Sunday, 17 July 2011

PaJaMa Club at The Borderline – Saturday, 16 July

Last night was the premier UK gig of Neil Finn’s new project, PaJaMa Club, which you technically could call an ‘indie band’ whose other Members comprise his wife Sharon (hence the ‘pa’ and ‘ma’ reference—which wouldn’t work with the British spelling of jimjams) on bass, Sean Donnelly (also known as SJD, a solo performer and Don McGlashan collaborator) on keyboards and guitar, and Alana Skyring (formerly of Australian band The Grates) on drums.

Like everyone else, I was initially keen to go see the band because any Neil Finn performance is unmissable. That morning, however, I was slightly less enthusiastic when picturing queuing in a dreadful downpour outside the Borderline in order to get a decent spot. Particularly after listening to the beginning of the only PJC track available, From a Friend to a Friend (listen on, as frankly it initially did little for me, particularly with its minimalist vocals and wailing guitar effects. Upon arrival in Soho, my friend agreed that the music was a bit experimental, and that’s not usually a word that bodes as well for the paying public as it does for the experimenting artist.

Perhaps my wet wariness and doubt was useful in contributing to my being so pleasantly surprised by the concert. The music seemed heavily influenced by early 1980s and late ‘70s electronica, of which I have always been a fan. The band even slipped seamlessly from Suffer Never, one of only two songs from Neil’s past that they played (the other being his collaboration with Sharon on his 7 Worlds Collide project), into a delightful cover of Tubeway Army’s Are Friends Electric?, sung very much like Gary Numan would. One song’s influence sounded like an unexpected mix between Kraftwerk and The Waitresses. The fact that some excellent Talking Heads classics were playing as we waited in the club might also have been a hint that PJC were in similar minds or musical corners. There were still very catchy Neil Finn-style choruses to reward us as well, although impressively, this was clearly a distinct project, and the songs were not material that could have just as easily been on a Crowded House or Finn Brothers album.

The band itself was likeable and not just the backdrop behind Neil Finn’s star. Australian drummer Alana Skyring looked like a sweet, gentle, young, unassuming character practically in a sweater set who you might bump into at a church bake sale, not at all the tough rock musician sort one might expect. Perhaps that made me think of her and Auckland keyboardist Sean Donnelly (who donned a tea cosy on his head) like The Other Two from New Order. They fit in well; both were clearly lovely people who were very much part of the whole, not just backing musicians, and Donnelly often joined in with a bit of banter, not quite the quickfire wit exchanges with Neil that we are used to with past stage companions like brother Tim and Nick Seymour, but I’m sure it will develop. Overall, it left one with a fuzzy feeling that these were nice people on stage who happened to make great music for us.

As this was their first gig together in the UK, the four often shared endearing smiles when they were pleased with how each track had come together, although as the material was so new, the acutely attentive audience rarely knew when to applaud and often did so only after seeing Neil turn to the band and say ‘Yeah! That was good!’ which was our cue that we had missed our cue. Sharon seemed often to look to her husband for reassurance, which she always got, and he easily spoke of the pleasure in playing with his beautiful wife. For a great deal of the concert, her soft vocals were drowned out and I could only tell if she were singing by watching, but later she had a few solo or contrasting parts that helped her really stand out.

Whilst I have numerous detailed comments I want to make about the songs, the banter, and the entire experience, budget cuts that are making me redundant mean that Friday may be my last day of work at a place where I’ve spent half my life (about 20 years). What that means in terms of this concert (apart from it being an excellent ‘redundancy present’ from my friend Lesley) is that I don’t have the time now to write up a full review for my neglected website as I must focus on the work I’ve brought home, but that I will have plenty of time after next week (amidst sending off job applications!) to write up more fully this review and myriad others that have long been stored in my head and in scribbles on various notepads now languishing around the flat—including other Finn concerts. So watch that space….

For now, I just set out below the set list with a few quick comments [actually, they turned out much longer than expected]. The titles may be wrong, and the worst thing about the gig was that the album does not come out until September, which is a cruel wait. I had rather hoped they would be selling something on the tour, even an EP of the tunes, but there were only T-shirts, though you can purchase by download the Friend track (

1. Can’t Put It Down Until It Ends – Overly strong thumping bass drowned out the subtle vocals until Neil thankfully reach a part where he did a bit of belting out, which was grand. As he did several times during the gig, Neil played a small keyboard in front of him as well as electric guitar. Some vaguely Suffer Never style music with keyboard effects and an electric guitar solo stretched out at the end, and overall not the punchiest start to a gig, but then the excitement of seeing them for the first time was enough to wow the crowd. I imagine this song will be much stronger on the album and maybe first night nerves or shaky mixing weakened it, but the verses, full of weak ‘woo-oo’-ing, and instrumentation did little for me, though I may have been alone, considering its reception.

