Though comedy and music often play side-by-side on late night talk shows, and sometimes at festivals (like at SXSW – QRO recap – or The Daily Show’s John Oliver at last year’s East Village Radio Festival – QRO photos) or even in shows (like last year’s F Yeah Tour – QRO review), they’re still separate entities; far more difficult is actually mixing the two of them in one act, because while music benefits from familiarity and repeated listens, comedy works best when it is fresh and new. So someone combining both has to balance both ends – and when it’s coming off the second season of a successful TV series, but before the second album comes out, the mix gets even more confusing. Does the audience know the first season/album songs better, or the more recently on TV, but not yet on record, second season songs? And the audience is likewise an uncertain mix – more of a stand-up comedy crowd, or more of a rock show group?
Mock-folk outfit Flight of the Conchords had to navigate all of that, and under the heightened pressure of playing the über-up-market Radio City Music Hall (QRO venue review) in New York for two nights, starting Tuesday, April 14th. The New Zealand duo of Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie didn’t have the music videos of their HBO series or any other real visual support (such as that brought by fellow cable music/comedy duo Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! – QRO photos) – or even their stellar supporting cast, like manager Murray Hewitt (though Kristen Schaal, who plays super-fan Mel, was the straight-stand-up opener). It was just Brett & Jemaine on stage (backed sometimes by Neil, ‘The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’, on cello), with no costumes after their robot get-up for first song, “Too Many Dicks On the Dance Floor”. Yet the whole scenario fit their dry humor & charm to a T.
One could be forgiving for thinking that wasn’t going to be the case at the outset, and not just because of the technical problems that forced Brett & Jemaine to stand in the darkness right before the start, dressed up as robots (at one point saying, in mock-robotic tones, “Yes, it’s plugged-in. Motherfucker.”). The robot costumes immediately would make any fan of the Conchords think they were going to play the band’s first real hit, “Robots”, from both their Grammy Award-winning Distant Future EP, and last year’s Flight of the Conchords LP (QRO review) – not to mention think of their music video for the song, early on in the series. But instead, the band hit up “Too Many Dicks On the Dance Floor” from Season Two – a catchy, funny dance number, but no “Robots”.
The Season One-Season Two push-pull continued, with the crowd shouting out for earlier material, while Brett & Jemaine tried to stick to newer stuff. At first, the Conchords held sway, not just with Season Two material like rappers-have-feelings “Hurt Feelings”, but also never-aired tracks like the country-troubadour “Strangest Tale You’ll Ever Hear” (about a bad outlaw named Stana – an anagram for ‘Satan’ – who eventually met his doppelganger, Nasta, and the two fell in love) and hilarious mistaken identity “Jenny”. Both more storytelling, they certainly benefited, humor-wise, from the audience not knowing them nearly as well as other pieces. By the middle of the set, Flight of the Conchords were picking their own older tracks to pepper in amongst the new, like Conchords’ funky & catchy “Mutha*uckas”, Distant Future’s “Not Crying”, and very early classic (from their pre-HBO days), “Albi, The Racist Dragon”. And the new songs there were two of the best of Season Two: “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” remix “Carol Brown”, and the dance-funk “I Told You I Was Freekie”.
But, eventually, the walls broke down, and Brett & Jemaine did Flight of the Conchords stand-out, and audience request, “Bowie”, before finishing with both of the track from the episode guest-starring Kristen Wiig (of Saturday Night Live), “I’m In Love With a Sexy Lady” (where Brett & Jemaine realize they’re both talking about the same woman) and “Sugalumps” (their riff of women “checking out their junk”), with the two men standing up and strutting their stuff for the ladies when closing out on “Sugalumps”. Not that they were done – Flight of the Conchords returned for not one, but two encores (easy when all you’ve got in the way of equipment is some acoustic guitars and a little bit more). First was new stuff, including “Demon Woman” (maybe the weakest song of the night), and a very new ‘bus tour of a small New Zealand town’ song (like an outtake from the “New Zealandtown” episode). But the duo ended their show with the two pieces which really gave birth to their American success, mock-sexy “Business Time” and, yes, “Robots”.
