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LETTERS FROM AMERICA


Boston fans knock sox off UHT with tea

Letter from America (#1)

By Dave Dobbyn
(Reprinted without Permission)


Sunday Star-Times
Nov 15, 1998.



It might have been the call from management asking how I was, when all he was left with was his damn mobile and his clothes after being mugged by three men in Madrid.

It may have been the prospect of playing with a good friend and a great songwriter. It may have been the call of the wild and crazy.

I don't know- all I knew was I was headed for the United States, for a great time and an opportunity to be savoured.

All I needed was my acoustic guitar and this laptop- one to ply my wares and the other to get a story to you. Over the next few Sundays I'll give you my naive impressions of a tour with Neil Finn that carves its way from Boston to Austin to San Francisco , Chicago to Toronto and finally New York, where I am now at the Soho Grand Hotel in a room with a view facing uptown and the buzz of the city sneaking in.

The hotel manager is a fan of The
Islander and has two sons in a band who have just played their first New York club gig.

He's thrilled and proud, and he's coming to our show here with bells on.

I would kill for a proper cup of tea. Maybe in Boston- the home of the tea party.

There's a college music festival on in town and everywhere is a manager with a band to beat all.

Wheeling and dealing in the lobby; here a cocaine-addled face touting
the Next Big Thing, there a record company dude eager to end the meeting so he can sidle up to a supermodel at the bar. It's also Fashion Week, so everybody looks like Somebody and God knows what atrocities will launch anorexic careers on the runways of the world from here.

Oh, but I do so love New York! It's in your face.

At JFK airport- glorious day. jetlagged circadian rhythms about as
adjusted as they ever get. Fresh fruit salad for breakfast and I feel so healthy I need a cigarette. They wouldn't let me carry on my guitar even though I begged, "This guitar is my life support system. If it's out of sight I go nuts!"

"It's a small aircraft, sir."

"But I'm small and the guitar is only three-quarter size..."

What lies ahead? Hopefully a comprehensive sound check with a thoroughly savvy crew before the Boston gig tonight. A giant butterfly is flexing its wings in my stomach.

Come on, Dobs, it's only a 30-minute set. Seven songs and your soul on the line- that's all.

In flight from Boston, en route to Austin, via Chicago. UHT milk should be illegal, along with non-dairy creamer. We stayed in a flash Swiss hotel last night and nary a teaspoon full of fresh milk to be found.

It's the anti-caking emulsifying agent 245T and the colouring agent 246 that worry me. My fab wife packed some Dilmah for me- sacriledge to combine it with these toxic aberrations.

I digress. The ice-breaking first US Neil Finn Tour '98 gig at the Karma lounge to 800 enthralled Bostonians- full house! Singing en mass
e and a crush up front.

I was in the audience and it struck me how entrenched this music is in the hearts of so many- and globally. Try Whistling This songs were received with great aplomb and Neil's performance was powerful, moving and inspiring.

Liam Finn does a grand job on electric and acoustic guitars and harmonies- his sense of the songs is remarkable and spirited.

This is no kid strumming along with Dad, but a deft and inventive musician in his own right. More on the songs in future.

Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam graciously guested to loud applause, first with a heartfelt rendering of Split Enz's Stuff and Nonsense to Neil's grand piano accompaniment- and then with History and World Where You Live. Styley! Vedder's voice oozed soul on Off He Goes from Pearl Jam's No Code- such a large voice from not a huge man.

My own half-hour set in support felt amazing- American audiences are SO vocal! I guess it follows since, generally, most Americans think aloud anyway. In this instance, this is not criticism. I need to work on my guitar pickups.

I was surprised to see people with copies of my records, up front and grooving- they even seemed to know the words to sing along to boot! Yahoo! Spreading the word. One down Dobs.

On to Texas- the land of ribs, good old boys. Very large people and George Bush, the ex-president who now probably curses not nuking the Ruskies with that ole Strategic Defence Initiative. I guess he'll ave to be content with his Playstation like every other would be warrior on the planet.


We need an uplifting new anthem

Letter from America (#2)

By Dave Dobbyn
(Reprinted without Permission)


Sunday Star-Times
Nov
22, 1998.


NOVEMBER 16; King Edward Hotel, Toronto; near freezing point. Greetings from the land of serious ice hockey. Of course, I'm boning up on my sporting expertise and lingo to surprise anyone who might need an informed opinion on the various codes and an up-to-the-minute account of any player's form on and off the field.

