare B-sides and previously unreleased tracks. It served as an impressive closing for the Red Rocks show, and a fitting testament to Beam's ability to keep a crowd of thousands involved with the pure power of his guitar and vocals.

Barker's comedy set helped shift the tone toward levity for the Conchords, who took the stage after a rousing introduction from their co-star. The pair wasted no time in rolling out their arsenal of comedic theatrics. A pounding rhythm blared, and Clement and McKenzie emerged onto the stage decked in cardboard robot outfits to perform "Too Many Dicks on the Dance Floor." The opening tune included a brief cameo from Barker, who crossed the stage sporting the bandanna of his television character to deliver a few lines of lyrics.

The two quickly shed their robot costumes after the opening song, opting for a more pedestrian wardrobe and a more staid delivery for the remainder of the show. But the act's comedy did not come in a vacuum. In addition to the lyrical humor inherent in tunes like "The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room)," "Robots" and "I Told You I Was Freekie," some of the funniest moments of the evening came in the pair's simple interactions between songs. From giving a deadpan description of their song structures to joking about New Zealand's other famous cultural export OMC (of "How Bizarre" fame), the band's back-and-forth routines helped to tie together their ambitious set.

But what truly set the performance apart was the sheer amount of musical textures and the impressive breadth of song. McKenzie alternated between guitar, drums and keyboards, while Clement stuck mostly to his nylon-stringed guitar. Still, for "Carol Brown," which includes an array of synthesized keyboard effects and electronic tones, both members doubled on multiple instruments and McKenzie stood in for a full choir during parts of the chorus. The tune is one of the pair's most ambitious, and their multi-layered performance did it justice.

While the duo faltered during the intro to "Robots" and seemed a miss a few cues early on in the show, they quickly found their rhythm. In terms of both solos and rhythm accompaniments, both of the members boasted impressive runs and riffs. Nigel Collins' cello also added to the texture and depth of the band's sound. Alternating between plucked bass lines and bowed melodies, Collins helped flesh out some of the simpler, lyric-driven songs like "Mutha'uckas" and "Hiphopopotamus Vs. Rhymenoceros." The added instrument gave McKenzie and Clement free reign to riff, both musically and comedically, on the source material. They were also spot on in their delivery of some of the funniest lines from songs like "Think About It" and "Song For Epileptic Dogs," and found the space to add updated references to topics like the swine flu.

Despite the overwhelming size of the crowd, the Conchords also found select opportunities to mingle with the audience. They read off some of the funniest banners held up in the audience, and launched into a full scale dance routine for "Sugalumps," during which Collins provided a stark, bass-line driven rhythmic accompaniment.

Some of the most memorable moments came in the band's longer-form songs, tunes that they didn't have the time to fully explore in their TV series. The epic narrative "The Bus Driver's Song," which gives a firsthand account of a New Zealand bus tour, as well as a new song called "Stana," which uses a cowboy song format to tell the tale of an especially dastardly protaganist, stretched well past the five-minute mark. But the pair's sharp repartee and skill at improvisation carried both easily.

Such songs showed another dimension of the band, one that didn't have the space to fully emerge in a televised format. In addition to their skill for pithy, two-minute comedy songs, the Flight of the Conchords can carry an epic, 10-minute narrative through the pure power of their comedic and musical skills. It's a talent that goes far beyond simple "comedy music."

Critic's Notebook
Personal Bias:
Jemaine Clement cracks me up more consistently than Bret McKenzie.
Random Detail: The alcohol vendors trolling for customers in the aisles almost spoiled some of the most stirring and affecting moments in Iron and Wine's set. An especially irritating vendor punctuated "Flightless Bird, American Mouth" with a loud call of "Who wants a margarita?!?"
By the way: Flight of the Conchords gave credit to their crew before their final songs, calling their manager "the real Murray," in reference to the fictional character in their television show.

Set List

Iron & Wine

1.    Sodom, South Georgia
2.    He Lays in the Reins
3.    Woman King
4.    Such Great Heights
5.    Upward Over the Mountain
6.    Naked as We Came
7.    Boy With a Coin
8.    Mary Anne
9.    Resurrection Fern
10.    Flightless Bird, American Mouth
11.    The Trapeze Swinger

Flight of the Conchords

1.    Too Many Dicks on the Dance Floor
2.    Hurt Feelings
3.    The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room)
4.    Carol Brown
5.    Robots
6.    Hilarious Misunderstanding
7.    I Told You I Was Freekie
8.    Mutha'uckas
9.    Not Crying
10.    Hiphopopotamus Vs. Rhymenoceros
11.    Song for Epileptic Dogs
12.    Business Time
13.    Badass
14.    Think About It
15.    Bus Driver's Song
16.    We're Both in Love With a Sexy Lady
17.    Sugalumps


18.    Stana
19.    Albi the Racist Dragon

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