“You might have thought Passenger were a band,” Michael Rosenberg told Auckland’s Civic last night. “Auckland, it’s just you, me and a guitar. Is that OK?” The two-thousand strong audience certainly seemed not to mind.
Rosenberg, performing since 2009 as Passenger following the breakup of the band of the same name, opened with Rolling Stone, which he described as “the most depressing start to an evening ever.” It wasn’t, of course, but it set the tone for the evening — one man, one guitar, and a minimal stage set.
Rosenberg started his musical career as a busker, and this background showed. He’s a strong performer who has confidence in his voice and his playing. But, to be fair, there are limits to what one man and one guitar can do. His rather short 14-song set — he left the stage after barely an hour and a quarter, before returning for a three-song encore — largely followed one of two templates: the intricate, delicate, finger-picked guitar line and the equally delicate vocal melody, or the stomping, percussive chord-strum. Riding To New York, which fell firmly in the former category but which managed to be quite affecting where other songs risked being merely twee, told the story of a man Rosenberg had met while touring in the US; Underwater Bride, again played on an acoustic guitar with a capo on the 9th fret, was more trebly and reedy, his voice, which is capable of strength when he pushes it, sadly has a tendency to grate a little, high and compressed and sibilant, a hipster hamster on helium.
Life’s For The Living, on the other hand, a frantic strumming workout and a powerfully-song vocal, showed Passenger’s ability to put, from time to time, energy and vigour into his songs and offer a little variety in his repertoire. The Wrong Direction was similarly upbeat, Rosenberg playing what he called “mouth trombone;” as he said at the end of the song, fetching Clive the trombone player to New Zealand would have been excessive.
And Rosenberg said a lot of things during this show. He spent maybe a third of his time on stage talking to the audience, sometimes telling the stories behind his songs, other times sinking into rather self-referentlal and self-indulgent ramblings about, among other things, the tightness of his jeans; the audience, for their part, didn’t seem to mind, laughing at all his jokes, no matter how slight. The crowd — the Civic was almost completely sold out — were quite a mix; from children to grandparents, they cheered, they sang, they laughed, they danced when Passenger, on a couple of occasions, asked them to stand up for a song.
Even the evening’s big mistake was cheered. With Paul Simon playing down the road at the Vector Arena with Sting the same evening, playing The Sound Of Silence was perhaps not the best choice; certainly Passenger’s arrangement of the song was a choice he might want to reconsider. Presumably conceived as one of the highlights of the show, it saw Rosenberg backlit and silhouetted as he worked, like an X-Factor try-hard, through a troublingly over-wrought reading of a classic song that was, at some points, almost unrecognisable, swinging wildly from thrashing on the guitar to whispering into the microphone. It should have been brilliant; it was all over the place. He did, briefly, attempt Roxanne, but gave up after two lines; “I shouldn’t have opened that can of very high-pitched worms.”
But, again, the crowd didn’t mind at all. When he played I Hate, a litany of things he, not surprisingly, hates, he had two thousand backing singers who knew all the words, and cheered and laughed as he scattered comments about the objects of his anger through the song. When Underwater Bride segued, via an entirely unexpected Eye Of The Tiger, into Let Her Go — “My only hit single!” — cheers threatened, briefly, to drown out the singer on the stage.
And then, after eleven songs, he left the stage. He returned for an encore which, bravely, featured The Once, the rather wonderful trio from Newfoundland who had opened for him; or, as The Once’s Phil Churchill had it, “It’s a real honour for Passenger to be closing for us tonight.” Their opening set had lasted only half an hour, but, for my money, they could have played a full show. The four played a medley of Brown Eyed Girl, Dancing In The Dark and Go Your Own Way; a headliner playing alongside his support act is a rare move, but few support acts win the hearts of an audience the way The Once did. It was a brave move for Passenger; while, inevitably, a singer with a guitar is, inevitably, limited in range, The Once sang the most gorgeous three-part harmonies, backed up with guitars and lutes and mandolins and bhodrans. Not an act I’d heard of before the show, they are a band I’ll seek out in future. Bringing to mind the loveliness of an early Cowboy Junkies, they sang and played with beauty and understated joy. Passenger described them as some of the best musicians he’d ever met; I’d say they were the best musicians on last night’s stage.
– Steve McCabe
Click on any image to view a photo gallery by David Watson:
1 Rolling Stone
2 Life’s For The Living
3 The Wrong Direction
4 Riding To New York
5 The Sound Of Silence
6 I Hate
7 Underwater Bride (featuring Eye Of The Tiger)
8 Let It Go
10 Untitled New Song
11 Scare Away The Dark
12 Things That Stop You Dreaming
13 Brown Eyed Girl/Dancing In The Dark/Go Your Own Way (with The Once)