The publicity for this upcoming tour read spectacularly well, like some long-lost lyrics from The Man Monster from the Id. “Out on the tar sealed and gravelly roads this April and May, legendary Dunedin pop group The Chills have announced their embarkation on a vigorous and far-reaching New Zealand tour.” And, that’s pretty much what they did. Exactly what it says on the box.
It’s still hard to believe this band, that started way back in 1980, can feel so comfortable – despite the many band member changes. Of course, much of that is down to Martin Phillipps but it could also be that these songs, like well-designed clothes simply just wear well. And like many in the audience, The Chills’ music, or rather Martin Phillips’ music, has become part of our DNA. That’s certainly the case for me.
Initially I expected tonight’s audience to be older than San Fran’s usual young hipster crowd but when looking closer there was a mix of every generation – and that’s entirely understandable. The Chills are a universal group. The last time I saw them, they were wowing the kids at Laneway – and many of the touring acts, too. After all they all cut their teeth on Chills’ tunes. Prior to that, it was a black shirt and clean jeans affair at the International Festival of The Arts where they were hawking their latest Silver Bullets to the well-heeled Chardonnay crowd. But in both cases, it was the classics that got most of the attention.
Tonight’s show kicked off with fellow Dunedinite and Silver Scroll/Taite Prize finalist Anthonie Tonnon, who’s current live show combines a performance art-inspired approach to stagecraft, home-soldered technology, and dance moves.
Dressed in a splendid blue suit he put on an even more splendid, but way too short, set of mainly keyboard/pedal loop & synth driven electronic lil’ tunes, punctuated by some clever and very ironic robot dancing. Starting with an up-tempo ballad, Two Free Hands, he immediately wooed the audience with his soft charismatic voice. And through Mt Cargill and Leave Love he showed us how to build the swoon. But it was his infectious, but disturbing, Water Underground that won us all over. Whether real or fake he used a problem with his guitar as an opportunity to provide backing vocals. We all willingly obliged, singing heartedly at the tops of lungs.
After a drinks-break, the four men that currently call themselves The Chills took to the stage blasting out a number from Silver Bullets (I think) before rolling onto a classic (Wet Blanket) and another …Bullet song (Underwater Wasteland). That’s the first time I’ve seen this one done live. It works really well.
Martin Phillipps (Guitar/Vox) assumedly lead the very laid back James Dickson (Bass/Backing Vocals), the enigmatic Todd Knudson (Drums/Backing Vocals) and the quietly present Oli Wilson (Keyboards/Backing Vocals) through a sold set. This was a tried and true set ready for another airing across the nation.
There’s the mandatory ones like Pink Frost; America Says Hello, a blistering, stadium sized I Love My Leather Jacket, a more mature version of Rolling Moon (the original always sounded like it was recorded in the student union building); and, of course Heavenly Pop Hit. Plus, for the trainspotters, there is a new one (“never played on a stage anywhere”, Phillipps reckons) called In Harmony. This is a wonderful little slice of Phillipps pop – nicely sludgy and strumming.
And there there’s “one we haven’t played live since 1985”: Satin Doll (Yes, the tune that started it all on the Dunedin Double). This rendition is crisp and perfect. No dust or scratches to be seen. He’s playing, as always, as if he’s giving birth. Watching the way Knudson adds colour with the various pieces of his drum kit plus his over-accentuated facial expressions really brings the song to life. Arms flailing, thrashing about and his facial muscles are on overdrive, too. No wonder he needs first aid for excessive blisters! In contrast, Phillipps barely moves much during the whole show. But then, he never did.
Another couple of songs to watch out for will be the new (vinyl single), very grungy Rocket Science and its B-Side Lost In Space, which dates back to 1981 and has only recently been recorded and released as part of a special for International Record Store Day. Overall, I think the nation will be happy with this set list – plus any extras that may get thrown into the mix. Who knows, with a repertoire as big as The Chills it could change from night to night.
If there was one gripe, I wish they’d brought Erica Scally on tour. I miss her quirky violin playing and the addition of some female vocals on a few tunes here and there would have really bolstered some of the classics to another level. That’s not likely, though. “Erica says ‘Hello’,” Phillips announced before ripping into America Says Hello, “And so does her new little boy, Oscar.” See what he did there?
This tour will stop in at a bunch of major and minor centres around Godzone from Auckland to Whanganui to Paekakariki to Queenstown to Raglan to Invercargill. They’ll be nods to the old and a flash of the new. The set will be a mix of favourites (and there are plenty) and a bunch of newer tracks. I can’t promise the original line up will be there though, or the second, 14 or 20th. There have been so many it’s probably only a Mastermind contestant that can name them all. At least the current band has been together for a bit, though. You can see they gel well and are all very comfortable in the Chills’ skin.
No doubt a central Wellington gig is different from a community hall in lil’ ol’ Paekakariki but I think the vibe will be the same. Anyway, San Fran was originally a dance hall, so it has the right feel, I reckon. It’s a brave move heading for the provinces but, if you think about it, this is where some of those ex-students now live – some on lifestyle blocks; some in the suburbs; a few in the trailer parks; one or two might have a farm now; or manage a run, a couple might be crashing at a beach side crib; and they’ll be a few behind the Cosi club bar or buttering up the asparagus rolls, too. Wherever they are, here’s hoping they take the night off to relive their student days – and bring the young-uns, too. It’ll be worth it.
Click on any image to view a photo gallery by Tim Gruar: