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Bic Runga - Royal Albert Hall on 28 March 2005 (Easter Monday)
When I had booked the tickets in November 2004, these three nights at the Royal Albert Hall looked like a genuine Dream Ticket. My all-time favourites—amongst many sublime competitors for that title—were the Finn Brothers in their various guises over the past 30 years (Spit Enz, Crowded House, Finn, their respective solo careers), and the support act for their shows at the famous Royal Albert Hall would be their delightful fellow Kiwi, Bic Runga. Both acts were extraordinary talents who were astonishingly well-kept secrets in many parts of the world but were Gods on their home turf in the Antipodes. The Finns, I am told, enjoy Beatles status at home and Bic, who remains almost completely unknown in the UK despite successfully touring here before, is the best-selling New Zealand artist of all time at home. Both her albums hit number one—her self-produced debut entering the charts at the top and spawning six Top 20 singles (which is more than half of the album’s tracks) and her second album going over 10 times platinum, and deservedly so. I remember having been disappointed in the summer when I knew that she was in town at the same time as the Finn Brothers’ Regent’s Park gig for their fan club, but she didn’t join them on stage and instead sat with us in the audience. So seeing them play on the same ticket in London was to be a longed-for pleasure finally realised.
But now that the first night was here, the exciting promise of the ideal concert had faded considerably. The dim-heartedness many of us felt in entering the Albert Hall on Easter Monday had nothing to do with fading talents or falling stars; it was a treat even to share the same world with Neil and Tim Finn, and Bic was always worth hearing. What had happened was a horrid tragedy that shocked those of us who had been Crowded House fans—most of us. Their drummer and dear friend, who was particularly close to Neil, had taken his own life in a park two days earlier, and most of us had just learned the news on Easter Sunday. Although few of us had met Paul Hester, he had played a significant part in the delightful jocularity of Crowded House, particularly in their live shows, helping to create an air of wit similar to that exhibited by the Beatles, and he had had a great influence on our lives as we grew up loving the band.
On top of our own shocked grief, we were all concerned for the beloved Finns, who were amazing just to go through with this momentous concert. It is, after all, difficult to get hold of 5,000 people on a Bank Holiday to tell them not to come, but the Finns may have chosen to carry on for other reasons, too. Showbiz adage or not, it must be near impossible to drag yourself onto a stage in front of the masses to entertain them when you have just been dealt such an unbearable blow. We knew that Monday night’s show, at least, was going ahead, but we were not sure what to expect and were somewhat wary of whether the Hall would be filled with dolefulness. So many of us were there with a hole in our hearts, my thoughts stuck in the groove of the Beatles record A Day in The Life where Lennon sang the line "Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall."
Bic Runga had the daunting task of being the first to face us. How could she shake off the overwhelming gloom that veiled us all? It was difficult enough taking the stage of such an enormous, eminent venue alone, particularly when you are as tiny as Bic.
She strode strongly onto the front of the stage—as most of the stage was hidden behind a black curtain, behind which hung some of Neil’s wife’s creations, Sharondeliers—20 minutes later than scheduled to the enormous cheers of an audience filled with London-based Antipodeans and many others who were abundantly aware of her splendour. Camera flashes started going off as though she were the main act, and she hid her nervousness well, standing tall in front of her microphone stand, wearing a sleeveless black belted dress or tunic over what looked like baggy fuchsia leggings but were probably thigh high boots. Around her neck along with wisps of her long hair was the strap of a brown and white electric (Stratocaster?) guitar and a long necklace with what looked like a Native American dream catcher.
Looking more beautiful than I had recalled when she had appeared with Tim Finn and that other magnificent Kiwi, Dave Dobbyn, at the Brixton Academy on a past heavenly Waitangi Day, Bic approached the mike and quietly introduced herself, not like someone who toured widely and knew absolutely phenomenal success at home, but as though she were taking the stage for about the third time ever and couldn’t believe where she found herself to be. She then told us that it was good to be there, a throwaway line normally, but one that set us slightly more at ease on this occasion, as it suggested a sense of normality that perhaps we needed to feel. She could have begun with an announcement about Paul Hester and how they were all struggling to find any enthusiasm to turn up that night amongst such tremendous grief and disbelief, but there was no mention of that.
