Scott Kelly/ John Baizley/ Craig Radford/ Desbot @ SFBH, Wellington, New Zealand, February 3rd, 2012

Live review by Craig Haze; Photos by Greg Parsons

A small, passionate, vocal crowd greeted Neurosis’ Scott Kelly and Baroness’ John Baizley for their show in New Zealand’s capital on their current solo acoustic tour. With able support from an NZ rock icon, Craig Radford, the night was filled with heartfelt, intense performances. The crowd may have been slim, but it added to the intimacy, and fans stood transfixed by an evening of outstanding and emotionally charged suites.

The show kicked off early. At 8.15 pm, Maurice Beckett from NZ post-rock luminaries Jakob took the stage under his Desbot moniker to a scant five souls. Running through a 30 minute set of heaving drone reminiscent of SunnO))) and Jesu, Desbot’s sound may have been the antithesis of what was to follow but it was an excellent dose of feedback-fuelled rock.

Craig Radford, frontman for long-running NZ crusty metal legends Sticky Filth, was up next. After apologizing for not having played a solo acoustic gig for a few years, he then set to dazzling the gathering crowd. Starting out with the rousing “The Devil Plays Guitar”, Radford, who is renowned for composing working-class hymns, delivered half an hour of impassioned dirty blues interspersed with effusive praise for his co-performers and the show’s promoter. Before performing the song “Hate Remains”— found on Sticky Filth’s latest album Fourth Domain—he assured us it wasn’t about us (“just one person in particular”) drawing a solid laugh from the crowd. Finishing up with the epic multipart cowboy narrative, “Dust and Dirt”, Radford’s short but intense set was a stellar introduction for what followed.

Baroness frontman John Baizley took the stage, immediately endearing himself by admitting it was a nerve-racking proposition playing solo. He asked us to gather close, explaining that it would make things hell of a lot easier for him, and the crowd dully responded, setting up a nice friendly huddle. Baizely began his 45-minute set with Baroness’ “Steel that Sleeps the Eye” before treating us all to some of the tracks he’s been working on for the next Baroness album. He explained it had been a weird year for him, not touring in order to write the next album, and if the tracks he played are any indication of what’s in store on Baroness’ next release, then prepare yourself for some psych-heavy dramatic majesty.

Baizely admitted to some trepidation in playing the gig, this being only his second show without Baroness, but he needn’t have worried—the crowd lapped it up. Although he never divulged song titles, he talked at length about the songs themselves. Before one particularly heartbreaking tune he revealed it was some “hard shit to perform”, which spoke volumes about his easy rapport with the audience. Plus, the song pretty much had everyone verging on tears. Baizley was in fine voice throughout; his husky vocals evoked a beautiful sense of fragility and melancholy in the acoustic setting. He moved briskly through a series of soulful, gorgeously presented tunes, picking up his electric guitar for a couple of elegiac, hard-strumming numbers, and ending on a haunting rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “In my Fathers House”. His set seemed way too short, but we were privileged to see him a solo setting.

With no real changeover needed between sets, aside from swapping over a guitar, Scott Kelly sat down at the mic less than five minutes after Baizley’s exit and proceeded to flat-out mesmerize the audience. There were tracks from both his solo albums, along with covers and a new Shrinebuilder number he’d written in preparation for their next album—or, as Kelly noted, “if we ever get it together enough to make another album.”

His set was faultless. You could have heard a pin drop for the first five tracks, the entire venue transfixed by Kelly’s rumbling, graveled baritone. “The Ladder in my Blood” and “Searchers”, both from his latest solo album, The Wake, were heartily cheered. His performance proved him to be a master craftsman. He chatted happily with the crowd, saying he’d love to get Neurosis down here to play, praising NZ’s beauty, and jokingly telling us he was considering moving here himself, “depending on who wins those elections.” The smallish crowd made for some great to and fro between Kelly and the audience. But when he closed his eyes and leant into the mic to play his darkened folk and rough country tunes, the show took on a whole new ritualized atmosphere—with Kelly becoming the doom-laden preacher leading the ceremony.

Kelly sounded great throughout; his voice, rising and falling in mournful cadence, was deeply charismatic, and the honest and forthright delivery of the tunes made for an evening drenched in authenticity. He finished his set by inviting John Baizley back onto the stage for a couple of numbers, ending on a powerful version of Townes Van Zandt’s “St John the Gambler”. No encore, just two men packing up their guitar cases and shuffling off the stage in the face of a crowd essentially stunned by an evening of poignant, heart-wrenching roots music.

Sean Palmerston

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.