Leather jackets were dusted off and donned in great numbers at San Fran last night, in anticipation of legendary Dunedenites The Chills’ set. Martin Phillipps and his latest lineup delivered exactly what was expected - a simple, straightforward run-through of guitar-pop songs from across their career. “Heavenly” might be a bit of an exaggeration, but the hits were certainly popping.
First, I need to mention Tiny Ruins’ brilliant opening set. This was by far the best of the three times I’ve seen Hollie Fullbrook perform solo, the Auckland singer-songwriter stunning with her fluid and expressive acoustic guitar style and plaintive vocals.
Unfortunately, the crowd during her set was one of the worst I’ve heard in a long time, keeping up a loud and enthusiastic chatter even after multiple gentle requests from the performer to lower their conversations or “take it to the veranda.” This was all the more frustrating for the sheer quality of the songs the noise was distracting from, a quality that struck me in full for the first time. I admire how Fullbrook rose above the chatter to deliver such a powerful and flawless set, as though to spite it.
Though a completely different kettle of fish, The Chills still had a large job (at least in my mind - the chatterers obviously disagreed) in following Tiny Ruins. And to be honest, nothing in the headliner’s set burnt quite as bright as the highlights of the opening act.
But, The Chills command a different kind of presence altogether, loaded as they are with almost four decades of New Zealand musical history. It was heartening to watch and hear the crowd’s enthusiastic responses to so many identifiable tracks, and also to observe the diverse mix of age groups in attendance. For a band whose sound is so rooted in a particular era, The Chills have enjoyed surprising ongoing popularity.
They opened with Night Of Chill Blue, from their 1987 debut Brave Words, and from there tore 'business-like' through a 17-song set of material old and new. It became clear that The Chills are one of those bands in which the popularity gap between their famous songs and most of their other pieces is actually warranted and reflective of quality. The classics Pink Frost, played halfway through the set, and Heavenly Pop Hit, which closed it, stood out not just for the cheers of recognition, but as great enjoyable pop on musical grounds, played with a lot of energy. Many of the tracks in between, particularly those from the new album Snow Bound, lacked the same flair - a shame, because Snow Bound, a collection of mostly non-descript tunes, was represented more than any other album.
On several occasions Phillipps’ voice wandered noticeably out of tune, but it had little effect on their charm. The other current Chills are Erica Scally on violin, guitar and keys, Oli Wilson on keys, James Dickson on bass, and Todd Knudson on drums. Knudson was particularly fun to watch, embodying his enthusiasm for each track with over-the-top arm movements and facials.
The band returned for a three-song encore of classic early singles that really amped up the energy level of the crowd. I heard someone express disbelief to their friend behind me when Phillipps’ told us Kaleidoscope World would be forty years old next year - presumably from the time it was written, not released. Signing off with I Love My Leather Jacket, they left a buzzing, appreciative and sweaty crowd to wander out of the venue.
They came, they played simple bite-sized song after song, and they gave the crowd exactly what they wanted - a rock gig in its simplest form. They didn’t amaze or move me, but they were reliable, in the same way their older music has a sense of reliable fun and nostalgia in it. People had a good time.
Also, catch Tiny Ruins whenever you can.
Radio 13 credit and thank Ruby Wilkinson for all the images featured in this article.
The Chills' setlist -
- Night Of Chill Blue
- Bad Sugar
- Wet Blanket
- The Male Monster From The Id
- Snow Bound
- Submarine Bells
- Deep Belief
- Pink Frost
- Lord Of All I Survey
- Underwater Wasteland
- America Says Hello
- Heavenly Pop Hit
- Kaleidoscope World
- I Love My Leather Jacket