[2 June 2009]
Depending on which source you believe, New Zealanders Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie met and formed their comedic music parody band, Flight of the Conchords, either as shepherds or at university. Since their inception several years ago the duo’s performances have led to the creation of a BBC radio series, comedy awards, and a burgeoning foreign following. Yet, despite the accolades, they remained relatively unknown in the United States until 2007, when the viral video for their song “Business Time” spread across the Internet, building curiosity and anticipation for an eventual EP release and the premier of their self-titled HBO Series. Now, with a second album out soon on Sub Pop and the second season of their series concluded on HBO, the Conchords may dub themselves New Zealand’s fourth most popular folk duo but are, in fact, possibly the most popular Kiwi’s to tour the United States. The duo’s two sold out shows at the “whale-like” Radio City Music Hall attests to that considerable claim.
Entering the dark Hall garbed in tacky robot suits, I’m sure Jemaine and Bret would have happily climbed inside a giant Daft Punk-like pyramid if they had one. But instead they simply took spots behind some tiny keyboards, and boogied behind flashing lights while performing the 8-bit-esque “Too Many Dicks on the Dance Floor”. The song abruptly ended when Bret knocked his toy piano to the floor prompting Jemaine to joke about Bret “giving it his all” and so began the repartee between the comedic duo and the audience.
During both shows audience members heckled the band, shouting requests at every little break. Though “Freebird” did not get an encore the second night, people were encouraged instead to build a collective tiny piano with the parts tossed out. Due to the raucous requests, a suggestion was made that only “the quietest person” should share his or her opinion. As one would expect, this heckling led to mocking with Jemaine stating that New Yorkers “had a lot of character voices” before mimicking a girl who sounded like a Muppet.
The duo’s special guest, billed as the “New Zealand Symphony Orchestra”, actually turned out to be their friend Nigel, who also became a target for laughs when Jemaine asked him what instrument he played only to receive an uncertain response. Nigel accompanied them on his cello, steel drums, and other percussion for most of the show (both nights). Though other guests frequently appear in songs on their television show, no one else made an appearance despite the audience members shouting for them. Most popular, it seemed, was Murray, their manager played by Rhys Darby, who we were informed was in Auckland.
In terms of song styles, the Conchords cover a large musical territory. “Hurt Feelings”, their last single, pulses along on a low budget Eminem beat, while the hokey “Ballad of Stana” was reminiscent of “The Devil went Down to Georgia” and the oft-requested “Bowie” (performed the first night only) riffed on David Bowie as it asks if he has enough “changes” of space clothes. Not even their own songs were spared lampooning, as the Flight of the Conchords kicked the tempo “up one beat” on “I Told You I Was Freekie”. Later, leading into the song “You Don’t Have to be a Prostitute” that is a sillier cousin to the Police’s “Roxanne”, Bret joked that Jemaine, as a prostitute, might not get a lot of money charging his fare with a taxi cab meter.
After briefly contemplating holding their next tour inside a whale and pulling it up in the river to invite everyone inside, the Conchords noticed that Radio City could substitute for a whale’s ribcage. Despite the venue’s size, longtime fans never let up shouting requests and while some of the classics like “Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymenoceros” may have been neglected, “Think About It” and “Business Time” were not. Newer songs followed as the Conchords moved right from “We’re Both In Love With a Sexy Lady” into “Sugalumps”, the latter a response to the Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps”. Jemaine shook his rear while both he and Bret serenaded “all the ladies”, touching their crotch regions, yet shunning those ladies in the front row who got too close to more earnest laughter.
But in the spirit of participation, the Conchords closed both nights with “Pencils in the Wind (Sellotape)”, their lighters in the air, sing-a-long song about the strong bonds of love. For without the love of the people, the Conchords could not have ascended to play sold out shows deep within whale like venues.