Of course, the music is only half the reason to see Flight of the Conchords – as Brett put it, “And when we’re not singing songs, we’ll just talk the talking. So if you’re worried we’re not going to sing any songs, there will be a song, after a period of talking. And if you came for the talking, just wait through the song…” The written word doesn’t do it justice, so here’s an audio clip:
MP3 Stream: “We have to sing some songs“
New and improvised, Brett & Jemaine’s banter, in their oh-so-something New Zealand accents, was almost the star of the show. They did rely a lot on joking on the audience, especially the crowd’s somewhat inferior status, vs. them (even once saying, “There’s more of us than there are of you…”). Jemaine mentioned the temptation to make fun of the voices in the crowd, and how that would be “cheeky” – only to have some man yell, “Do it!”, with which Jemaine made fun of that man’s voice. To audience requests, Jemaine stated, “You’re not professional – if you were, you’d be up here and we’d be watching you. And I have no idea what you’d pull together…” (Brett then had the stage lights dimmed, and the house lights turned on, just to show the massive crowd how small they were). Specifically to requests for “Bowie”, Jemaine pointed out, “You shouldn’t really shout things out, just to see what would happen. It’s like how you shouldn’t crash a boat, just to see what would happen. But what would happen?…”
It was really Jemaine who stuck to this, admonishing Brett for “forming relationships” with the audience, which leads to them being “needy” (i.e., making requests) while Brett will “just have to go on to the next city, ramble on, break more hearts…”. And he responded to calls of “I love you” with, “It’s rather one-sided at the moment. But I’m sure, once we get to know you, it’ll develop”:
MP3 Stream: “It’s rather one-sided at the moment“
Brett was more playing with the audience, whether mentioning how much everyone was (not) obeying the no-photo rule (even offering to pose for some photos, calling out a flash by the focus, pre-flash light going on, and saying the whole thing looked like going through cyberspace – with which Jemaine challenged him, “Oh, how would you know, right?!”), asking about the little blue lights, that were Radio City’s drink stirrers (“You said ‘drink stirrer’ as if I should have known…”), messing around with the big overhead screen display on each side of the stage, which displayed the band, but with a delay, or being happy there was security – then castigating said security when they didn’t stop two female fans from bringing roses on stage, a “Rose-bush” (like ‘ambush’).
The pinnacle of the audience interaction was (not some jackass running across the stage during “Bowie”, only to be grabbed by security and hauled off stage – Flight of the Conchords didn’t even blink, and didn’t mention it afterwards, kind of like baseball broadcasters not showing some idiot who runs onto the field during a game) the request for “Freebird”. At this point, “Freebird” has become the over-used joke request at pretty much any show, but especially acoustic-y events, where the crowd’s voice can really be heard (see Scottish sad-folk Frightened Rabbit’s recent all-request show in New York – QRO live review – or even Nirvana’s classic MTV Unplugged appearance – QRO DVD review). But Flight of the Conchords actually played “Freebird”, or whatever of it they knew, anyway, and kept threatening to play the extended version if someone asked for it again (kind of like their mention of their original, ‘real time’ version of “Strangest Tale”, where two days travel on a horse takes two days of song…).
As excellent as that and other banter was, there was less of Brett & Jemaine talking about their songs, like the hilarious introduction to “Hurt Feelings”:
MP3 Stream: “Hurt Feelings” intro
Flight of the Conchords knew that whoever paid the mucho dinero for tickets to see them at Radio City Music Hall probably knew the band’s material, new as well as old, but especially the old. So the duo started with the new, letting the crowd get anxious for the tracks whose names they knew, then surprised them with even newer stuff before finishing them off with what they’d been dying for. And when they were not singing songs, they were just talking the talk…