My reputation as a sports commentator and motivational lecturer has naturally preceded me on my journeys into the hinterlands of the American (and Canadian) psyche. Suffice it to say that we, as visitors to these fair shores, will no doubt be invited to a sporting fixture of one kind or another in the near future, to scream advice from the sidelines and to get caught up in the testosterone frenzy of The Game and wax lyrically afterwards on the wisdom of the team strategy on the day.

For generations in Canada and the US the slickness of the spectacle of The Game has honed players' and non-players' skills to the point of religious zeal. I have fixed in my mind the image of floodlit ball parks and stadiums upon flying into LA - like ancient temples, they rise above the mundane architecture of suburbia to summon the gods and glorify The Game. Take me out to the ball park - take me out to the game!"

This brings me to the musicality of sport - of Wurlitzers and Nickelodeons, ubiquitous across America's baseball arenas, give the play a hymnal quality - teasing anthems from the mouths of ordinary citizens who would otherwise remain silent. Where there is glory there is music.

Dare I say it that we, as New Zealanders, are reticent when it comes to opening the throat and bellowing a unifying melody towards our foe on the day. We are in need of uplifting anthems to our teams - particularly in light of the impending Rugby World Cup where our very nationhood is on the line. Our teams must be enlivened with heartfelt choruses to heighten the battle. Perhaps Mr Neil Finn could be encouraged to pen a suitable prayer for the All Blacks. Think of it! A humdinger of a toon to arouse our national spirit!

To call Neil Finn's music anthemic is deserving at the least. Who among you doesn't feel as though you own a song of his somewhere along the way? Songs connect hearts - and connected hearts make a formidable force in intimidating the enemy and encouraging New Zealand teams to thrash the bastards.

It has occurred to me on this trip that the Tall Poppy Syndrome lamentably thrives in New Zealand. Evidence of it came when Kim Hill called me, light-heartedly, "A name-dropper" when I mentioned Shawn Colvin. I also have my suspicions that my role in support of Mr Finn was viewed as a sycophantic one.

Not so, my countrymen and women! The fact remains that every night without fail he rises above and beyond the call of duty to deliver performances that would stagger each and every one of you.

The delight, dedication and pride with which he executed the Austin, Texas, show was astounding as he paid tribute to his family individually, before their return to New Zealand after a gruelling six months on the road. There is no glamour in touring - just hard work and a defining attitude to better oneself with each show. It is with this spirit that I deliver these words. So, stand up and be proud!

Speaking of shows: the sold-out gig at the Roxy in Los Angeles was an experience which will be etched in my memory. It reminded me of that rare thing that happens when performer and audience are as one. You could hear a pin drop - unusual when invited music industry people tend to be blase and loud, much to the annoyance of the performers.

Well, not on this night. Wendy (of Wendy and Lisa) Melvion was riveting as she guested on guitar for Suffer Never - what a player. Sheryl Crow guested well on She Will Have Her Way and Souvinir among others. She sang Home (her own) with a brittle quality that betrayed a story-laden heart.

The audience was right there throughout the night - including my set where I needed to change guitars because of a noisy preamp or something. I was devastated by this but the consensus was that I delivered very well and won new fans. Like an athlete post-race I licked my wounds and vowed to better myself.

There is no end to the lessons of performance - a constant yearning to improve is the hook. With the songs laid out in relief in this acoustic context an audience also has to work - swaying to the implicit back beat or humming a favourite harmony line. It's all, to my delight, part of our sense of the event.

Screeds of reviews to come, dear readers!


Orwellian animal madness and an invitation to get naked

Letter from America (#3)

By Dave Dobbyn
(Reprinted without Permission)


Sunday Star-Times
Dec 6, 1998.

Americans are a captive audience - holding long notes solicits a fugue of gasps and theme park squeals. And of course dedicate any song to someone or something and you can trigger the "Award Show Reflex" which is endemic here. This is applause at its weirdest; ie, the more obscure the dedication the more sincere the response. But overuse of this ironic device can lead to Spielberg's Palsy, a disease of the sincerity gland. One tragic case last Oscar night involved Titanic director James Cameron who demanded One Minute's Silence for the real victims of the sinking.

