It had just begun to rain as we saw the silhouette of Whangateau Hall, parked opposite and looked out in the dim light at what must be a contender for the most beautiful rugby pitch in the country. Halfway between Matakana and Leigh, the austere old church and the lonely field that ends at the Whangateau harbour is one of those sites that makes it seem preposterous that 21st century Auckland City could be just an hour behind you.
All of which was poor preparation for what waited inside. On the small stage a flood of lighting and a tropical backdrop of ocean, sand and wild palm trees. In front a tightly packed display of instruments around an upright piano and one seemingly out-of-place candelabra. Everywhere else an overgrown forest of tripods, cameras, mic stands and dollies, all connected by dark wires, possessing the room like supplejack. A film set. While at the back of the room and under a tarpaulin outside, true to the spirit of the hall, the arriving guests were eating the communal potluck.
After some director's instructions from Hugh Sundae, it was left to the Lawrence Arabia band, horn section and string quartet to make the audience of friends forget the film set. They achieved this in between songs with honest humour and acknowledgement of their curious surroundings, and during songs with an intense delivery of music almost everyone was hearing for the first time.
Because this was Lawrence Arabia delivering his third album, The Sparrow, in order, as close as possible in instrumentation to the recorded product. As James Milne and his 10-piece did, so the personality of the backdrop started to grow.
In one way, this sounded like a familiar Lawrence Arabia album - the '60s pop bass and drum textures, the vintage guitar flourishes, the brilliantly arranged vocal harmonies, now equalled and responded to by string and horn arrangements. But after the journey-pop opener Travelling Shoes, those familiar textures lured us down an unfamiliar path.
The darkness that has always lurked behind the humour and pathos in Milne's writing has a wrapped a firmer hold around some of these songs, and there is a dark determined drive that possesses them, alongside with an experimental bent - from the more elaborate pop structure of Legends to the stunning atonal instrumental Decile Rag, co-written with Toby Laing. By the beating middle of the album when, in Early Kneecappings, Milne sings of learning to swim and taking out his competitors, the solemn light of the candelabra and the bright but lonely beach scene behind it had come to make sense together in some way.
Who: Lawrence Arabia
Where: Whangateau Hall, Rodney