As one half of New Zealand’s self-proclaimed “fourth-most-popular guitar-based digi-bongo a cappella-rap-funk-comedy duo” and a composer of tunes from the likes of the Muppets and the Simpsons, Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie is best known for singing songs laden with jokes. It might come as a surprise to some, then, that his debut solo album – released earlier this year – offers quite the opposite experience. Titled, categorically, Songs Without Jokes, it’s a collection of road trip-ready rock numbers inspired by the likes of Harry Nilsson and Steely Dan, with McKenzie pairing rich horn and piano arrangements with lyrics about lost love, LA and environmental disaster. We’re not talking Father John Misty levels of west coast-based existential crisis, but it’s also decidedly not a comedy record.
Ending a three-month tour that’s taken in his home country and the US, this one-off UK show sees McKenzie and his six-piece band (plus two Horne Section members) pair these new troubadour delights with material from the Conchords and other assorted comedic projects. He describes it as “a variety show” but, initially at least, it’s a bit of a hard sell. The chugging blues of Too Young (For All This Shit) and the 80s pop stylings of Dave’s Place are more than listenable – the latter given heft by droning synth and sax – but what are they doing next to a (really quite hilarious) Muppets movie song that McKenzie bagged an Oscar for in 2011, delivered in his best Kermit voice?
Initially audience participation is minimal (McKenzie mentions some understandable jet lag), with a few anecdotes about previous sojourns to the UK and the small-talk classic that is Covid, but in time the wisecracks begin, as he attempts to offer the crowd some merch (these include a Winnie-the-Pooh figurine, “and some vinyl … not mine though, just some that I bought at Rough Trade”). The second half of the show sees him largely leave new material aside in favour of numbers including a punchline-heavy song from his in-development musical The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, and a composition made in collaboration with an audience member, Joe, which brings the house down with its retro-funk sound and salacious lyrics about a blossoming relationship. Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, it is The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room) – a Conchords classic – that gets the crowd whooping, singing along, and – naturally – in fits of laughter at the overt negging of lyrics such as “you could be a part-time model … well you’d probably have to keep your normal job”.
Towards the end of the show, McKenzie tells the crowd about an early experience at the Edinburgh festival, where the only person in the crowd for the Conchords’ show, recruited from outside a supermarket, snuck out in the dark: “She probably had things to put in the freezer.” There’s little chance of that happening at one of his shows today but – even as he broadens his sound – McKenzie is undoubtedly at his best when he leans into his sillier, showman side, rather than playing it straight.