Instead, she and her lone guitar began gently strolling into the title track of her first album, Drive, a delicately beguiling song with a haunting softness that was her first single in New Zealand. The brooding intimate feel of this track, sung perfectly as always, made it a terrific opener as it hushed the audience and entranced even those who might not have heard of her before. Immediately, it was clear she was something exceptional. Perhaps it wasn’t instantly recognisable that the 31-year-old of Chinese/Maori background came from a musical family and played several instruments herself, but her skill for writing and her alluring voice speedily became evident. The subtle strength of the track was even more fitting when opening an unconventional show on a night wracked with grief. It would have been inappropriate to rush out to a bopping, upbeat number and expect us to react with energetic handclaps to a pulsating beat. This tune mirrored all the energy we could muster and tugged us gently out of our sorrowful minds into the reality of the Albert Hall, where we had come to see a concert—although admittedly many of us probably just needed to be near the Finns, but that would come later. Bic had a job to do first.
When she drew the quiet song to a close, the audience reacted surprisingly strongly for an opening act, but as I said, it was quite clear that she was amongst fans who knew the full value of her worth even if most of those outside the Hall did not. When she spoke, she said that it was nice to be touring with the Finn Brothers and that this night was the start of their European tour. I must admit that I had been so focused on the three gigs I had planned for months to attend, I hadn’t really noticed where the performers were going next or where they had come from, so I hadn’t realised that these shows were opening the tour until I saw the tour dates on the t-shirts being sold at the front of the house, which I wondered about as many of those printed dates might soon be inaccurate. That knowledge made the situation even sadder, that what should have been such an amazing three nights for the Finns—not just playing to a mostly sold-out crowd at the historical Albert Hall, but heralding in their tour of Europe—was now something they’d have to drag themselves through before possibly cancelling many of the dates that were to follow.
Still, there was Bic thanking the Finns for letting her join them on tour, and she said she’d delighted in watching them on their American tour and promised that we would have a great night. That seemed somehow impossible in the circumstances, but we knew she meant that we would be witnessing the work of astonishing talents. She paused for a second before apparently deciding to open up to us a bit, telling us that she had seen Neil Finn just before she came on stage and she had told him that she was really nervous. "You should be!" he had replied, which probably didn’t offer anything like the comfort or words of wise advice she had been seeking, but her recounting this exchange put many of us at ease as it suggested that there was evidence that Neil was behaving normally despite the horrors of the weekend, and we needed to know that. Somehow, it was comforting.
Keeping to an eminently sensible set list, she switched to acoustic guitar before plucking her way into a song that would be familiar to most Finn fans as it had been included on the best-selling New Zealand live album ever, and one of my all-time favourites, from her tour in 2000 with Tim Finn and Dave Dobbyn, Together in Concert Live, which most Finn fans would own or at least have heard if they were at the Brixton Academy for the aforementioned one UK date of that show in 2002. Also, Neil Finn sings backing vocals on the version on her second album, Beautiful Collision, as he does on other tracks, so the completists would own that. She played Something Good, nothing to do with Herman’s Hermits, but her delightfully bright song full of hope for a longed-for love affair, and the audience applauded it after recognising the first two lines. When Bic needed to belt out the extremely high notes during the bridge, she would step back from the mike, which seemed to flummox the sound engineer, as those parts were consequently muted. The acoustics of the Albert Hall are amazing, as the Finns would demonstrate over the next two nights by briefly singing without microphones, but in the middle of an amplified song, Bic’s otherwise impressively perfect notes were almost swept under the stage. The sweet song generally seemed to benefit from being presented in its natural state, free of the la-la-las and string arrangement of the recorded version.
After the sizeable applause died out, Bic told us that she was going to play us the first country song she had written. I half wanted to groan, as I hate country, but couldn’t immediately place a song of hers that I had disliked or had discarded into that category. On her albums, she frequently goes from gentle acoustic sweetie to taking a startling sudden plunge into the boiling realms of rock chick, but I had forgotten that Briolette Kahbic Runga could also sport a bit of Patsy Cline without looking unnatural.
