It’s November 2020. The world is in the grip of a deadly pandemic. People are banned from gathering to cheer for their favorite bands. Venues are forced to close, and live music is a memory. Meanwhile, isolated musicians beam desperate YouTube videos from their lockdown living rooms or make introspective lo-fi albums on cheap synthesizers in home studios.
There is one band, however, able to break free of this madness. One band, in their hometown of Auckland, New Zealand, permitted to perform sizzling indie rock in front of a real live audience. That band is the Beths.
Such could be the opening of a bad dystopian novel were it not the raison d’être of the Beths‘ first live album (and accompanying film): Auckland, New Zealand, 2020. The four-piece group, fronted by gifted songwriter Elizabeth Stokes, delivered a show of such historical magnitude late last year that they now want to share it with a world as weary of introspective lo-fi albums as covers of songs that have a “whole new meaning” in these “troubled times”. They’ve got the title to do it justice, too, having created a liberating moment in pop to put them alongside, well, Wham! (Beijing, China, 1985), or maybe even Jay-Z (Glastonbury, England, 2008). Lead guitarist Jonathan Pearce, indeed, said it “felt miraculous” to play to a sold-out crowd at the Auckland Town Hall, the result being a thrilling live album that’s incomparable in terms of its urgency, exuberance, and raw energy.
The Beths built on considerable momentum in the recording of their pivotal show, mainly from their explosive 2018 debut album, Future Me Hates Me. It was here that Stokes dazzled critics with her bold, melodic, and supremely confident songs shot through with downbeat lyrics concerning all manner of relationship hangups. They then broadened their palette on 2020’s Jump Rope Gazers by adding emotion and intricacy to their sunny vocals, girl-group-style harmonies, and surf-pop pizzazz, enough for them to win big at New Zealand’s Aotearoa Music Awards. They meanwhile toured extensively with the likes of Pixies and Death Cab for Cutie, taking their tight precision and awkward charm to the multitudes and finding a champion in fellow New Zealander and Crowded House linchpin Neil Finn.
By July 2020, COVID-19 had put the breaks on the Beths’ upward trajectory. But the band’s reinvention as one of the few live acts on the planet was secured when New Zealand seemed to curtail the spread of coronavirus after its “go hard, go early” approach to border closure and quarantine restrictions. The group proceeded to perform under level two social distancing rules in early October, before an elated Stokes, on Twitter, set the scene for a no-holds-barred hometown show: “The NZ community is officially COVID free! We can now mingle with the crowds.”
What we get on the 16-track Auckland, New Zealand, 2020, then, is a guitar band mad to play and an audience very eager to listen. The songs are little changed from their studio versions but are so fresh that you wouldn’t want them to be. The appeal, instead, is to appreciate their immediacy in an exceptional live context. It’s also to hear the Beths connect with a crowd of unleashed fans as if they are a circle of friends down the pub and to revel in their powerful musicality onstage. You’d be hard-pressed, indeed, to find a more together bunch of players, with Stokes’ girl-next-door vocals and guitar hooks meshing curiously with Benjamin Sinclair’s propulsive bass lines, Tristan Deck’s rapturous drumming, and, of course, Pearce’s surging, Big Star-style solos on the axe, over which they all oooh and aah and ba-ba-ba.
First song, “I’m Not Getting Excited”, is really what it’s all about. There’s superb dynamics on display here, as Stokes’ unaccompanied intro gives way to a full-on band onslaught. It’s an adrenalized guitar solo that sends the audience nuts, an instrumental fallout, and a false stop, all inside of three minutes. From then on, the power-pop numbers motor along at a breakneck pace, with one killer tune after another, each adding to a sense of mass release and exhilaration. “Great No One” is lapped up, thanks to its catchy “it happens all the time” bridge, incendiary chorus, and relatable theme of relationship limbo. Then “Whatever” kicks in, displaying its ingenious, Blondie-esque melody and anti-bullshitter vibe, with the whole band and crowd adding considerable weight to the “Whatever, yeah, whatever” refrain.
The brilliantly titled and brilliantly written “Future Me Hates Me” is greeted as every bit the modern classic by the Auckland fans, which it undoubtedly is, three years after its release as a single. It crashes into existence, the band going full-throttle in its grunge-pop attack, as Liz – cool as anything – delivers those potent lyrics about falling for someone in anticipation of regretting it. “Future heartbreak, future headaches / Wide-eyed nights late lying awake.” Each group member works it, with a Beach Boys-inspired harmony here, a counter melody there, and guitars seemingly everywhere. It’s the Beths’ “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, for sure.
Elsewhere, the foursome make their introductions, amusingly discuss their votes for New Zealand Bird of the Year, and occasionally perform, yes, a slower song. “Jump Rope Gazers” is the heartfelt elegiac number at the heart of the record, about being separated by distance yet connected emotionally. As if by a jump rope. It says it all about the year 2020, as does the tender “Out Of Sight”. But there’s no doubt that the album belongs to the out-and-out rockers that you can throw yourself around to: “Uptown Girl”, “Happy Unhappy”, “Dying to Believe”. It’s fair to say, too, that the band reads the cavernous room pretty well in supplying them.
On Auckland, New Zealand, 2020, then, the Beths prove that live performance is a core part of their being. They establish, most emphatically, that it was not only their way of getting through the whole miserable, mid-COVID period but also brightening it the hell up. Don’t think, though, that this album is just for the pandemic. It’s for life.