Seamus Johnson, Ills Winter, Plum Green, Wellington NZ, 2022

Nobody can deny what a great summer it’s been. Warm radiance to wash away the fears and anxieties of the last two years. But as we move into June, Winter has returned, jealous of its neglect and eager to seek vengeance. This past week the weather has shown its true fury across the motu with the torrent of rains, thunder, lightening, high winds that rattle the shutters and dark clouds banishing all daylight. Somehow this seemed appropriate for tonight’s feast of Blues, Dark Music and Psych-rock. Best efforts – settle in, turn the collar to the sky and get comfortable.

Seamus Johnson likes to be ambiguous about his output. He performs both individually and as part of a three piece (aka Sea Mouse). As a band they describe their sound as “transmogrifying between mammoth guitar driven garage rock tunes with hooks big enough to snag a whale, to the Delta blues of the 1930s, and heart pouring songs of love and loss and beyond”. If you had to boil it down then think of the White Stripes and Black Keys. No stranger to the Wellington live circuit, Seamus has proved himself over and over supporting big name acts like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Helmet and The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. He’s also played in bands like Elston Gun, Paperscissors and Skeletons, a local blues-esque project amongst others.

Tonight, it was just Seamus on stage, playing a range of mostly self-written blues tunes with just a guitar to accompany him. You might think that wouldn’t amount to much but he totally blows you away with his own brand of high energy and swagger. Towards the end of his short set, he invites Neil Billington, former radio personality and now master of the harp, on stage to help him out. Neil’s been playing harmonica for a number of years now and he’s totally awesome. A real show stealer! This was definitely a highlight, both jamming in perfect harmony (‘scuse the pun) through two down’n’grungy delta blues numbers to round off.

ills Winter is the moniker of singer/songwriter/ guitarist Elizabeth de la Rey who now performs as a band with Emile de la Rey (bass/synths), Tane Upjohn-Beatson (guitar/ electric violin) and Daz Coppins (drums). Their ever-evolving set is a mix of psychedelic rock and experimental Pop with hints of dark music. Sometimes they are supported by percussionist Stephanie Engelbrecht (Haunts). Their debut album ‘Duchess of Whispers’ (2016) was made in collaboration with electronic composer/producer Emile de la Rey (who’s now a regular band member) and spawned the track ‘Wildflowers’, which is reminiscent of Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ period. Elizabeth’s voice has an ethereal quality, but also the strength of conviction to carry this off.

Skip forward a few years and the band is back with a heavier set of new material, destined to be laid down on wax in the next few months. The latest project, ‘Holy Crone’ is in the works for 2022, featuring material with beautiful, haunting electronic soundscapes, neo-psychedelia and folk-rock. It was this music that we were treated to this evening. ‘Jump In the River’ was an intense rock song, throbbing under the weight of Emile’s lurching bass and Elizabeth’s sweet vocals. She smiles with pure charm when she sings, even if the lyrics speak of evil. She is a practiced siren luring you in with her spells.
Most of tonight’s set was virtually unheard to date, like the driving, forceful ‘Cotton Wool’ and the sparse but edgy ‘Anomaly’. ‘Just A Little More’ was a slower ballad with layers of intensity building to a climatic release of power. If there’s a future favourite, it’ll probably be ‘Sweet Paralysis’, which has an intense grungy, groove to it that’s almost hypnotising.

There were slower tracks, more in keeping with earlier works – ‘Singing Spider’, ‘Chopping Block’ and ‘I Felt Love’. The latter two showcase Elizabeth’s incredible vocal range, as she moves from a whisper to a full-on soprano blast. They finish up with ‘My Desire’ to complete this new set. Despite performing as just a four piece, minus the synths and keys, ills Winter sounds complete and box fresh, ready to lay down. It did make you wonder what studio trickery may be applied by Elizabeth and Emile to the final mixes and how these can change the sound and the production. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

I’ve been waiting over two years to finally see Plum Green perform songs from her last album ‘Somnambulistic’, which I was lucky enough to review on its release. For obvious reasons Plum’s tour plans have been hindered, especially as she’s now based in Melbourne. She has family all over the place but a relatively large contingent are now based in Pōneke Wellington. So, this was something of a homecoming, much welcomed by the friends, family and fans gathered here tonight.

The material on ‘Somnambulistic’ deals with the way we process through dreams the unresolved problems of our day or the lurkings of our deepest fears, values or beliefs? Plum’s recorded music is atmospheric, dreamy and has a leaning toward neo- folk.

Plum was assisted on stage tonight by childhood friend Duncan Nairn with Daniel Cross on guitar. Cross provided the haunting washes of guitar sonics on ‘Somnambulistic’. To do this he uses a violin bow and drags it slowly across his strings whilst manipulating a range of foot pedals to create ghostly, haunting, aching voices that provide the necessary menace and threat to Plum’s songs of sinister dreaming.

They began, as does the album, with ‘Raspberry Vine’, with slow groaning cello chords from Cross that creep like unseen evil prowling outside the window. ‘Come in closer,” Plum invites us to touch the sweet fruit that hangs low. Hanging in temptation on string of thorns. But beware of the trap. Too late. We are caught. I particularly enjoyed ‘Eyes Shut’, which features the wonderfully poetic lines “Don’t let the view decay you/ Don’t stare to hard into the light. Your body will betray you… To get through the night, you may have to close your eyes”. Plum and band weaved a deliciously salacious nightmare scenario, playing with the menace of the perceived threat.

One of the most beautiful pieces of the night is ‘People Of The Snow’. On the album there’s an almost uplifting plethora of choral harmonies, created with reverb and layering. Live, it’s a more simple delivery and perhaps lacks the drama of the recording. That’s a hard call because without a series of backing tracks or digital wizardry it would be impossible to remake this, yet Plum’s still voice floats across the sparse arrangements like mist on a lake.

Shame that the audience tonight had grown weary and were chatting way too loudly, breaking the spell that was cast by ill Winter’s set. It also didn’t help that the sound guy went AWOL when Plum and company were trying to get their gig underway. Various electronic issues also created further frustrations. Cairn’s bass was too quiet, as was Plum’s vocals and we never really got to experience the ‘pin drop silence’ drama that her music demands. If the volume was more significant then we would have appreciated ‘White Kitten’, her dark, devious twist on Alice’s adventures in Wonderland. Another delicate, manipulative piece that sadly lost impact because the crowd had become somewhat disengaged.

To her credit she upped the tempo moving quickly into ‘All My Stars’ and ‘Bella Nocturna’. An attempt to win back the room. Unfortunately, there was a divide between those interested and those who’d already checked out. A woman kept dropping her glass, creating an unwanted diversion. People at the back of the room rudely raised their voices above the music. And the sound guy still struggled to improve the amplification on stage. It was a losing battle.

Plum finished with a dedication to Duncan’s former friend, who also recorded her first music video. The aptly named ‘Kyla’s Walking’ should be a final haunting to leave the crowd sufficiently spooked and disturbed. But, the delivery, following on from the complacent reception was more of a final sprint to the end.

I was not happy with this crowd. Where are their manners and respect? This is not the town I know. We don’t treat performers like this. It’s been four years since Plum Green has been back in Wellington. I wanted this to be a triumphant return. Even she acknowledged it was a ‘rough gig’. Makes you stronger, I guess.

First appeared:

All Photos By Tim Gruar

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