She manipulated her guitar into making, in addition to the melody, a sort of clip-clop horsy country sound as she struck up a waltzy beat and began singing "Flogging the rocking horse, getting nowhere; we are a pair to behold," the first lines to The Be All and End All. I have to admit that, even when I heard the banjo infiltrating this track on her album, I still couldn’t dislike it, and it grows on you with every listen. On Beautiful Collision, Neil Finn contributes backing vocals, piano and Wurlitzer to this song, but you don’t need that extra star input to warm to it. Despite its gentle, soft, pleasant plodding, the song seems to race to a close, feeling much briefer than it really is, and it was welcomed by the Albert Hall audience, particularly as her consummate voice really glimmered on this number.
Bic introduced the next song by telling us that it was about being on the road, touring and being deprived. The song is electrified on the album, enjoying the immense talents of Dave Dobbyn’s guitars and near-Beatlesesque layers of backing vocals, but somehow its potent catchiness was better showcased by this lone, slim figure with nothing more than an acoustic guitar in this cavernous structure. Every artist could write about the trials of touring, and many have, but surely no song could capture the sense of it as impeccably as the splendid Get Some Sleep. From the first line of "From here to there to everywhere and back to union square, Where do I get some sleep?", which is saturated with catchiness, to the seemingly candid "I believe I might be having fun" echoing throughout the Albert Hall. She echoed our feelings by singing, "Something in the phrasing was quietly amazing / We were waiting for the chorus to come. / This is going out to everyone" before drawing the gently quick hook-laden treat to a close and earning massive applause.
Although the applause took a while to die down, there was still an almost awkward silence as Bic slowly changed to her electric guitar. A member of the audience was inspired to help entertain us during this intermission by singing, oddly but prettily, which made Bic grin. She continued to tinker with her guitar as though it would be a while before she would be singing again, so various other members of the audience decided to help fill the time. One deep-voiced man shouted out "Rock ‘n’ roll!"—not an exclamation that completely fit with the ruminative peacefulness of the tracks she was regaling us with tonight. Another audience member, the resident fashion critic, called out "I like your boots!" Ah, so they were boots and not leggings then.
Bic looked up at the towers of people around her. "Anything else?" she bravely—or foolishly--enquired. The air then filled with dozens of voices calling out requests and comments in incomprehensible unison. Finally, she leaned into the mike and sang with breathtaking clarity, "I’m counting stars, watching under, watching you through my walls." The hall erupted into mighty applause as those assembled recognised the mesmerizing Bursting Through, her second single from her first album. Played slightly slower than usual, its spellbinding peace balanced with her powerful, captivating voice seemed right at home in this amazing hall that often houses orchestras, even without the seductive strings that accompany the recorded version.
As I now many of us did frequently throughout the night, my mind adapted the song’s lyrics to the current sad circumstances, lacing them with a new poignancy that I needed to feel. "Don't fade from me now / I know you're listening somehow….Twisting bright / It's more than light it's / All you can give / All you can give / Look outside the sun it's Bursting through / Bursting through / Oh it's filling up this room." Maybe I’m mad, but the words made me think of Paul even more.
Truly her masterpiece, Bic’s outstanding performance of the song silenced the hall and enraptured the audience. When she finished and the roar of the thrilled audience had died away, Bic paused for what seemed an eternity to take a swig from a bottle of water. We dutifully waited in silence, clear in the knowledge that golden tonsils require significant lubrication to keep them in such fine fettle. When she finished her lengthy drink, she then changed to her acoustic guitar, and the prolonged silence had some people nervously shuffling their feet and coughing. The sole criticism one could make of this vocal angel would be that she should practice getting the swigs and instrument changes out of the way during the long bout of applause that followed each song, or at least come up with some anecdotes to tell us whilst tuning the guitar. Still, she is a seasoned performer, despite her youth, so perhaps it was just nerves. We certainly coped fine with this small interruption in the remarkable proceedings.
She finally informed us that she was going to sing Honest Goodbyes, a track from her 2002 album (it’s time for another!), and this promise stirred many to applaud. Again, Bic created a slight country waltz rhythm on her guitar as she bravely scrutinised the numerous levels of the Albert Hall, all filled with people staring back at her.
As she dreamily sang, "Honest goodbyes only work once or twice…Then the rest must be lies", the Albert Hall listened attentively. Three years after I first heard this song, I realised that I had forgotten how appealing it is, having perhaps unfairly categorised it upon first listen as being a bit sickly sweet and gooey, like a slightly more palatable version of bubblegum pop, with that tiny tinge of country that rarely wins my heart. Still, I had appreciated it then, I had simply lost it in the midst of so many lovely numbers on the album. Whilst I was pleased to be reminded of its bittersweet charm tonight, I must confess that I did not find the song to be as gripping as the rest of the audience clearly did based on their enormous applause when Bic finished.
