Russell Baillie writes about movies for the Herald

Flight of the Conchords US tour: First review

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Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement. (Supplied)
Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement. (Supplied)

Tonight, Flight of the Conchords are back in New York, which was the backdrop to the HBO comedy which made international stars of Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie.

But this is a different Big Apple to the Chinatown apartment in lower Manhattan the two Wellington blokes supposedly shared on the show. Port Chester is an hour north, in leafy Westchester County.

The village's 1800-capacity Capitol Theatre is the venue for the first night of the pair's first major tour in three years, though the duo has played a couple of secret warm-up nights at a small venue in Manhattan.

The US dates go for two months, winding up with another NY show in Central Park then two nights at Los Angeles' Greek Theatre.

With their individual successes in the intervening time - McKenzie won an Oscar for his Muppet movie song, Clement co-directed and starred in What We Do in the Shadows in between Hollywood gigs - the thought might have been that FOTC had done its dash.

After all, song-based comedy doesn't have much of a shelf life. Who wants to hear Clement in Barry White mode on Business Time yet again?

Turns out, in Port Chester, plenty do.

The crowd is a a Bernie Sanders-voting, yoga-doing, Game of Thrones-watching kind of audience - according to research conducted during Arj Barker's deft opening stand-up slot.

Once the Conchords take their seats, the crowd's laughter barely stops throughout and Business Time, that ode to Wednesday night lurvvvve-making and workplace male hosiery is there at the end as a goofy groovy encore.

Predictably, there are other touchstones of the FOTC catalogue in the 80-minute show of a dozen songs.

But half or more of the enjoyment of a Conchords live performance remains Clement and McKenzie's inter-song chats.

It's still too deadpan to be called "banter" and still relies on politely droll Kiwi reserve.

And there's the beginning of what is sure to be a very long-running gag about all the rock'n'roll stuff they get up to on tour - which mainly so far seems to be about Clement being selfish and wasteful with the backstage fruit platters.

And there are new and new-ish songs that make up nearly half the setlist, some of them as musically ambitious and comedically multi-layered as anything they've done.

That's helped by Kiwi cellist Nigel Collins who gets introduced as "the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra" .

"It's not like the orchestras you have here," quips Clement from a stage where a small toy sheep sits next to McKenzie's piano. "In New Zealand, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra is a one man band."

Some new songs do keep it simple. Opener Party is an uncomplicated gag tune about the problems that friendless neat-freaks have throwing a bash.

But Father and Son - which has Clement and McKenzie scaled to parent-offspring relative dimensions on the video screens - starts out as a sentimental Dad tribute then upends it in all sorts of ways, quite beautifully.

Elsewhere, The Ballad of Stana was introduced as an old song they've never quite got right before galloping into a Johnny Cash/Spaghetti Western tale of a very bad dude, an evil pet-molesting killer who likes to blog about his despicable acts straight afterwards ("Too soon Stana., Too Soon!").

Shady Rachel has them doing amusingly random jazzy things to a Tom Waits-ian tale of cutlery theft.

But the stand-out new one is Seagull, in which the chameleonic voice of McKenzie takes on the lilt of one of those po-faced Brit singer-songwriters as he sings about spreading his wings and other ornithological metaphors as Clement earnestly explains their deeper meaning.

Of the older numbers, Thin White Duke spoof Bowie's in Space now feels like a super-affectionate fan tribute while on the hip-hop Mutha'ucka McKenzie takes the song to town - he breaks into the "New York" hook of Jay-Z/Alicia Key's Empire State of Mind.

It's a glorious, hilarious moment. One of many in a show that reminds just how good FOTC can be live.

There's been no announcement or rumours about a homecoming tour (and this writer dutifully waited outside the theatre with the autograph-seeking fans to ask them about the possibility, but had to catch the midnight train back to Manhattan before they emerged).

But the new songs are great and FOTC already seem to have rekindled their on-stage magic mateship. They'll be worth the wait.

Setlist

Party
Father and Son
Foux du Fafa
The ballad of Stana
Most Beautiful Girl (In the room)
Shady Rachel
Mutha'ucka
Seagull
F*** on the Ceiling
The Summer of 1353
Bowie's in Space
Encore: Business Time

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