Last month I wrote an interview with Country artist Jenny Mitchell. Her new album, her third, ‘Tug Of War’, was recorded via Zoom and online just over two years ago. It features the stellar singles ‘Trouble Finds a Girl’ (2022 APRA Country Music Song of the Year), ‘Somehow’, ‘Lucy’, ‘Snakes in the Grass’, and new track, ‘If You Were a Bird’.
It was a body of work that spoke of love, loss, whanau and heritage. It featured Tami Neilson and songs about betrayal, heritage and stars of old TV re-runs.
In my review I commented that despite the fragmented way the album was made, with all the key players separated across Australia and New Zealand, the production was so good that unless you knew otherwise you’d swear everybody was really in the same room. And tonight, we finally got to see all these songs performed in the flesh. And what a delight that was.
There was plenty of love in the room, with an audience of friends, whanau, workmates and flatmates. Everyone seemed to know everyone, either by face or by name. Mind you, that’s Wellington all over. For a former Southlander from Gore that must have provided some kind of comfort – to be surrounded in this village vibe.
The gig started with six songs sung by Mitchell’s younger sisters, identical twins Maegan and Nicola, who also provide backing vocals on her album and on tour. They harmonise beautifully throughout their short but creative set, with material predominantly self-written and sparking with the stardust of Tami Neilson, collected during a writing session all three Mitchell sisters participated in a while back. Nicola plays guitar and baritone ukulele while Maegan sings and holds court with her nervous, innocent banter that is genuine and endearing. Together their singing brings goosebumps, the hair standing on the back of your neck.
I particularly enjoyed their into tune ‘Mihi’ and a soulful stripped back cover of ‘He’s Fine’, a tune by Secret Sisters. They brought the house down with ‘Alone Again’, a song that justifies good reasons why a boyfriend is a dumb idea. “I don’t want to date your cousin…I’ve read every book Oprah’s ever written … I don’t need to share my fries…”, to paraphrase just a few lines in this cutting, jaunty blues number.
They finish on a sad, poignant tribute to the Topp Twins called ‘Find A River’. It’s a fitting nod to two of our finest musicians and entertainers, who are currently undergoing treatment for cancer. The Mitchell twins’ harmonies swell and tug at the heartstrings, and they stir more than a tear or two.
After a short break, Jenny Mitchell takes the stage, dressed in the white suit she wears on the album cover of ‘Tug Of War’. With the help of her five-piece band, including her sisters, she runs through faithful renditions of the title track, ‘Lucy’ and her cautionary tale for her siblings ‘Snakes In The Grass’.
There’s a quick introduction for bassist Aaron Stewart and Joe McCallum (who Mitchell saw playing at other gigs and claims ‘poached’ for herself) and violinist Jess Hindin who goes way back to performance days on New Zealand’s Got Talent. Nicola Michell provided some banjo interludes on her baritone uke and Meagan, along with her twin kept up the backing vocals.
It was great to hear ‘Wildfires’, a song from her previous album, that has never been performed live like this before. It’s an understated gem that needs more exposure (beyond a few seconds airplay on ‘Brokenwood Mysteries’).
There was much guffawing when Mitchell introduced her cover of ‘Harper Valley PTA’ dedicated to her Grandma Grace (who was in the audience). Mitchell also acknowledged her other grandparents, including her grandad who made the long trip from Galway to Otago in the 50’s. In ‘Ends Of The Earth’ she sings in the voice of him, complete with mannerisms and phrases he commonly uses. The song winds its way like a slow she shanty talking of sea voyages and setting down in a strange land, courting and settling down to raise a family and a farm. This was a very touching moment and must have been extra special to those relatives in the audience.
Mitchell, like her sisters, cannot contain their adoration of Tami Nielson. And in honour to her hero does a raunchy and provocative version of ‘King of Country Music’, which appears on Nielson’s new album ‘Kingmaker’.
The band take a break and the sisters prove what a perfect unit they are harmonising like trio of angels through ‘Make Peace With Time’, ‘So Far’, ‘Tomorrow’ and ‘If you were a Bird’. The latter, we learn, was a love song written during a walk in the Otago botanical gardens. Mitchell nods to her flatmates and remembers how she wrote ‘Make Peace…’, with its melancholic lyrics and melody, a reflective take on the inevitability of the times.
She notes the success of Tami Neilson’s new album (a predominantly country album), going to Number One on the charts. “I couldn’t have imagined that five years ago.” Then launches into the album’s biggest hit ‘Trouble Finds Girl’, which she shared the writing and the microphone. Tonight, the twins fill in taking lines as they come and competently fill the gap. Nobody could ever compete with Tami, but these ladies do a pretty fair job of it. More goosebumps in the chorus.
The final track is an encore, Simon and Garfunkel’s classic ‘The Boxer’, in which Mitchell encourages everyone to sing along – ‘’You’ll feel better!’’ And so I did. And, yes, it worked.
Meow is a small, intimate venue. Like an oversized living room. Tonight’s gig was seated and quiet. It suited the early spring evening – a parlor event, personal and special. It was so good to see these songs finally come alive and be released to the environment. They can only grow now, take on a life of their own. Everyone tonight was charmed and touched – that’s Jenny and her sisters doing their magic. Watch this space.
First published at www.ambientlight.co.nz
Photos by Tim Gruar