Sometimes, just for a night, the middle of the road doesn’t seem like such a bad place.
Sometimes derivative can be comforting and even forgettable can be entertaining in the moment. Last night at the Tuning Fork was such a night, as established Kiwi songwriters Mel Parsons and Greg Johnson shared the bill for the second date of their joint New Zealand tour.
Mel Parsons took to the stage first, facing a welcoming audience an average of over ten years older than her mid-30’s self. Backing her country-pop vocals and strummed guitar was her brother Jed Parsons on drums and Josh Logan on bass. This rhythm section pulled double duty, sticking to their roles for both headliners.
The group played tightly and simply, economically supporting Parsons’ velvety vocals, but most every song chugged along on the same country-pop beat, with little more variation in the chords or timbre. Those towards the front of the crowd that were more familiar with her work seemed to love it though. This is the most difficult type of set to review – a bunch of songs I personally find unimpressive delivered solidly and energetically in a live setting. After all, I’m not reviewing the songs on an album, but a live experience.
Judging an artist’s recorded work as their ideal performances captured (theoretically), Parson’s vocal delivery and overall performance was an impeccable recreation of a studio-quality take, her voice flawlessly pitched and carefully nuanced – too carefully. Judged on variation and originality the performance left more to be desired. But remember that this is the middle of the road, and once you get over the fear of such a dreaded place you can learn to appreciate it in the moment. I learned this roughly three songs into her set, and listened happily from then on in.
At a more stage-focused venue like the Powerstation or the Civic Theatre, the set would certainly have suffered from its lack of variety and its too-familiar country-pop tropes, but in the bustling talkative Tuning Fork, with its homely carpet, stools and tables, and classed-up dive bar aesthetic, it was enjoyable. By the time Greg Johnson joined the three piece on stage to contribute trumpet to the last two numbers, the front half of the crowd was alive with dancing, especially for the closing dirt road hoedown Down In The Bar.
After a short intermission Johnson took over, opening his half of the gig alone at the keyboard for Stone Cold Sober. This first piece was the highlight of his set, as it was the only song not smothered in unabashed grandiosity courtesy of the (very capable) backing band. What followed was a similarly sugary collection of predictable but purposeful pop-rock, similar to the first half in digestibility but minus much of the country influence. Initially I found his half more entertaining due to the quality of his lyrical compositions, but after half an hour of the same chorus-heavy heart-on-sleeve pop songs, the music grew stale for me. Not for much of the audience though, who grooved energetically throughout, singing along to what they knew and responding to the awkward between-song stage banter.
The night’s best moment came when Mel Parsons returned to the stage to duet with Johnson, their voices complimenting each other well. It wasn’t any less cheesy, but who can’t find some sense of satisfaction in the “good ol’ fashioned” vocal harmony? The set finally drew to a close with a shared cover of the recently departed Tom Petty’s duet with Stevie Nicks, Stop Dragging My Heart Around.
Both performers delivered their specific style of music with enthusiasm and accomplishment, and if those certain styles were overly sugary and cliched, well that’s an unavoidable issue one has with the artists rather than with the performance. One thing’s for sure, and that’s that Parsons and Johnson, for fans of either one’s music, are a perfectly matching double-billing.
Click on any image to view a photo gallery by Michael Flynn:
Mel Parsons Setlist –
You and I
Far North Coast
Get Out Alive
Wicked Game (Chris Isaak cover)
Alberta Sun (with Greg Johnson)
Down In The Bar (with Greg Johnson)
Greg Johnson Setlist –
Stone Cold Sober (Solo)
Don’t Wait Another Day
Admit You’ve Changed
What Are You Trying To Say?
Looking Out On Monday
Your Head And Your Heart
No-One Makes It Alone
Isabelle (with Mel Parsons)
Don’t Wait (Mel Parsons song with Greg Johnson)
Maybe Your True Love (with Mel Parsons)
Far Far Away (Mel Parsons song with Greg Johnson)
Now The Sun Is Out (with Mel Parsons)
Stop Dragging My Heart Around (Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks cover with Mel Parsons)