Vector Arena’s little sister venue The Tuning Fork may look like a Coffee Club franchise from the outside, but once you’re in the front door the heavy red velvet curtains, scent of whiskey and kitschy sign behind the bar give off a vastly different vibe. Tonight the lit-up sign reads SJD, because Sean James Donnelly and his five-piece band are here to promote new album Saint John Divine.
But first indie pop heroes Voom warm up the crowd with their cool tunes. The four-piece have released two highly-regarded albums, opened for cult favourite Pulp and melted thousands of hearts with their single B Your Boy. Nick Buckton provides backing vocals and supersonic bass and Murray Fisher makes his guitar’s notes twinkle like stars. Over this galaxy of music curly-haired frontman Buzz Moller sings melancholy songs of love and disappointment.
Voom woo the crowd with all their old favourites, including We’re So Lost, King Kong, the hilariously nihilistic Black Future and their evocative version of Neil Young’s Cinnamon Girl.
After a short break SJD makes his appearance, looking Amish-fabulous with his black hat and bushy whiskers. Tonight’s set features new material in amongst the hits from his last six records. He’s got plenty of support to help him bring the songs to life, with James Duncan on guitar, Victoria Kelly on keys, the ubiquitous Mike Hall on bass, Alister Deverick on drums and Sandy Mills on percussion and backing vocals.
New song Catseyes, which is ostensibly a tale about driving along the motorway but which is also about becoming emotionally lost, reveals SJD’s power as a lyricist. Other songs are more playful with Jet Planes borrowing lines from Dr. Seuss and I Wanna Be Foolish feeling like the pop answer to Chis Knox’s punk anthem Queer. Special guest Julia Deans (ex Fur Patrol) hops up onstage for a star turn on 80s-tastic Little Pieces, looking for all the world like Juliette Lewis and sounding like Pat Benetar.
The band puts fire in the belly of hits Southern Lights and Beautiful Haze and finishes Superman You’re Crying with an eruption of cosmic chaos. Jesus is given an epic makeover with Victoria’s keys running like water alongside Sandy’s potent gospel vocals (eat your heart out, Sharon Jones). Somehow the song morphs into a humorous rendition of I Am The Radio.
There’s a lot going on, and at times all the moving parts threaten to overwhelm the integrity of the songs. But SJD’s one of those performers who you feel is singing directly to you – and by focusing on his lyrics you can cut through the beautiful haze.
– Kathryn van Beek
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