Fat Freddy’s DropReviewed by Tyler Hersey
Photo: Sarah Hunter
Mar 2, 3 & 4
National Bank Festival Club
It’s always fascinating to witness a group of artists in the midst of a huge wave of success. Dub and soul champions Fat Freddy’s Drop join the festival having overtaken Crowded House for the greatest number of weeks a local act has spent at #1 on the NZ album charts. Their 2005 disc, Based on a True Story, has sold over 90,000 copies since its release last June, and recently garnered “Album of the Year” honours from the BBC’s influential Worldwide program. Additionally, the band has sold out scores of concerts in Australasia and Europe in the past year, as well as headlining almost every major festival in New Zealand. Just two weeks ago, Fat Freddy’s performed a sultry summer-night set for a crowd of over ten thousand fans on the Wellington waterfront.
Drawn by this considerable reputation, it was with great anticipation that a cozy audience of 250 squeezed into the Festival Club to hear what has become New Zealand’s greatest success story of 2005. As expected of these hometown heroes, all hype was quickly superseded by the band’s relaxed manner and friendly rapport with the crowd.
Singer Dallas Tamaira opened the evening with a stripped down, acoustic rendition of “Dark Days,” one of the more introspective moments on True Story. Accompanied by only his guitar and the sparse toots of a melodica, Tamaira wove an arresting, mournful melody over the the song’s slowly descending minor chords. Combining the strong soul influence of Bill Whithers with an amazing ear for non-western tonality, Tamaira creates vocal lines that are at once both appealing and challenging. His honey-toned voice slides effortlessly from classic blues riffs into fascinating harmonic suspensions, leading the listener on a musical journey with each phrase.
From this mellow beginning, the rest of Fat Freddy’s took the stage, helmed by the imposing DJ Mu at the MPC sampler and mixing desk. The horn section of Warryn Maxwell (alto sax), Toby Laing (trumpet), and Joe Lindsay (trombone) were front and centre all evening long, constantly swaying to the reggae beats. Their imaginative harmonies and perfect intonation are a sonic treat, laying down a thick carpet of sound which propels every song into deeper waters.
An early peak came with an exploratory version of “Cay’s Crays,” Tamaira’s passionate memoir of life in his sea- and mountain-side hometown of Kaikoura. Beginning sparsely with a muted reggae lick on Tehimana Kerr’s electric guitar, this bottom-heavy tune soon evoked the fiery sunrises and pounding surf of the South Island’s wild east coast. With apocalyptic drones and commanding stabs, the horn section brought the song to a powerful crest before it segued seamlessly into a frenzy-inducing cover of the Eurythmic’s 80’s hit “Sweet Dreams.”
Another highlight came in the form of “This Room,” a 2003 single which landed on True Story in substantially re-arranged form. Like many of Fat Freddy’s best tracks, the song began with an off-kilter instrument sample which seemed to be two beats late and one beat short. For minutes, the ever-patient DJ Mu let the audience contemplate this incongruity in the groove. An interlocking guitar part emerged, heightening the tension, yet providing no clue as to where the drums (and dancing pocket) would fit. Finally, when we could stand it no longer, Mu dropped the beat into place, anchoring the stiff groove with a stomping four-on-the-floor pulse. Tamaira’s vocals washed over the crowd like a matra, single lines repeated and transformed until they took on multiple layers of meaning. “I got nothing left to lose,” he sang, “I got nothing left to lose / Like a poor boy, never had no shoes / Roaming these streets deep and darkest night / I want to love, I don’t want to fight / I want to love, I don’t want to fight.”
Alas, by the time the crowd and band got really warmed up, curfew was calling and the city noise ordinance reared its ugly head. The band closed with two brand new songs which featured the earth angel vocals of Deva Mahal, an artist who has generations of soul running through her bones. Beginning in a rousing, almost calypso style, the band steered through another sure-fire hit which toed the line between reggae, jazz, and dance. Warryn Maxwell took the last of his stellar sax solos, half Coltrane and half Cannonball Adderly. Sheets of sound flew from his instrument, eventually consolidating into the catchiest and hippest jazz hooks this side of the Pacific. After a good ten minutes of dub bliss, DJ Mu steered the band into a down-tempo ballad in which Mahal and Tamaira bared their souls for the crowd, with perfect support from keyboardist Iain Gordon on electric piano.
For sheer musical ability, variety of sound, and depth of feeling, Fat Freddy’s Drop stand alone amongst bands today. The secret is out, but we will now have the joy of watching this amazing group of musicians and songwriters grow and change on the world stage.