Bic kept us waiting in silence once again as she tuned the guitar, so a woman in the audience delivered a booming judgement, twice shouting out, "Amazing!!" Bic looked taken aback, then smiled shyly before taking another incredibly long drink of water. Unused to hearing so much silence in the Albert Hall, audience members were again tempted to fill it themselves. Someone vastly less talented than the previous singing heckler began to torment us with an unwelcome performance of sorts, so Bic rescued us by cutting off that song with a few dark strums of her guitar. Our spirits visibly lifted as we prepared to be treated to another gifted Bic creation after such a long wait, and some people applauded just at the sound of music, but then Bic stopped suddenly and took off that guitar. We were stunned into silence and waited as she picked up her electric guitar and struggled for an age with the strap, which seemed to have come unhooked. Perhaps the acoustic guitar was abandoned because it had been out of tune, although that wasn’t evident to our amateur ears, and now she was struggling with her only alternative, or perhaps she had changed her mind about what song she would do next.
She finally fixed the fault and strummed out a much more atmospheric introduction on the electric guitar to a darkly upbeat song whose title was fitting considering that the Prime Minister was expected soon to call a General Election: Election Night from Beautiful Collision. Fortunately, its lyrics had nothing to do with that type of politics, nor did they form a sequel to a Duran Duran song. Instead, they painted wonderful images of dancing around the kitchen, ancient stars falling into the sea, dreams in slumber, and finding perfection in the one you love. The crowd cheered heartily at the end of the tune, and rather than present us with a lengthy silence again, Bic did the opposite by speaking over the applause, so no one could hear what she said. That hushed us, and as she switched back to the acoustic guitar, she wished us a good night, giving us the usual signal that her set was about to end.
Perhaps predictably, she finished her set with her biggest hit worldwide, Sway, which as her third single had spent a month at the top of the New Zealand charts. This eminently catchy, marvellously enthralling song was what first drew me to Bic. It bore into my brain after just one listen when I spent Christmas 1998 in Hampstead with a houseful of Kiwis who kept playing her first album and were somewhat surprised that I hadn’t heard of Bic before. After all, the album had been tremendously popular in New Zealand the previous year and Sway had apparently been a bit of a hit on MTV here. No one my age watched MTV; it had been thrilling and ground-breaking in 1981 but those days of dreamy delirium had disappeared long ago, so I had not been exposed to Bic before, and that introduction was a spectacular Christmas gift. By New Year’s Eve, I owned the album, which was a trickier feat than you would think and I can only thank the Internet once again for removing the barriers that, in the past, would prevent outstanding music from crossing borders.
After a slower, sweet performance of the song that had every foot in the hall tapping, during which she faded out again a few times when leaning away from the mike, Bic quietly slipped off the stage, and the audience shifted mostly to the venue’s bars where, incomprehensibly, only two members of staff were working, leaving dozens still queuing even as announcements begged us to take our seats for the Finns. For such a great venue, it baffles me that it never occurs to them that they might get a crowd in the bar at the interval.
Bic had missed out one song that I had particularly hoped to hear, the striking and simple When I See You Smile, which slightly resembles Bursting Through and has been the ‘default’ song for weeks that has filled my mind and humming repertoire regardless of what else I might have heard as I make my way through the days. Still, I was so charmed by her set and so grateful for the sense of normality that she provided to level our teetering fears about the evening, I had no time to regret its absence.
Although Bic had made no mention of the tragic news of Paul Hester, she had begun to soothe our sadness by presenting such a thoroughly normal set, which helped to remind us that the world hadn’t actually ended. She heart-warmingly came across as happy but slightly nervous and delivered a flawless set to a crowd that needed everything she offered, preparing us, in a way, for the purgative experience that was to follow with the Finn Brothers’ fantastic performance.
If you are new to Bic, samples of most of these songs can be heard on her official web site, and her work is worth exploring.
Copyright © 2005 by TC. All rights reserved.
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supporting the Finn Brothers
at the Royal Albert Hall on 28 March 2005
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