The Mutton Birds
San Fran, Wellington
Friday, February 7
Two sold out Mutton Birds shows in Wellington! And I was lucky to get to one. Luckier still, it seems, to get to the second one. How do I know that? Well there were murmurs of the band playing one big song earlier on and then meandering through album tracks to finally get to the hits on Thursday night. That sounded just fine by me – but I know the full catalogue. There’ll always be the fairweather types that just want the songs they know.
Still, Don McGlashan addresses the LP-fans in the room by announcing that they’ll be changing things up a bit for this set.
And we’re in – Dominion Road, official opener. Same as Thursday night. It’s everyone’s favourite tonight. Straight away. First song from the first album. The song itself shining like the strip cut from the sheet metal plate – we know every word, we know Jane reached the point and that ‘he’ hadn’t clicked but we still want to see what happens. That might be one of the best bits of magic in a Don McGlashan song; these stories unfold and we’re still intrigued every time we hear them despite knowing every word.
There have been many great McGlashan songs across many great McGlashan-led bands but The Mutton Birds reformed is something truly special. Four musicians working hard for each song, all so unique with their skills, all so responsible and caring in the way they deal with this treasure.
There’s David Long to the side – leaning over his guitar like a scientist contemplating beakers and Bunsen burners. A tradesman with his measure-twice/cut-once searing lead lines that always fit, are always perfect, and again always silvery and surprising.
There’s Ross Burge behind the drums. With his swaying head and his dark shades on to avoid the dazzle – of lights and people – you could substitute the kit for a keyboard and he could be Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen. Ross Burge brings his ominous thwack to any song that gets in his way. Conversely he never gets in the way of a song – just sits deep inside it, driving it home. The very safest pair of hands.
Alan Gregg pulls double duty as mighty-fine bass player, the rubber buoyancy of his bass lines simultaneously soft and squidgy while being robust and authoritative. He’s also one of the very best harmony singers you could have in a band – his vocals cutting through always and providing the right counterpoint notes, the right back-up. Speaking of back-up, damn fine “auxiliary” songwriter too (Come Around, Wellington and a few others that don’t make the set tonight).
And Mr McGlashan. One of our greatest short story writers, certainly our best working doggedly and determinedly with music. A McGlashan line stays written. It burns into the core of any listener. Delivered on the wings of David Long’s swooping, soaring guitar. We recognise ourselves and the people we know in a Don McGlashan song. Our people. Our place. This country. Silent, proud, awkward, dumb men. She’ll Be Right types – even after it isn’t at all right. Arms folded. Sip of beer.
All of this – everything I’ve just written – rushes through me as Dominion Road’s scene-setter concludes.
And then there’s my personal nostalgia connecting me directly to some of these songs – just as others in the audience will have their memories of getting married to a McGlashan song…well, whatever, anything else I guess…I am transported to the shitty covers band I played in at uni, thrashing out our best attempts at In My Room and others. I know every inch of the ceiling in these songs.
It sure is good to hear In My Room played correctly.
So as the hits tumble from the stage in this re-arranged set we get Straight To Your Head and don’t have to wait long at all for an introduction-less stomp through the band’s name-making cover of The Fourmyula’s Nature.
But the first true emotional peak of the evening (as if just getting through the first couple of songs hasn’t made me breathless enough!) is the one-two of Don’s best deep-psyche songs from that first Mutton Birds album.
A Thing Well Made comes to life through Ross Burge’s metronomic drumming and if McGlashan’s euphonium doesn’t quite cut through tonight, at least I don’t feel it from where I’m standing, it still sets up enough of a mournful tone and the churn of two guitars (Gregg doubling with Long) pulls the story into place.
From there it’s to the mercurial White Valiant. A perfect evocation of Double Brown New Zealand, the landscape, the woolen socks, winding roads, enamel mugs and the titular vehicle. Knives under the element and David Long’s guitar circling then disappearing like smoke.
There’s magic in the album cuts across The Mutton Birds’ finite, perfect catalogue and from Salty tonight we get Ngaire – we’re told it wasn’t offered the night before – and later When The Wind Comes Round and Too Close To The Sun. From Envy of Angels it’s the beautiful Trouble With You which could exist just for Don’s falsetto to be showcased but offers so much more besides and one of the slightly lesser ‘pop’ songs, Like This Train. I mean lesser in the sense that it feels like an off-cut when compared with other pop gems from this band but many other acts could still beg for a hook that good.
Rain, Steam & Speed is, to this day, The Mutton Birds album I have listened to least, that I care the least about – but that doesn’t mean I don’t love it; that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have hidden gems and strong songs – and, yes, I know we’re going to get Pulled Along By Love, probably as an encore (and I’m right). That’s one of Don’s strong go-to songs; pull that out any time in a gig and it works. It has the urgency and forward propulsion of a great McGlashan pop song. But deep in the set tonight we also get Ray, the final song off the album – it’s reworked a tad and sounds glorious. More tantalising is the hint that in the reworking of this, and later in a newer arrangement of Pulled Along, we have a band not just back together for a paycheck but to make music again, to rework and rekindle. Are we going to get a new Mutton Birds studio album this year? I can’t be the only one in the audience with fingers firmly crossed.
Alan Gregg belts out Wellington to a Wellington audience – so all seems right in the world for three-to-four minutes.
And the euphonium cuts through much better when McGlashan has at it to fire up The Heater.
Pulled Along By Love was just great, but the real encore thrill was Claude Rains, a Front Lawn song.
You live for these moments – as a fan of great Kiwi music, as a citizen of this often fine, mostly safe country. Particularly if you haven’t had the chance to see The Front Lawn, or if the last time you saw The Mutton Birds was at the beginning of the century.
These songs shine. Of course. But it’s the wizard-wand that waves from all of the musicians on stage. It’s the way these strong instrumentalists, these talented elements, are pulled along by the shared love of the music. And it was palpable. They wanted to be there. There was joy in their playing and in the elation from audience and then from the band members.
Outside on the balcony, after the gig, I watched a guy awkwardly approach Mr McGlashan for a selfie. The way starstruck fans do – particularly in the moments just after the gig, the impact of what they’ve just seen caked to their face like a donut glaze.
“You sir, are a national Taonga”, the fan said – both completely over the top and somehow understated as well.
“Thanks”, replied Don, with not quite a smirk and only nearly a shrug. He was a character trapped in one of his own songs right there. Standing next to another character from one of his songs.
I’m glad I got to see that.
More glad to have been there to hear everything that lead up to that awkward, utterly sincere exchange.
You can support Off The Tracks via PressPatron