Thursday, March 17, 2016

Gig Review: Tami Neilson, San Fran, Wellington, 11 March 2016

Tami Neilson is not an artist I'm all that familiar with, but thanks to the generosity of Neilson herself, and Simon over at the Off The Tracks blog, I was able to catch New Zealand's reigning Queen of Country right at the top of her game last Friday night at Wellington's San Fran. It wasn't a gig I'd initially earmarked as a "must attend", but I’d been curious about Neilson’s music for some time, and the complimentary double pass made it a no brainer.
I really didn't need too much convincing. I knew enough to know that Neilson's back story is quite remarkable by local standards: raised in Canada, growing up trekking around North America with her parents - as part of the Johnny Cash-supporting Neilson family band - then settling in NZ nearly a decade ago, before going on to establish herself as an immense solo talent. A chart-topping, silver scroll and multiple Tui award-winning solo talent, no less.

It's easy to see why she's been so successful - not only does she possess a great voice, her song-writing is top drawer, and her stagecraft is as thoroughly professional as her band is tight.

It doesn't feel quite right lumping her purely under the "country" banner however. Sure, the likes of Patsy (Cline) and Wanda (Jackson) provide for fairly accurate and well-worn reference points, but there's shades of others in there too, and Neilson's particular brand of honky tonk effortlessly crossed over into soul, rockabilly, and even some swampy blues rock at various points over the course of her set. And while the key to that versatility and the glue to her performance was surely her “Hot Rockin’ band of Rhythm”, Neilson remained the consummate star throughout the near 90-minute set of covers and originals.

The highlights included a couple of walk-on appearances; the first from local luminary Jeremy Taylor who helped out on ‘Lonely’, the popular duet Neilson recorded with (the absent rising star) Marlon Williams, while the second featured the thumb-picking or “flatpicker” guitar technique of onetime band member Mark Mazengarb, who joined her on stage, direct from the audience, for a couple of older tracks.
Saving the best until last, Neilson completed her well-received encore with a Big Mama Thornton-inspired take on ‘Hound Dog’, one that differs markedly from the more popular Elvis Presley version - a slower, brooding, dirty/bluesy interpretation. A take that was far more indebted to old style rhythm n blues than classic rock n roll.
I’m fairly certain this particular San Fran gig was not part of the greater Arts Festival currently gracing various Wellington venues - more part of a short national tour - yet it was quite noticeable that the audience for Tami Neilson was not a regular San Fran-type crowd. Or even a regular Friday night crowd. The demographic was generally older and somewhat more stylishly dressed. It felt like something of an occasion even - it was certainly a birthday celebration for one of the band members (singalong, cake, and all), so perhaps it was simply that? ... post-gig, a class act to the end, Neilson made herself available to those exiting the venue, standing at the top of the stairs, smiling, chatting, and signing items as the assembled throng made its way past, heading out into the warm autumnal Friday night air …

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