Bret McKenzie: charming proof that comedians can do ‘serious’ music too

Bret McKenzie at the Shepherd's Bush Empire
Bret McKenzie at the Shepherd's Bush Empire

As comedian Steve Martin wryly wrote in the sleeve notes for his 2017 bluegrass album, The Long-Awaited Album, no one wants to hear “music from a 70-year-old comedian”. Martin was commenting on the notion that comedians should stay in their lane and not stray into “serious” music. The same theory could apply to Bret McKenzie who, as one half of New Zealand comedy duo Flight of the Conchords, has made a career out of being funny. I feared that an evening of him playing tracks from his recent non-comedy album, appropriately called Songs Without Jokes, would be a rather po-faced and sombre affair.

But, like Martin, McKenzie infuses his music with enough warmth – and his general presence with enough wit – to pull off the balancing act. And, as it turns out, we were also treated to plenty of songs with jokes at this one-off show. McKenzie mixed his new Harry Nilsson-like tracks with repartee, improvisation, Conchord tracks, and his song from The Muppets film, Kermit voice and all.

The 46-year-old was backed by a tight eight-piece band, all of whom hailed from New Zealand bar a British duo on horns (one of whom’s surname was Auckland, which McKenzie said effectively made him a Kiwi, neatly encapsulating the genial flavour of the evening’s badinage). His (joke-free) songs had a distinctly 1980s-vibe. America Goodbye had a particularly Roxy Music flavour with its atmospheric synth washes and Bryan Ferry-flecked delivery.

McKenzie’s voice was never going to be his selling point, but it was strong enough, especially when combined with the breezy humanity of his clever lyrics (“You get caught, you get bailed/ You get hammered and you get nailed/ Oh, you’ve only got one life,” he sang on the great Dave’s Place).

Between songs, there was a fun section on tour merch (McKenzie was selling things he’d bought from charity shops and signed), and he made his band strike exaggerated Instagram-ready rock star poses “to make us look more interesting than we are”. A highlight was Man or Muppet, for which McKenzie won the best original song Oscar in 2011 – incidentally, the year after it was won by Randy Newman, whose shadow looms large over McKenzie’s music. The Conchords’ The Most Beautiful Girl (In The Room) was also rapturously received, with its lines including the sublimely withering “You’re so beautiful/ You could be a part-time model”.

Bret McKenzie and band at the Shepherd's Bush Empire
Bret McKenzie and band at the Shepherd's Bush Empire

But the standout moment was watching McKenzie write an improvised song based on an audience member called Joe’s relationship with his girlfriend. The process of seeing We Get On Very Well being constructed from scratch was like watching musical-comedy alchemy in action.

McKenzie’s new album may be without jokes, but the evening certainly wasn’t. Convivially gigglesome rather than raucously side-splitting, this concert proved that it is possible for comedians to be credible musicians too.

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