I believe that the key ingredient in the self-referential, solipsistic pop recipe is sincerity. It can bolster what would otherwise be stock chord progressions and simple lyrical platitudes into a song greater than the sum of its parts. For an artist like Jack River - aka Holly Rankin - being especially open about this vulnerable specificity, let alone basing a musical identity around it, is a high-stakes game of risk vs. reward. However, it’s safe to say that River won that game this night, charming the crowd with a stunning debut set at The Tuning Fork in Auckland, NZ.
Supporting act LEXXA also solidified their sincerity off the back of an infectious enthusiasm and sibling camaraderie. From Bad Boys-style back-to-back battles, collapsing out of breath on the ground - while playing new hit Slow Fade Out perfectly all the while, mind you - to their raucous rendition of Shania Twain’s Man, I Feel Like A Woman, twin sisters Maude and Julia Morris gave the audience all they had... and more.
Katie Baya was no slouch on the drums either, effortlessly switching between hi-hat flourishes and synth pads at the drop of a hat. These girls are ones to look out for, and hopefully, they’ll be headlining at the Tuning Fork eventually.
Admittedly, I was a newcomer to Jack River’s brand of emotionally potent pop-rock, but I was pleasantly surprised with how her live set balanced the two fundamental aspects of the genre. Having only heard the first few songs of her debut album Sugar Mountain, I assumed the majority of the setlist would pop without rocking, promising understated guitar melodies similar to The Japanese House.
The first few Neil Young-ian chords of Palo Alto immediately dispelled that notion, highlighting each endearing yelp and occasionally nasal inflection that River has mastered. The guitar tones were fuzzier than expected as well, compared to the relatively clean production on the album, but they pleasantly complemented the overall aesthetic.
River knows her worth as a woman, and her lyrics reinforce empowerment tenfold, refusing to bend for men who ultimately end up shining like Fool’s Gold. Her entire stage presence, from her Stevie Nicks-esque dress to labelling the crowd as her “sonic family”, seemed built around a radiant and unconditional love.
Personally, I felt there were moments across River’s set where the live mix didn’t seem to suit the material. It sounded like a tempest, with every instrument struggling to overpower each other but remaining equally loud at the same time. While it worked with the more rocking tracks, in the case of softer ballads like Head To Stars, it diminished the dynamics and nuance that the song otherwise might have had. However, I have to stress that this never detracted from the tight musicianship of the band overall.
Special mentions have to go to lead guitarist and backing vocalist Annie Hamilton, who deftly matched River’s timbre and delivered each guitar lick with grace - and whose own music River excitedly told the audience about, saying Fade was one of her favourite tracks.
Girl power was the theme of the night, with River dedicating a couple of songs to Jacinda Ardern and “strong, powerful women” in general. River knows her worth as a woman, and her lyrics reinforce empowerment tenfold, refusing to bend for men who ultimately end up shining like Fool’s Gold. Her entire stage presence, from her Stevie Nicks-esque dress to labelling the crowd as her “sonic family”, seemed built around a radiant and unconditional love. I could feel it being accepted and returned by the crowd equally, making up for their small numbers with large enthusiasm and passionate dancing.
Ultimately, I look back on the night and think Jack River successfully brought the sugar more than she brought the mountain. There aren’t many people who can describe one of their deep cuts as “a love song to the planet” or discuss their relationship with their dog on the stage, and avoid sounding cheesy, corny or any other food-related adjective. The fact that River achieved that, combined with each anthemic chorus rocketing to the stars, felt like the best qualities of an intimate show and an arena merged into one - fitting, considering The Tuning Fork sits right next to Spark Arena. Overall, River’s debut NZ gig was the perfect introduction to her sound, and any future return should be highly anticipated.
JACK RIVER'S SETLIST
- Palo Alto
- Limo Song
- Talk Like That
- Constellation Ball
- Head To Stars
- Fault Line
- She’s So High (Tal Bachman Cover)
- Fool’s Gold