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Sunday, August 12, 2018

Concert Review - Julia Deans - We Light Fire Tour San Francisco Bath House 11/08/2018

The one thing that has always been consistent with Julia Deans is her purity of voice.  It's always such a beautiful and unfiltered delight to hear.  No need for studio trickery or autocues here.  And with it, she's a humble and graceful performer, with just a touch of the dramatic diva for punch.  I remember interviewing her at WOMAD and being impressed by her phrasing and patient treatment of every word.  These are the same skills we saw tonight as Ms Deans brought us a collection of songs, mainly from her latest release, We Light Fire

Deans' voice is spinetingling from the opening notes to the dying embers.  Clearly the best honey-tinged falsetto in Aotearoa - ever!

She opened the set with the smouldering, slow burn of Clandestine.  That song sets the mood for the evening.  This is not a rock concert.  The efforts are in the effortless delivery of every song, with careful attention paid to the execution of each lyrical phrase.

Primarily, ... Fire is a pop-rock record,  with traces of synth-pop and jazz influences.  You saw that tonight in her treatment of the album's lead single, The Panic.  It's an instant winner coming mid-set after the more sultry, sparse numbers like Pick Up and Centre.  And it's the most radio-friendly song on the album.  So again a winner.  Its urgent beat and grungy bass lines have been heightened by the small wooden room, emphasising furious anxiety in the bass.  Her lyrics centre around a cold revelation in the chorus of this song: "Deep in our hearts, we sleep alone." 

The album's first half has the strongest songs, which we get scattered through the set.  Like Souvenir, which is strangely meditative, as its shuffled beat lends a sense of mystery to Deans' stunning harmonies.  She's not alone.  Deans is flanked by two confident wahines, Tali on guitars and Auckland Americana singer Reb Fountain, who also plays the guitar, and is in charge of the tom drum for one dramatic moment.  They do who do their best to match her vocal skills.  They almost carry it off.  But Dean's honey-toned vox is a real challenge to master, and you can never predict which octave she'll choose to settle on before transforming into a growling rage.  The album was recorded by Deans and her partner, former Shihad soundman David Wernham, at their home studio is impressive; the production quality is immaculate throughout.  Unfortunately, that level of quality is almost impossible to match on stage.  That said the approximation is pretty good.

On wax the electronic elements are largely welcome, certain synth lines and embellishments are superfluous and border on gimmicks. On stage, you don't get that.  With Richie Pickard on bass and drummer, Jono Sawyer driving the engine room and the ladies providing the strong direction vocally from the cab this truck has a clear destination and knows its way to its destination.  It's a clean and clear delivery, without embellishments.

It has to be said that Dean's 15 song repertoire, tonight, was not extensive.  But she does the occasional nod to past works.  Modern Fables and Skin (both from her last former album) get a look in, and a big tick from the crowd.  It wasn't a huge or packed gig but those that had hoofed it up from the Beervana Fest downtown like me were rewarded well. 

Another highlight is her response to the world's continuous poor treatment of women, Walking In the Sun.  It begins, perfectly with some delicious harmonies from the three women and this time they totally nail it.  Another wonderful moment to savour.  The hook in the chorus is addictive. 

While I'm used to seeing Deans behind a guitar, it was nice to see her at the keyboards, sepecially at the end of the night with her two encore pieces Chelsea and Dialogue.  Both are delivered with a delicate care, like handling a newborn.  Which, given this album has only been released seems appropriate.  I really like this new album and it works superbly live and on record.  My biggest regret was not having the cash to pick a vinyl copy, having heard to songs live and thoroughly enjoyed them.

Review and photos by the Coffeebar Kid

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