The first live band my oldest child experienced was Avalanche City at Parachute Festival some years ago. She was fresh into the world and we stood in the back for a couple of songs, clamping earmuffs firmly to her tender ears. I don’t know what she thought of it, but she’s liked much of the music I’ve introduced to her since.

There’s nothing like a live concert. You can’t replicate the experience on a stereo or screen, no matter the quality of the footage or of the technology. There’s something special about being in a room full of fans who have all come ready to enjoy the music together. If the music is good and true, and the audience is not merely seeking escapism or some kind of unthinking submersion into noise and light at the expense of engagement with the real world, then there’s something good happening: a bunch of diverse humans getting together to listen to stories, and to engage in a conversation with the artists.

Dave Dobbyn (Photo Credit: Spid Pye)
Dave Dobbyn (Photo Credit: Spid Pye)

Dave Dobbyn’s recent gig in Putaruru as part of his “Slice of Heaven: 40 Years of Hits” tour, in support of his latest greatest hits collection, ticked the boxes for me. A full house in a not-too-big venue, great acoustics, and a comfy seat — and gingerbread loaf from the ladies in the foyer at half-time.

A word on that greatest hits album, his third best-of. Apart from three songs from last year’s Harmony House, there’s nothing on the recent collection that’s not on Beside You from 2009. That earlier album has thirty-nine songs from thirty years thoughtfully divided into two “sets”, and is a better buy: pair it with Harmony House and you’re all set.

An icon like Dobbyn is in an unenviable position when playing live. A sizeable chunk of the audience will know the hits but not much else, and have come to hear those favourite songs. They greet them with hoots and hollers, slapping the backs of the people next to them, fists and beer bottles in the air, and “Yes! Yes! Yes!” from the guy behind me. But a performer might want to be playing a lot of newer stuff or older stuff that is less well known: they have to find a balance between being true to their own artistic aims while delivering a set that won’t leave hit-hungry fans disappointed.

Dobbyn cannily laid his cards on the table, giving a rundown on the night — a first set that would be “a bit subdued” followed by an intermission after which the band would “come back rocking”. There was still a kind of restlessness in the room during that first bracket — “Is this a rock and roll show or what?” I heard someone say at half-time — and a fair amount of chatter audible over the quieter parts of the music, but giving the audience a heads up likely meant that this was less than it might have been.

Some highlights: the gorgeous Belltower, with loping bassline to the fore and lovely backing vocals, the poignancy of It Just Dawned on Me and I Can’t Change My Name from the mid-90s album Twist, and the expansive recent love song Tell the World in the first set. Dobbyn sat at the keyboard while his band played their parts next to him: Jesse Sheehan on guitar, Jo Barus on bass and Ross Burge, surely one of New Zealand’s best drummers, on risers and in sunglasses at the back.

In the second half, Language, Waiting For A Voice, and Just Add Water. Songs exploring love and loss, humane and heartfelt. It’s interesting to see motifs across Dobbyn’s body of work, inclu ding the recurring Christian imagery and references.

Dobbyn’s anecdotes and jokes between songs were well-received and there was some wisdom and insight amongst them, including this short sermon: “Take care. Love your families. Stop mucking around. God bless you.” (“There’s no God here, mate,” said the guy behind me with a sneer.) Dobbyn also paid heartfelt tribute to two Kiwi legends who’ve recently left us, Murray Ball and John Clarke.

I’d be happy to see a whole show like the first set — it’s not that I don’t like the well known songs, just that Dobbyn has a raft of good tunes and I’ve heard the hits a million times. I’d love to see another tour like the one Dobbyn did with Don McGlashan a few years back (I missed it), where they played each other’s songs in acoustic arrangements. Having said that, the Putaruru gig was a great night — laughs, stories, great tunes. A celebration of the best of contemporary pop music and of the live music experience.

Grab a mate and get out and see a gig: here are a few tips for upcoming tours and one-offs in the next month or so.

Paul Ubana Jones, The Lemonheads’ Evan Dando, Ben Ottewell of Gomez, Sigur Ros, Ryan Adams, DJ Shadow, Shayne Carter and Don McGlashan together, Tami Neilsen’s “Songs of Sinners” tour, Flying Nun legends The Chills and jazz festivals in Wellington and Christchurch.

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