Twenty one years ago, Split Enz keyboardist Eddie Rayner rearranged some of his former band’s music and presented them in a collaboration with the NZ Symphony Orchestra.
Called EnzSO, it was well received but Rayner has admitted in interviews that, while the sound was “full” and “lush” he found it hard get past the “constant lag” the sound had in comparison to a rock band: It lacked “groove”, he felt.
This week Rayner marked the anniversary of that show with a performance in Melbourne – his home for 15 years – but sought to fix his earlier frustration by reducing the orchestral backing from 130 to 13 people, plus three vocalists. Within that 13 he also included a rock rhythm section of bass and drums as well as lead guitar, six string players and four brass/wind players.
As a result, the sound was still lush and full, but still managed to capture some of the cheeky punk pop buzz of the Enz that any Australian over 40 would surely remember.
While the spotlight was literally focused on Rayner all night – only begrudgingly highlighting vocalists Rima Te Wiata (Bella in Hunt For The Wilderpeople), Rikki Morris and Phil Madsen as they alternately led each song – it was drummer Michael Barker who built the backbone for the night’s sound, with Rayner’s elegant playing forming the colour and the vocals, sometimes lost amid the orchestration, relegated to setting the scene.
Rayner understandably chose pieces that lend themselves best to orchestration (or which include the most recognizable keyboard riffs) and opened the night with less-played instrumental work, Albert of India. He set up the conversation with the audience for the night by forgetting the year it was released.
“Any friends of the Enz in the audience?” he asked. “Which year was it?” and met with a loud, confident response. Certainly a lot of fans from way back were in the house – and why not, when for the price of a ticket you could have pretty much bought the whole Split Enz back collection?
Morris opened the vocal pieces with One Step Ahead, followed by Madsen with his soaring range on My Love is Alien.
Te Wiata chimed in next with The Devil You Know, which also calls for a broad vocal range so that at one point she was singing the lower line with Morris providing the higher backing vocals.
Morris played his party trick as I See Red opened, vocalising a mock sax solo with impressive reality. “I had a job on a milk truck,” he said, explaining how he’d learnt the stunt. “It had no horn…”
As the classics and lesser-know numbers were rolled out, Rayner paid homage to his former band mates, referring to Phil Judd as “One of the true geniuses I’ve ever worked with”, thanking Noel Crombie and wife Sally (both in the audience) for once again providing his suits for the show, and describing Neil Finn’s Message to my Girl as one of the greatest songs of all time. At other times Rayner mock-bragged about being the longest-serving member of Split Enz and repeatedly joked: “It’s all about me.” His colleagues laughed it off but after the second or third repeat of this, one wonders how much truth is in the jest.
Still, the songs continued with Edible Flowers, I Walk Away, 129 (the song that made Rayner decide he needed to join Split Enz in 1974), Stuff and Nonsense, Voices and Straight Old Line, which prompted a wonderful spoons solo from drummer Michael Barker.
It is hard to believe that Rayner cannot read or write music when you hear so many sublime arrangements, one of the greatest of which is his version of I Hope I Never and the underrated Give it A Whirl.
As the concert reached its crescendo Rayner pulled out the big guns: Shark Attack (from Te Wiata, with great gusto), I Got You (introduced as “the song that saved our asses”) and History Never Repeats.
Something about fully seated concerts always reduces the vibe in the room and, despite obviously strong audience support, the applause and call for encore somehow remains stilted and flat.
Nevertheless, the band reappeared, played a blinder of a version of Six Months In a Leaky Boat (with its awesome keyboard opening, of course), and ending on My Mistake.
A masterful show of some of the era’s best music boosted just enough to make the revision worthwhile, but not so much as to break it.
Arts Centre Melbourne, Wander Productions & Major Mitchell and Partners present
ENZO: The Music of Split Enz
Venue: Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne | St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Dates: 17 November 2017
Tickets: $79 – $110 ($69 – $89)