Pajama Club + Ernest Ellis and the Panamas – The Prince Bandroom, Melbourne (15/09/2011)

Gathering together on a pleasant Thursday evening, punters at The Prince of Wales were welcomed by opening act Ernest Ellis and the Panamas.

From the tone of the guitars to Ellis’ vocals and the group’s long haired and bearded rock posing, the Sydney quintet clearly have their sound and image worked out and ready to go, and they delivered a slick and cohesive set. Both the big, powerful choruses and the slight southern rock influence to their sound suggested a folkier Kings of Leon, delivered with just the amount of drama and confidence to suggest a band with a promising future.

After a brief pause while refreshments were purchased and positions were chosen, a warm greeting arose to meet the figures of drummer Alana Skyring, bass player and singer Sharon Finn, Auckland keyboardist Mathias Jordan, who was standing in for an ill Sean Donnelly, and singer, guitarist, synth player, Neil Finn, now known collectively as Pajama Club.

Launching into their first song, the animated Neil (first names used from here on in to avoid confusion) was a counterpoint to Sharon, who stood beside him emitting a certain amount of rock-chic cool, a la Kim Deal, swaying to the rhythm and occasionally smiling over at her husband from beneath a long, dark fringe. While the Split Enz/Crowded House veteran assumed the role of the enigmatic frontman, the two Finns led the band together, sharing equal spotlights.

The Pajama Club sound is one built upon steady, funky grooves and fleshed out with new wave synths and short psychedelic guitar freakouts, on top of all of which are the familiar, uplifting vocal melodies of Neil Finn. ‘Groove based’ is how Sharon described the both the sound and the songwriting process to this reporter in an interview for the AU Review last month. Whereas the usual process for Neil up until this point had been to sit down at a piano and carefully construct his songs, she explained, the material from Pajama Club came about through a series of jams between the couple, which were then refined into the shape presented to the audience tonight. Neil has also excitedly spoken in recent interviews about the re invigoration that comes from discovering a new process, and how he hopes to apply this approach to the next Crowded House album as well.

However, there were some points during the set where this style obviously worked better than at others, certain songs not feeling much more developed than being simply a good groove with a nice melody and a bit in the middle with a wild guitar lead. Having said that, when it worked, it did work really well.

“Tell Me What You Want”, the lead single, was a clear standout amongst the set, Sharon’s breathy vocals in the chorus perfectly complimenting her heavy, driving bassline, while Neil, as on the album, took the drummer’s seat and sang the verses. The result was a catchy, upbeat and lyrically mischievous piece of pop; the call-and-response of the vocals capitalising on the chemistry between the two frontpersons.

This song, together with the gorgeous ballad “Golden Child”, which made exceptional use of Neil and Sharon’s vocal harmonies, were two of the best examples of when this Pajama Club style of working really turned out something exceptional.

“Golden Child”, which featured minimal-to-no drums for its first half, also helped to provide some needed dynamics to the set list, as, with that one exception, there was little variation between the songs in terms of tempo or volume. Nevertheless, there was no danger that this audience’s interest was about to wane, as the Finn’s have a notoriously loyal fanbase, with one particular fellow loudly calling out the names of the Melbourne streets in which the had previously been resided. Clearly used to this level of intimacy with the general public, Neil responded that he would award a prize to whoever could list all of his previous local addresses, which thankfully, no one won.

“Suffer Never”, the only song of Neil’s back catalogue to be performed on this tour, from 1995’s FINN with brother Tim, also stood out as being a clear highlight, and not merely for the thrill of hearing a familiar song. Perhaps having the advantage of having been performed live regularly for the past sixteen years, or perhaps it simply stood out as being a guitar-oriented song amongst all of the rhythmic ones, nevertheless it seemed slightly more concise and energetic. Before the audience became tempted to start calling out requests for other old songs, the tune segued halfway into a cover of Gary Numan’s “Are Friends Electric?”, a song whose new wave synth-grooves were decidedly in keeping with the direction of the band onstage.

During their performance at The Corner in June, the Pajama Club’s fourth show ever, the musicians seemed excited to be playing, the experience of the group and its songs being almost as fresh to them as it was to the audience. Comparatively, tonight saw the group deliver the same material; the eleven tracks from their debut LP, plus two others, but with a slightly more natural and effortless feel.

Speaking with Skyring afterwards, the cheerful Brisbanite and ex-member of The Grates, pointed at the recently completed tour, comprised of dates in the UK and USA, including opening for Wilco at the Solid Sound Festival in Massachusetts, by way of explanation for the sure-footedness of tonight’s performance. The band was just obviously a much tighter unit, and this showed through in some of the material, most notably “From a Friend to a Friend”, which seemed to have benefited from the constant exercise of a world tour, and were delivered with a greater sense of urgency and dynamics than both at their June performance and on the album.

Pajama Club are, in a word, fun, and with this in mind it would be easy to imagine the enjoyment forming a band such as this would hold for someone such as Neil Finn, both blessed and burdened with being revered as one of the world’s greatest songwriters. The enjoyment the two Finns get out of this project is evident in their live show and simply seeing a thirty-five year strong couple having such as good time creating noise together is a charming spectacle in itself. Despite this, it is unlikely that the songs of the Pajama Club will bring about the same sense of emotional connection from its audience in a way that a Crowded House song can, but one supposes that that is not the point of this band.

Emerging for an encore, and having exhausted the eleven tracks from their debut, they bade their audience good night with a cover of ESG’s “It’s Alright”, which unfortunately was one of the only moments that really fell flat, with Neil’s attempts to get the audience to sing along to its simple chorus (“It’s alright, mama, it’s alright, baby, it’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright”) feeling slightly forced and not completely convincing.

Nonetheless, it was an engaging gig and a pleasure to witness one of pop music’s first families explore new ways in keeping themselves, and their audience, inspired and entertained.

Originally published on The AU Review on 17/09/2011. View original article.

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