Healthy cynicism aside, there's nothing like a giggle to draw people in. Then hit 'em with the opera! The more theatre like the venue, the more thespian I become. I can't resist doing bullshit Shakespeare. I'm working on my death scene and it's down to five hours.

Neil Finn held the San Juan Capistrano crowd in the palm of his hand from the start with Last One Standing - his 12-string filling the room with harmonics. After more than 100 shows under his belt on this world tour his finger picking was showcased here - the vocal and microphone technique impeccable - the nuances, slides and trills he executes live are beyond mere rendition.

Then on came Grant Lee Phillips (of Grant Lee Buffalo) and magic happens with two great voices duelling. I make a note to research Grant Lee's guitar - a Taylor 12-string - the sound full but transparent, with a silky top end - gorgeous! Then off we go up the LA Freeway to a bar called Largo where Neil, Grant and me jam with a marvellous ragtime piano player called John Baen 'till the wee small hours: Fussy, Into Temptation, Whaling and Throw Your Arms Around Me.

Riding on an overfull cable car and being squashed as it ground uphill was not a romantic way to get to the show in San Francisco at the 7th Note. This was a great show where the audience were revved up from the start. I was thrown a Santa Cruz Uni T-Shirt and an invitation to get naked. Flattered, I later proceeded to cock up the guitar part and harmony in Sinner during Neil's set. A fall to earth.

No time to walk to the City Lights bookstore or ogle rare guitars or retrace Kim Novak's steps in Vertigo. We had to get to Toronto. After a beautiful flight over the Rockies we found Toronto at freezing point. A pretty city with trams and charm and it's share of homeless souls huddled for warmth under cardboard and plastic, Toronto means "meeting place". We played two nights at the Reverb Club; run by Yvonne, a charming English woman with a Dalmation named "Spotty Dog", the club was host to Ron Sexmith, Julianna Hatfield and members of Wilco the previous night.

The first show was amazing - Canadians can sing! Harmonies galore throughout Neil's relaxed two-hour set culminating in a resounding held chord in Fall At Your Feet. I played the best I had all tour and forgot to tape it. One punter asking for Dudes tunes and others clutching import copies of my records for signing.

A celebrated and undervalued singer-songwriter, Ron Sexmith joined us for the second show. he and Neil delivered a reverent version of Brian Wilson's Caroline No among others. At one weird moment Neil had the audience clucking like chickens and introducing other farmyard sounds during a jam. Luckily this was curtailed before Orwellian madness claimed us all.

Borders are places that remind you of your relative freedom and at Toronto airport the US authorities aim to make it difficult for anyone who doesn't have the correct documentation or DNA. After missing a flight and many phone calls my manager Grant Thomas and I made it through a grilling that took hours - dishevelled and near the departure lounge I turned to see Grant casually having a shoeshine with a smile on his dial - calm under pressure. I make a note to kill him later.

Driving through the projects of Chicago I couldn't help feeling these towers were reservations, like high-rise South African townships - the ghettos of America's bad dream. I felt shocked and humbled by the starkness of these buildings, each housing 2000 residents.

The Double Door is a great room, and Tim Finn is up from Nashville for the night. Tim was in great form as the brothers played together covering a 20-year catalogue - from Split Enz's Time for a Change through Crowded House's Natural and Weather With You through to the Finn Brothers' Angel's Heap and Only Talking Sense. Try Whistling This songs were met with glee as the Chicago audience sang hard. Sinner shone as Neil teased the crowd into response. The applause was deafening as the Finns left the stage after many encores and we all declared that Chicago Rocked!

The last show at New York's Bowery Ballroom was magnificent as Neil gave two hours of his all, to an enthralled throng. My supporting set was met with cheer and interest and Neil graciously joined me on Blindman's Bend and Hallelujah Song.

Back on New Zealand soil now and the last three weeks will remain with me as a series of milestones. If I can keep the momentum up and deliver another album and garner releases in far flung territories I will keep my artistic head above water and remain passionate about the music. I'm busting to tour New Zealand and get The Islander into as many homes as I can over summer. Nine shows later and many miles later I am still in travel mode.

Hopefully a plethora of engagements across North America will keep me busy in 1999. It's a grand life in my head! You can plan until the cows come home and never be sure where you'll be tomorrow, let alone next year. That's the sting in this vague business. It follows that most of your successes are incremental and often accidental. It begs the cliche: "A bit like life really."

So long, readers. It's been a hoot.


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