With Jemaine in a red checked shirt and matching coloured jeans, and Bret in a blue shirt and jeans, they look as though they could have wandered in off Wellington’s Cuba St. At least they do once they’ve shed (“The whole time it was us!”) the shiny silvery tops and crappy cardboard robot helmets of daft Daft Punk opener Too Many Dicks (On the Dancefloor) and retro sci-fi second number Robots, and before they switch to spangly satin blouses for the heavy-metal pre-encore finale Demon Woman, telling us: “We saw Lady Gaga and thought we needed to pick up our game.”
It’s two years since the Conchords last played live (“We’ve just been in polystyrene boxes”) and three years since the second of their two TV series aired in New Zealand and its accompanying album, I Told You I Was Freaky, was released here.
We never got to see those live shows at the time, of course; this tour’s support act Arj Barker has been a more familiar presence on New Zealand stages than the Conchords. But the success of their US and European concerts, not to mention Jemaine’s burgeoning Hollywood film career and the small matter of Bret’s Oscar for Man or Muppet, have not gone to their heads nor to their budgets. (Lady Gaga needn’t worry; their Demon Woman outfits are endearingly inept, including a costume malfunction for Bret – involving a cape and thankfully no nipple.)
This is essentially the same set-up as when I last saw the Conchords, pre-TV series, at Wellington’s Downstage Theatre, but with bigger auditoriums. “We should introduce the band,” says Bret. “That’s Jemaine on guitar.” “And on guitar that’s Bret.” Actually, there are more instruments than that, and there’s also Nigel, playing cello among other things, supposedly on charitable loan from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (“the New Zealand Sympathy Orchestra”).
The big fear after so long – to borrow from the Smiths, two of whose songs played over the soundsystem pre-concert on the opening night of the tour at Hawke’s Bay Opera House, Hastings – is that the joke isn’t funny any more. In many ways, it’s a miracle it was funny in the first place. Musical parody isn’t a genre covered in glory. But the Conchords’ songs have consistently passed all the tests: funny in the context of the TV show; funny outside the context of the TV show on their albums; funny – in my own case – after seemingly endless repeat plays in the car at the behest of my children.
That the songs bear repeating – and repeating and repeating and repeating – is due to the sheer brilliance of their conception and execution, and it’s a brilliance that shines through no less in concert than it does on record – possibly more so, with all the additions and quick-witted ad libs they bring to the songs.
There is great intelligence at play: a nimble, dexterous sense of both musical and lyrical absurdity that could only come from being steeped in songcraft, from folk (The Summer of 1353, Albi the Racist Dinosaur) to soul (Business Time – combining the recorder and Barry White) to rap (Hiphopopotamus vs Rhymenoceros, Hurt Feelings) and all stops in between, including pop’s nadir, the charity record. In the Conchords’ hands, that nadir becomes a concert highlight, with the audience dragooned into singing the various parts of Epileptic Dogs.
The Conchords’ own singing, and musicianship, in so many different guises, is as always a wonder – whether channelling David Bowie, holding a falsetto note for a surely dangerous length of time (and more impressive still fading out a song in falsetto) or rapping at a rate that puts Home Brew to shame.
And never mind too many dicks, this is a band with too many songs; so many they can leave out ones as good as The Prince of Parties and Ladies of the World, but happily their best – Bowie and the spot-on Pet Shop Boys spoof Inner City Pressure – are present.
There are a couple of new songs, too, including – as befits a band at this stage of their career – the road song, a tired staple reinvigorated and sent up with such lines as “another hotel, another complimentary muffin … another passed-out groupie with a goldfish in her arse”.
Catch this unmissable tour if you can, but don’t let your enthusiasm get the better of you. Those goldfish are terribly difficult to remove.
FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS, touring, until July 2.