Friday, May 3
The Man Alone tour was a chance for James Milne to step out with just the songs. Since the release of The Sparrow it’s been about strings, and an excellent band – and of course it’s been about the songs too but seeing Milne (as Lawrence Arabia – solo artist) alternate between piano and guitar, digging a little deeper into the bag of songs, offering a few surprises, was a treat.
It helped support calls – already being made – that Milne is one of the finest songwriters working in New Zealand music. He may be young still, the Lawrence Arabia name has only graced the spine of three solo albums to date – but there’s depth, there are so many great songs.
And so it was a way to consolidate, to dust off what have arguably become rarities – might seem funny to say across three solo albums, but it’s not every Lawrence Arabia gig you get to hear Everyone’s Had Dinner With Rabbit.
The show opened with Milne seated at the piano for a cover of Ray Davies’ I Go To Sleep; the Harry Nilsson comparison seems obvious here – given Nilsson’s abilities as both writer and song interpreter. And on Chant Darling in particular, for all the talk of a Lennon/Nilsson sound there seemed to be a profound influence from Davies. It was there in the writing. Very clear on that album.
And we had plenty on offer from that album tonight – including the hits; Apple Pie Bed had the audience singing along; because why not, it really is a perfect (t)wee pop song.
The subverted Johnny Cash chug of The Beautiful Young Crew worked well as a solo piece – because that’s essentially what it is on record. Sometimes in band performances this song can get lost in the re-arrangements.
And so many good singalong moments. These songs are memorable, they have hooks.
After The Sparrow being the backbone of the recent shows it was great to hear so many of these strong songs (including its opener, Travelling Shoes and early in the evening, The 03) performed with just Milne at the guitar. He never resorted to a dumbed-down acoustic strum approach; these songs were played on the electric, their quirky licks and pinches standing out in this setting, for they are – so often – the distinguishing features.
The side-project (Arabia/Fabulous) and the earlier group (The Reduction Agents) were referenced too with a lovely Waiting For Your Love one of several end-of-set highlights. We wouldn’t let him go. And he had worked hard, 100 minutes up there under the lights, not a dud song offered. Plenty of reminders of the older material, some hints at new directions. Banter. Perfect pop songs. A sleepy, weary-but-worldly charm.
Though I don’t feel the charge of a slick show with strings attached should be levelled in any derogatory sense – the Lawrence Arabia band and string section that took The Sparrow out and around the country was kick-ass/world-class and one of the best value-for-money shows you could see – there were a few people unhappy at that direction; some suggestions of hiding inside the arrangements, of conjuring tricks and gimmicks as if smoke and mirrors.
Well then, at any rate, this was an important traipse around the country as the Man Alone because this gave people the chance to see and hear Milne simply serving the songs. I’m not sure why being a clever bastard – in the way that Milne is – could ever seem a bad thing. But here he fronted up and let the songs do the work. Such a huge, great catalogue to draw on already.
You wait and hope for more. And you know they’re going to come. And this man – alone or with his friends – will continue to serve them up and serve them well.
The mood was informal and celebratory. It almost had an impromptu feel to it – audience requests, covers, new and old. And a great turnout. Sold out. As you would hope.
A special night. As any night stepping out for live music should be.