2. These Are Conditions – Fantastic song, with a sort of angry male chorus that reminded me of Heaven 17 and Human League in the early days when they were fascinating. Additional angry males were the crew, including one youngster from Te Awamutu who we’d watched tuning the guitars and folding and sellotaping the set lists before the gig and having to keep moving them as the audience began to scrutinise them. The middle drifted into a sea of dreamy effects that the band is prone to, but the song was the best of new wave meets enjoyable funk.

3. Dead Leg – The first song where Neil sang the verses in a more conventional way, albeit still competing with a fuzz guitar sound; I still couldn’t hear Sharon, and other ‘woo-ing’ backing vocals sounded slightly off key. It may have been the mixing, my position in the club (front stage right), or what they’re going for, but it seemed to be a mass of echo-y sounds that were fine, but not memorable, although the chorus was better. We clapped only after we watched Neil speak to the band about how it went—not because it wasn’t enjoyable, we just didn’t know the song inside out, which is probably refreshing.

4. Diamonds in Her Eyes - I’ve just realised that these points sound really critical when the gig was tremendously enjoyable overall. But when this song started, I found myself wincing repeatedly as it sounded as though Neil Finn and his band were singing a wonderful song in one room with thin walls but were being drowned out by awful drilling sounds as someone carried out works, but rather than drilling, it was someone playing Space Invaders or Asteroids unbelievably loudly. In other words, I thought the keyboard effects during the song should have been much more toned down or at least vaguely integrated with what was a bright, upbeat feel of a song. But again, maybe it was because I was closer to the keyboards, though given that I love electronica, I don’t think that’s the only excuse. I am certain I will love this song when it is eventually released. The lack of applause at the end was because no one realised they were moving straight from one unfamiliar song to another.

5. Go Kart – Terrific fun, with Sharon singing quite a bit on her own, though she was still hard to hear particularly over imposing guitars, but she seemed to be singing saucily ‘Are you ready for me?’, which the crowd loved. What I did hear reminded me pleasantly of the attitude of The Waitresses, and then Neil would kick in with an ultra-catchy chorus of ‘I saw you standing there’, with some synth and bass effects that reminded me of Kraftwerk and Translator. My friend Lesley thought it was a bit Split Enz meets Talking Heads. This song was definitely a high point, and I can’t wait to hear it when I can really hear it.

6. Golden Child – (After Neil decided the venue was familiar and asked if it was the place they played a few years ago—about 20 years ago, someone pointed out—and he apologised to friends he had told the Borderline was in Covent Garden). This started with Neil and Sharon singing in harmony throughout, with music that was finally peaceful enough for us actually to hear Sharon. Initially, some of the guitar notes (Sean and Neil were both on guitar) sounded so off key that I almost thought they would stop and start over—or as though the two guitarists were playing different tunes at once, but I’m starting to wonder if I was listening badly, or maybe I was hearing Cam(?) tuning the next guitar as he was near me…..At times, it reminded me of son Liam’s first hit, Second Chance. Sean joined in with pleasantly deep John Gorka-style vocals, and the audience really loved it.

7. TNT For 2 – Absolutely stunning song. Wonderful tune with Neil belting out excellent vocals throughout that had our toes tapping. He had moved to the keyboards by me (and did a great Doors-like keyboard solo) and Sean played guitar near Sharon. Brilliant and yet so different from any previous Finn fare. Much of the music was playfully slinky, then Neil and Sean’s deep vocals blended marvellously to create some Spanish-style handsome wailing with amazing integrity. Outstanding, and I hope they release this before September.

8. Suffer Never – The only real nod to the past; there was no Weather With You or Don’t Dream It’s Over tonight, which made sense. As a Tim Finn fan since my teens, I would never be able to say this was as good a rendition as the original Finn song, but it was wonderful. Neil beamed quite a bit at the audience and eventually I realised that he seemed to be making the night of some people who were photographing him, which was kind, though I’ve no doubt he was generally pleased with how the night was going. At the end of the track, Sean faultlessly synced in a synth riff that worked wonderfully and then turned into…..

9. Are Friends Electric? – My face was covered in smile. This was such a clever, seamless transition, a fantastically fun nod to the sort of music that was obviously a part of the PJC ethic, and I assumed they’d just treat us to a few lines and stop, but they performed the whole Tubeway Army tune, quite faithfully, with Neil singing like Gary Numan rather than delivering a Crowded House-style guitar-led version. Which might be neat some time, but this brought the house down.

