St. Mary’s of the Angels
April 4 | Reviewed by Brannavan Gnanalingam

I HOPE I don’t put the mockers on him, but Dudley Benson is going to be big. And by god would he deserve to as well. It’s rare to see someone so endearing live, so flagrantly talented, and unique in his craft actually start to get recognised in New Zealand. The last time I saw him was when he opened for the Animal Collective and he was dressed in a safari outfit doing hip-hop break-dancing by himself. This time he was still dancing, but had a choir, a string quartet, and a baby-grand piano at his side. It was a totally unconventional performance, and one done with humour, charm and verve. And the full audience savoured the soaring use of space that the church provided, and the lovely acoustics that his chamber-pop deserved.

The night was opened with a little lecture/welcoming by Richard Nunns on ngā taonga pūoro (Maori instrumentation) and their relationship to birds. The Waikato University academic and renowned scholar, was an inspired choice. He was chosen because birds played an important role in the musical imagination of Benson, and his witty, informative, fascinating talk set up Benson’s show well.

Benson walked in carrying a French flag (his forefather, Etienne Francois, was one of the first settlers of Akaroa), and he ran through a set that was deeply infused with his Canterbury heritage and the mythology of the land. He sang about Francois (‘Willow’), two boys who got lost in Rapaki in the 19th Century ‘Rapaki’) and his own wanderings through the landscape of the Port Hills (‘On the Shoulders of the Earth’). He also touched on Minnie Dean, the Southland woman who became New Zealand’s only female criminal executed (‘It’s Akaroa’s Fault’).

The sound was perfectly suited to the newly re-done church – Benson used to sing in the Cathedral Choir in Christchurch. At times, the performance was a little messy, but Benson’s winning responses made up for the little mistakes, and he introduced his songs with humorous stories. He also performed some of his more poppy numbers – ‘Asthma’, ‘I Don’t Mind’ – and the set highlight was his album closer ‘Lingeress’ despite its unusual subject matter (Oggy the hedgehog). He also played a couple of great covers too – ‘Hounds of Love’ by Kate Bush and Vashti Bunyan’s ‘The Coldest Night of the Year’ (in the latter his sister demonstrated an incredible singing voice too – clearly it’s a family thing). The music was well performed by all the musicians, and the choir were especially winning. It was a performance by a star in the making, and a New Zealand musician who breathes intelligence, warmth and a charming personality into his beautiful music.