Mel Parsons – San Fran, Wellington 16 October 2022

After recently reviewing Mel Parsons’ new album, ‘Slow Burn’ I was super keen to see her on stage again.  How would these songs work live?  

For me, it’s been a few years since I’ve seen her on a big stage.  But through various channels, I’ve always kept up with her work.

The last time was the night of the 2016 Kaikoura earthquakes.  I’d been to see her gig at the Dowse Art Gallery in Lower Hutt, part of a real ‘down home’ community hall experience, complete with haybales, baking and BBQs.  Humorously called ‘Sons Of A B*tch’, the tour had a distinctive ‘rural’ flavour.  The idea was all about connecting community, a tour for Kiwis to meet their neighbours, enjoy their local venues, meet up with volunteer groups and raise some money for local causes.  Help those in trouble after disasters and such.  Who knew we’d need those groups so soon! 

Touching base with Mel after tonight, we reminisced about that show.  She said the band were about to get on the Picton Ferry.  Waiting on the dock must have been a pretty harrowing experience as it rocked about. 

But that was a long time ago.  This evening’s show was all about Mel.  No opening act.  Just the singer and her humble band – cousin Jed Parsons (drums and BVs), Thomas Isbister (bass) and Josh Logan (her producer and multi-instrumentalist for the new album)

Divided into two sets, her 21 song repertoire is a scattering of material lifted from the new album, ‘Slow Burn’, her sophomore effort ‘Drylands’ and the follow up ‘Glass Heart’.  Plus, a new one, an unreleased song called ‘Tiny Days’, dedicated to all the parents of toddlers in the audience (most of which were still there, due to the early start of her show). 

Given her immense talent, it seems like a kind of irony when she begins with ‘Failure’ and ‘Lights’ from the new disc because clearly the lady is a class act and a talented songstress.  The songs are about self-doubt.  Both songs look inward at the artist in Lockdown and question everything about her situation and value.  Mel did warn us that this show was not going to be full of happy songs.  “I’m often accused of being too dark.  Well, I just want to let you know that’s how this (show) is going to go.”

Songs seem to run in themes, sort of.  The next two, title track ‘Slow Burn’ and ‘I Got The Lonely’ dance around concepts of isolation, relationships and reconnections.  As do ‘Still Got Time’ and ‘No Communicado’, which prove popular with the punters, who are mostly in their middle age.  They are appreciating a night out, a few drinks and a bit of a sing along. 

Mel makes a point of playing ‘Still Got Time’.  She says because it’s the last song on the new album and finals always get left out or forgotten.  It seems poignant as it’s placed in the second half of the set, too. 

The last three in part 1, ‘Going Under’, ‘Bottom of The Street’ and ‘Get Out Alive’ all have a kind of survival theme.  The final is about a car crash, “Oh, I got lucky and I walked away/ Yeah, coulda so easily been the other way”.  That was nearly a decade ago, yet Mel still sings it with the anguish of the moment, it’s still raw and probably always will be.

The party finally gets swinging when Mel reaches for a coupla favs – ‘Far Far Away’ and ‘Driving Man’ to open Set 2.  She’s changed into a sparkly rhinestone top, to contrast her band who are all in suave blue suits.  She’s also swapped guitars and now playing electric.  Jed is laying down a heavy tattoo coda on the toms for ‘…Away’ and Josh Logan is creating dark layers of twang across both. 

The true darkness returns with ‘Tunnel Vision’, which draws you into its downward spiral.  It’s a song about how people get lost in their own agendas at the expense of others and you really can feels.  After this, I just wanted to apologise to anyone who’d listen. 

To help out, Mel’s former bass-man of 15 years Aaron Stewart jumps up on stage with his double bass.  He’s a local and had ‘just popped along’ to help out.  It’s good to see him back with the gang.  

‘Don’t Wait’ completes the ‘electric’ set, before the band leave the stage and Mel plays her dedication to new parents – a delicate, contemplative acoustic number called ‘Tiny Days’.  It’s nice to hear a song under produced and still something of a work in progress.  You can imagine how it might be when it gets the studio treatment.  But for my ears, it sounded better untouched.  

We return to the ‘Covid’ theme with ‘Carry On’ before tripping into a survival song of a different sort.  ‘Headland’ is about the struggles of early Southland pioneers and farmers and is a majestic, swirling shanty of a song, made even more dramatic by Josh’s keys and his funky, Avant Garde piano playing in the bridge. 

‘Already Gone’, which sits mid set on the new album, tempts up as concert goes on, whilst ‘Come Over’ and ‘Darkness’ up the rock amps a notch or two, and bring proceedings to a natural conclusion. 

There was one funny moment when Mel’s guitar strap came unbuttoned, and the instrument hit the floor with a loud ‘bwaaaang!”  While the singer grinned and bared it, re-clipping up, the band broke into some spontaneous free jazz which extended the whole thing into an in joke that we could all enjoy together.

After a brief departure, the band all return for the encore – two deeply ironic songs.  ‘Just Cause You Don’t Want Me’ seems particularly clever tonight, as we all lean in to listen closely. 

And then my favourite from the new album, which Mel notes is all about not taking your self too seriously as an artist – ‘Tired Of Being You’.  Comparing the so called glam life with reality.  You can’t help being reminded of Courtney Barnett’s own self-deprecations, especially with lines about lunch in Koro Lounge and clashing schedules.  Such ‘First World Problems!’ 

Sure, this wouldn’t work during lockdown.  But now we are out and about again, they seem to be hauntingly relevant again. 

It was great to see Mel on stage again after a break.  Every time she just gets better.  They were super were tight and professional, warm despite the darkness of the material.  Josh Logan, in particular was laid back, yet so present in all these songs, complimenting Mel’s broody, smoky vocals and providing the right moods and ambience for each.  Cousin Jed and bassist Thomas chose also to provide understated class and cover, for an artist who just needs that subtle, unstated support. 

Tonight could have been a bit more full, I could see clear patches of floorspace.  But given it was the Sunday before School goes back the appreciative crowd was in force with aroha.  Mel seemed to appreciate this and said so several times during the gig. 

If you get the chance on her current tour, then make sure the babysitter’s booked and there’s enough wi-fi to keep the older ones happy.  Cancel the afterschool drop-offs.  Whatever.  Do what you have to do.  Get out and see her.  You won’t regret it. 

Photos by Tim Gruar

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