Claire Cowan: director, keys, vox
Alex Taylor: lead vocal, tenor sax, percussion;
Jessie Cassin: lead vocal;
Samantha Dench: flute, piccolo; Ina Patisolo: oboe, cor anglais, percussion; Kenny Keppel: clarinet, bass clarinet; Callum Passels: alto sax; Liz Stokes: trumpet, flugelhorn; Henry Swanson: horn; Kevin Keys: trombone, rap; Francesca McGeorge: trombone, percussion; Samuel Taylor: electric guitar; Sam Rich: percussion; Andrew Rooney: drums; Charmian Keay, Jenny Chen, Siobhan Thompson: violin 1, Leith McFarlane, Kim Choe: violin 2; Alex MacDonald: viola; Callum Hall: cello; Eric Scholes: bass, Mark Michel: electronics.
Galatos, Galatos street
Review by Catherine Hamilton
Ever wonder what a gig on Mars would look and sound like? I do – frequently. And after experiencing The Blackbird Ensemble’s final performance of their Night Sky Show at Galatos in Auckland, I feel like I’m several light years closer to finding out. This is the sixth outing for The Blackbird Ensemble and, with at least twenty performers and a creative team of fifteen, it’s possibly the most epic transmission from Ground Control so far.
While semi-gracefully slouched in one of the many beanbags on offer up the front, I was able to take in my surroundings: a billowing canopy above complete fairy lights twinkling within, a tiered stage draped in shadows and healthily cloaked with intrigue, and music stands equipped with pairs of little reading lights that actually looked more like tiny antenna (probably for beaming up sonar signals to a far-distant home planet.)
The half-light finally dipped into darkness and the buzz of excitement electrified as the players took their places, all garbed up in outrageous fancy dress. Instruments that are usually more at home under a symphony hall spotlight or echoing through an old church were readied like weapons of choice by a troupe of musicians dressed for the biggest intergalactic showdown in history.
Every aspect of the show was seamlessly Space themed - from the speeding starscape projections above and beyond, to the zany Aladdin Sane fuelled hair and makeup, the lyrics of the songs, or the inspiration behind the instrumental pieces, to the fluro ultra-violet glad rags: all of it was totally spaced out, dude. I found the whole concept to be, on the most part, refreshing. It did leave me wishing that such events weren’t such novelties and more commonplace in the gigasphere.
With a meticulously curated selection of space music, Claire Cowan did a stellar job of leading Blackbird up, up, up and away and out of this world. Even though Blackbird has been described as a “glowing electric orchestra”, the evening was not simply about taking classical music and breathing ‘new life’ in to it; no genre was safe. To be specific, the Blackbird buffet boasted the likes of Portishead, The National, Beastie Boys, David Bowie, John Williams, Bat For Lashes, Gustav Holst, Bjork, Nick Drake, R.E.M., Sufjan Stevens, The xx and CocoRosie for good measure. What a feast!
Dazzling vocalist, Jessie Cassin, doubled as a kind of Master of Ceremonies for the evening, floating on and off the stage in what appeared to be a homemade Bjork outfit. Joining her for several songs was Alex Taylor, whose voice simply left me winded. In a good way! Both Cassin and Taylor showcased their impressively versatile voices, capable of flitting between boisterous sing-along anthems and achingly intimate subtlety. These two created many moments of pure electricity for me, both as soloists and as a team.
The only fault I can find with this show was the way you never quite knew if you were at a gig or not. I wanted to dance and sing and cry – all at once – many times… but never felt like I could, despite the fact that the musicians were all grooving away on stage (something I’d like to see more of!). Although the bean bags were a nice idea, I feel they encourage a very different kind of audience experience – one where you are invited to recline, relax and contemplate the solar system around you instead of getting all up in that Blackbird plasma-power. Just as any performance has rocketing highs that ebb into heart-thumping hush, I feel the audience would have been more than capable of navigating their way around the set-list’s mood swings while standing, rather than confined to a neat seating plan or slouching in bean bags.
I wait with keen anticipation to see what wonders Blackbird will conjure up next, and if The Night Sky is any kind of gauge, it promises to be truly magical.