It’s been two years since I first heard the songs from Reb Fountain’s new album played live and tentative at the Tuning Fork back in October 2018. Reb was alive and the band were tentative, having just learned the songs, but Reb gave a performance of such power that it was something to watch. And anticipate. The new album came out in May and it was a cracker, not as powerful as the live performance, but then albums are for the songs, and live is for the swagger and the power and the force. And since then the wait has been painful, as we stagger through Covid and go live and not live and finally tonight’s the night.. And we are in the Mercury, this beautiful old theatre just off K Road, and much under utilised.
And Shayne P Carter is her special guest with his powerful songs which almost defy a category but he can defy, because he’s a legend and a Hall of Famer and he comes from Dunedin. Which is more than a category, it’s a movement. Straightjacket Fits and sometimes doesn’t, and Dimmer is now a memory, so put in the P and reinvent around the piano but mostly played on acoustic guitar.
Now I know about his guitar playing because I saw him a couple of weeks ago playing in Don McGlashan’s band but I’m not supposed to write about that so I can’t tell you how awesome his electric shimmer was so I won’t. Just imagine. He does 9 songs in 45 minutes and all of us are timing him because he has asked us to and he plays frantic acoustic reminiscent of Steve Gunn on speed and then he takes the same or similar progressions and plonks away on the piano to produce a discordant rhythm which captivates.
I apologise for not knowing the songs and he didn’t say but we can’t feel “Short Changed” and I believe I might have heard a luckiest star from Dimmer but it doesn’t matter because it was interesting and the audience may have known more because their enthusiasm was clear. And he was gone, right on time.
And then Reb doesn’t come out. Someone else does.
Medullah Oblongata (which connects the spinal cord to the brain) is also a Queen of K Road, and has her own story, but tonight her role is to tantalise with a lip synch “Hot Stuff” in anticipation of what is to come. And of course, we know her already from the video of “Samson”. And of course the clothes come off but not all, and Medulla goes off and on comes Rohan on broom to clean it up. It’s a K Road thing.
And finally, cabaret over, it’s Reb and the band, and it changes, changes, she’s made some changes, and it’s horses and it’s ice flowing over the road and its “Hawks and Doves” and we’re off.
She has a three-piece band in support, Karin Canzek on bass, Earl Robertson on drums, and multi-instrumentalist and album producer, the ubiquitous Dave Khan on mostly electric guitar. Reb herself plays acoustic, piano and what I think is an autoharp and we are on an amazing journey to the Fountain of Reb.
It’s the entire album, with the quieter closing numbers up first, “Strangers” and “Quiet Like The Rain” before she goes “Faster” with a dive into early release the powerful “Gold”. There’s a new song, written during lockdown and recorded on the road, captured in Oamaru, and reflecting on Reb’s sometime troubled relationship with her mother “Hey Mom”. Maybe a trio of new songs, with “Swim to the Star’ and “Heart” and wow,, there’s nearly a new album in the mix such is the creative burst which is the current muse of Reb.
Back to the album, with “Samson” and Reb is pure poetry, crazy like your love. Earl Robertson picks up the male vocal in “When Gods Lie”, and “The Last Word” is not the last word and Dave funks it up and goes hard on guitar.
And we hear the Reb of many voices, acting out the players and emotions of the song with affect and accent and intonation. Her vocal range is extensive, impressive, but more so in the way she travels leaving us at times gasping and emotionally engaged with the sentiment of the song. She has an uncanny ability to project the voices of her characters through her own, their fears, their defiance and their helpless and hopelessness.
Benjamin Chee Chee was a First Nation artist who died in a Canadian prison after being arrested drunk, and his story is the one she tells in “Don’t You Know Who I Am” the blockbuster finale number which we have seen represented on video directed by and featuring her shaven headed daughter Lola. Chee Chee’s death was an apparent suicide, but there’s sufficient doubt to leave a lingering sense of injustice which would foreshadow the more blatant experience of George Floyd earlier this year. This most powerful of songs would be a fitting anthem for Black Lives Matter or any movement against injustice for that matter. And so we hear Benjamin the defiant, Benjamin the indignant, and Benjamin the beaten, somewhere between a whimper and a banshee wail, all in the space of a 5 minute song. Simply amazing. And emotionally exhausting.
But it’s not just the frailty and vulnerabilities of others that she sings about. It’s also herself, and the vulnerability of the artist who doubts and doubts and fails to connect until the music and the stage takes her somewhere else and she becomes the unintentional prophet which we are all born to follow.
There’s a comparison to be made between Aldous who has gone along a PJ Harvey road, and Reb who is more Nick Cave, but both of whom have found their own voice and the comparison is not to diminish or belittle or copycat, not at all, but more to anchor a reference for our reverence.
And while those thoughts were forming she does her encores to prove my points with firstly the song “Lighthouse”, dedicated to her son and daughter, Lola and Calvin, who are sitting in front of me and clearly outrank me as her biggest fans, and then a Nick Cave song “15 Feet of Pure White Snow” to pay homage to the master of dark insight and lyrical beauty.
We, along with all the other spellbound fans strewn across Aotearoa, have witnessed something special and not to be forgotten and to be talked about until the next time. Hail Reb!
Radio 13 thanks and credits Chris Zwaagdyk of Zed Pics for all the images in this review.