You can't get much further apart than an orchestra and a roots band. One relies on rules, the other on bending them. So it was always going to be tough for the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Salmonella Dub to find middle ground.
United by background images of our geography and history, the omnipresent birdsong of Richard Nunns on traditional Maori instruments, and the outstanding vocals of jazz-blues singer Whirimako Black, the collaboration was certainly intriguing if for its sheer scale. Between songs, conductor Hamish McKeich was careful not to trip over his players, squeezed on to two-thirds of the stage; Salmonella Dub looked oddly well-behaved and vulnerable standing next to them.
The gig was a bold step for the band, whose latest album Heal Me steps away from their throbbing breaks material for more spacious songs. It was also an unmissable opportunity for the NZSO, (after gigs with the likes of Goldenhorse and Nathan Haines), even if the amps stole a little of the earthy timbre from their natural sound.
Arranger Tom Rainey had made the most of the challenging fusion. After one of many haunting mood pieces from Paddy Free and Nunns, it was straight into Tui Dub, a familiar song made all the more thrilling by the extra musicians.
Other moments of brilliance came when the strings plucked on the off-beat, skanking-style on Love, Sunshine and Happiness, the woodwind reverberated with dub on Watching it Rain and the full assault of the brass joined in on Platetectonics.
But compromise was necessary on both sides. The band seemed to operate on a more conservative level, and it was soon clear why orchestras don't typically play reggae. The rootsier songs felt like the culture clash between Captain Cook's men and early Maori, two groups trying to empathise rather than one unified outfit. McKeich kept an eagle eye on drummer Dave Deakins during the fast songs as their yin and yang threatened to pull the whole thing out of orbit.
The second half, which drew mostly from Heal Me, felt more cohesive. There was also room in the set for Black, accompanied by the band's excellent guest sax player, to sing a "Maori woman's blues song", a performance so stirring that one punter got up to shake her hand.
Those more familiar with the NZSO might not have known how powerful a Salmonella Dub gig can be until they broke into a cranking solo, rousing the orchestra's percussionists to jam with them and a pre-recorded track.
Several of the audience got out of their seats to dance as the rest of the musicians sat redundant. Despite the rowdy standing ovation, you couldn't help but wonder if the unlikely bedfellows were really meant to be.
Who: Salmonella Dub and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, with Whirimako Black, Paddy Free and Richard Nunns
Where: ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre
Reviewer: Rebecca Barry