Plenty of Conchords laughs at the Plenary

Flight of the Conchords have finally returned to Melbourne

Flight of the Conchords
The Plenary, Melbourne Convention Centre
Saturday 14 July 2012

When I dished out $90 for Flight of the Conchords tickets earlier this year I didn’t quite know what I was paying for. Given the nature of the act – a comedy musical duo most famous for their acting career – I was unsure whether this would be a gig, a play, a stadium rock event or a stand-up show.

The Plenary, the venue of their first Melbourne show (the second being held at Rod Laver Arena tonight), offered the first clues. Here there was no moshpit, just rows and rows of plush seats. As the audience slowly drifted in to fill the venue, the atmosphere seemed more adult-contemporary than teeny-bopper. People were politely taking their allocated seats, without giving any indication of standing up or pushing forward.

Arj Barker was the second hint. Instead of opening the night with a fellow band, Flight of the Conchords selected their comedian mate to warm the crowd. Barker, a Melbourne favourite, gave the audience their first surprise for the night. His ten-minute set gave eveybody’s mouth muscles some warm-up exercise before the feature act appeared.

The band ultimately provided the answer to my initial question. Over the course of the night, they bantered as much as they sang, tested out new comic material and regularly improvised. Moreover, the fact they didn’t sing “I like to rock the party” indicated that they were here primarily to make us laugh, not impress us with their catalogue of songs.

In saying that, the duo still dished out most of their high-profile hits. “Too Many Dicks (on the dancefloor)”, “Robots” and “Most Beautiful Girl (in the room)” got the ball rolling in style, while classics “Business Time” and “Bowies in Space” received warm responses two hours into the night. In between all this, the band interspersed favourites from their two television series with a few pre-HBO classics and four new originals.

Whereas music fans love to hear familiar tunes when they see their heroes live on stage, you could argue the opposite was true in this case. As hilarious as some of the duo’s songs were, the well-known gags were only treated with mild laughter.

The laugh-out-loud moments, in contrast, were reserved for the spur-of-the-moment song lines – those carelessly added since the original recordings – and the previously unheard tunes. Notably “1353”, a medieval tale about wooing a lady, generated continuous cackles (see below).

One common pet peeve of gig goers is the on-stage banter of musicians between songs. In the case of the Conchords, however, this was just as much as a highlight as their music. The jokes they told – in their own right – were not particularly creative or witty, but the delivery was always crisp.

True to their character, Jermaine and Brett never ceased to be their awkward and self-referential selves. And that was exactly what the audience paid to see.

The moment that best exemplified the distinction between gig and comedy show occurred during the faux-epic number “Epileptic Dogs”. While able to entertain the 5000-strong crowd with the song’s humorous lyrics, the pair’s efforts to initiate a mass sing-a-long were wasted.

It was difficult to pinpoint the exact reason why the audience as a collective was reluctant to join the party. Upon reflection, perhaps the best explanation is that the crowd simply wasn’t in the right frame of mind.

After all, this wasn’t the kind of musical event that invited the audience to sing. The respectful Melbournians undoubtedly knew their fair share of lyrics, but were content with the prospect of watching passively.

They were willing to let the Conchords do the singing and themselves do the laughing. That’s been the formula for the past few years anyway, so why change now?

Ignoring this dilemma, the band’s first Melbourne show since their 2003 International National Comedy festival appearance was a grand performance. With the event lasting over two-and-a-half hours, the New Zealand duo gave the audience value for money.

Not every fan would have walked away satisfied; there was a unanimous sigh of disappointment when Jermaine informed the crowd they were almost finished their set. Nevertheless, the Conchords gave their fans what they wanted – a lot of laughs, a variety of tunes and a few brief Australian jokes.

As a closing note, credit must also go to the background actors. Nigel, the ever-talented celloist-cum-drummer, provided invaluable background vocals without stealing any attention. Meanwhile, the band’s sound and light engineers ensured a flawless live show.

Unlike most rock gigs, where the attention is solely directed to the lead singer, the Conchords regularly looked for opportunities to praise their often-unacknowledged behind-the-scenes helpers. It was a nice touch to the evening, reminding audiences that the Flight of the Conchords were here to bring a long-overdue smile to our faces.

1353 (live at Wembley Stadium)