10. Game We Love – A grinning Neil said ‘this is fun’ and looked as though he was about to banter, but Sean had started delivering mouth percussion (ie making drum sounds with his voice) to start the next song, which worryingly began a bit like Wham’s Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, but quickly moved on to something very PJC, with more of a nod to Finn than other songs. It had a dreamy feel, heavy bass, wailing echo-y vocals. Neil stood looking half-naked without a guitar so nearly did a dad dance, and the song stopped suddenly, unfortunately to someone in the audience shouting ‘F—k off!’, which might have been a way of saying ‘I say, that was jolly good, chaps!’ Neil was clearly thrilled with how the song had gone, which was lovely. He then tested the popularity of various English towns by calling out ‘Grimsby!’ ‘Weston-Super-Mare’ (following on from some previous banter and his reference to how, on the Letterman show, you could shout out any tiny town’s name and someone in the audience from there would cheer). He marvelled that everywhere got cheers but Bath, oddly, got boos, so ‘Grimsby was bigger than Bath in London.’

11. Daylight – A delightfully frothy chorus, quite catchy. I won’t injure it by saying it was vaguely of the Travis ilk, it’s just that it seemed very positive and happy a la ‘daylight, it’s all right’, which is no bad thing, and Neil seemed understandably happy that the crowd was already joining in on a new song. This will surely be worth listening out for when it’s in its final polished form on a recording, and I could see it as a single, although it’s not their best song. The crowd loved it.

12. From a Friend to a Friend – Loads of effects to sift through to find the vocals, but clearly they’re not prioritising vocals here. This was better than the version I’d heard online, which did not impress me, and Sean’s deep backing vocals added a great deal of character and depth, as the verses sounded a bit weak. As different layers of the song were piled on, it did sound more interesting, and I imagine it will grow on me considerably. It drew great cheers from the crowd.

13. Tell Me What You Want – this was a true highlight of the evening. Neil moved to the drum set, and Alana stood beside him playing other drums. Sean told us Neil had told him off as he walked past, which Neil denied and said they were words of encouragement. He indulged in a quick drum solo for fun (the unexpected whack of the hi-hat was his ‘favourite bit’), then said ‘right, onto business’ and they played a marvellous song that Sharon—finally audible—led on vocals, seductively singing the title as a refrain at the beginning, before Neil sang the verses from the drum set in back, until Sharon joined in with her refrain again and it blended together wonderfully. Steamy and catchy, another song I can’t wait to own.

The band then left the tiny stage, with Neil stepping down but waiting for his wife to reach him, then offering his hand to help her down the few steps. It was lovely to see how they interact after almost 30 years of marriage.


14. Little By Little – The only other nod to the past, this being the recent past, from Neil’s 7 Worlds Collide project, the first release where he and Sharon shared vocals.

15. Don’t Look Back – (After some toilet humour) I hear that guests on Dermot O’Leary’s BBC Radio 2 show have to play a classic song as well as their own, and that PJC had played Bob Dylan’s Don’t Look Back that afternoon. (You can listen to it until about 23 July 2011 here: I don’t believe this was planned for the night’s performance; Neil spoke to the others and then announced that they were going to try something on stage that they had not tried before (which is when someone yelled out ‘Toilet?’ which led to Neil recounting a toilet seat incident). This was a real treat, Neil’s voice sounded a bit Johnny Cash, clear and deep, until he went wild Neil-style at the end, and happily we could hear it clearly without being drowned out by any effects. Afterwards, he apologised to Bob for mauling his lyrics, though he said he’d added a mention of ‘encyclopaedia’, of which he thought Bob would have approved, and then noted his own unfortunate habit of drawing attention to his mistakes.

16. It’s Alright – A cover of the ESG (Emerald, Sapphire and Gold) song, all funk and long guitar sections with a lot more of the ‘experimental’ thrown in. Eventually, the crowd started clapping to the beat and, with Neil’s encouragement, sang along to the chorus.

Then the band went off to rapturous cheers at about 10.30pm, having started at 9pm on the dot. I can categorically say that the audience were thrilled with a magnificent evening, and the band seemed justifiably pleased with their UK debut as well.

I will put more photographs (no great ones as I don’t like to use flash, and Neil in particular rarely keeps still) on my website when I write up a full account of the night. Meanwhile, a brief video clip of the group performing perhaps at Neil’s home is one of the few things available on the official website at: . If you join their mailing list, you get a chance to download for free From a Friend to a Friend, but if you don’t love that, bear in mind that’s one of their lesser songs. Do go see them if you can as they have just started touring the UK, and this stellar show is bound to become more polished and glowing. (Incidentally, support artist Sam Scott, of The Phoenix Foundation, was worth getting there early for and held the fortunately well-behaved and kind audience captive, and I’ll review his performance on my site in due course, too.)