Wednesday, February 5
Liam Finn played two nights at Puppies, back to back. We got there for the second night. A chance to hear roughly half of the new album (The Nihilist, due April) and songs from his previous records too. James Milne – better known to most as Lawrence Arabia – was there to handle bass duties for Finn but was a secret/unannounced/special guest as opening act. (The cat, I would guess, somewhat out of the bag after Tuesday).
So it’s now a double-bill, pretty much. And Milne takes the stage for a few old songs and one new one, a reworking of his Fabulous/Arabia song, The Ballad of State Highway 1 and then he welcomes the band up to help him with the rest of his set. The band being Liam Finn’s band, so Finn’s on bass for Milne’s songs and after the break the frontman switches. For both sets we have EJ Barnes adding backing vocals (and with Liam she adds some guitar, some autoharp, percussion and a few effects) and Liam’s younger brother Elroy is at the drumkit with Cecilia Herbert on backing vocals and keys.
Milne sets up great band versions of songs from The Sparrow, particularly The Listening Times and The O3, both benefiting from having their distinctive drum patterns (both played by Elroy Finn on the record).
By the end of Milne’s set it’s a full room and one ready to party.
The changeover is quick.
Liam Finn starts the show with a new song (‘I’) and it’s to that paisley type of psychedelia The Flaming Lips has made a second career from, but with this wonderful rhythmic loop, a sort of CAN/Krautrock groove, Milne is a fantastic bass player and his voice on the instrument pokes through as the night continues, there’s an attack to his sound, lovely melodic lines but always really probing. Finn’s vocals sound intentionally dreary on the opening number but the music offers so many colours that the voice, here, is clearly just a texture; another texture in a swirl of invigorating sounds.
Then it’s to that debut album for Better To Be and it’s a shit-hot version, about the best I’ve heard. I saw Liam play many times where he relished the gimmick of loop pedals and adding his own (very good) drumming, even singing behind the kit while his guitar riff was sampled and held. And in fact he transcended the gimmick more often than not, but this is a reminder that the loss of the clever one-man-band trick, although maybe sad for some, shows huge gains when you get to hear Finn tear at his guitar for the duration of a track like Better To Be. There’s a breakdown in the middle where he all but channels Prince’s howling outro from Let’s Go Crazy. And if he’s not taking from that song’s sound he certainly charges on with the title as a mantra, a committed frontperson from the get go, one of the revelations in watching Liam Finn in live performance is the confidence he has. New songs – played live just a small handful of times – are delivered with all of the swagger of a song like Second Chance or I’ll Be Lightning; staples since his earliest solo performances. And highlights once again tonight.
When I first heard the new single, Snug As Fuck, I wasn’t convinced I was hearing anything special – but the version here, tonight, is great. The song’s a winner – and it helps hearing it in and around some of the other new shapes and colours. Modern Neurotic World and Cold Feet still stand as the two finest moments from his previous album, one a grim-but-hopeful ballad, the other a slice of near enough to pop perfection, closer in spirit to the best solo work of his uncle rather than his father – if you have to force a connection. Bookending the new single it makes for a strong set of tunes, a trio of songs highlighting Finn’s pop songwriting chops – and then on another new one, 4 Track Stomper, where we hear more squeals and squalls of guitar. Again, now he doesn’t have to multi-task you get to hear more of Liam Finn: Guitarist. And he’s great – really great. The sound just seems to uncoil from an infinity loop. He issues sounds around the main body of the tune, the guitar lines weaving and darting, often dodging the main melody of the song after first introducing it.
But he’s continuing to mature as a tunesmith – these brand new songs felt so well realised and lived-in and it was the first time we were hearing them. And the old songs – the ones back from the debut album, especially – appear to have new life breathed into them.
Liam Finn: The Showman is really something to see too. Still. I mean it’s been that way from when I first saw him perform, but now he has a no-filler setlist to power through. It was as if we were hearing a Greatest Hits showcase even with a third of brand new material. And this band was great, they’d all pulled double-duty two nights in a row and showed no signs of slowing. A cheap cover-charge, a small venue, they were in it for the love, for the fun, and you could see it. What a great way to debut the new material; to remind everyone of a second generation talent who has been busy making it now on his own out in the wider world away from the obvious, so-easy/don’t-bother backlash.
Roll on the new album and a full tour in support.
It had been a couple of years and I’d (almost) forgotten just how good Liam Finn is. An often astonishingly good performance, an always white-hot energy and he shows signs of improving with each albums which, come on, should always be the goal. Right?