Speaker by Various Artists

Downes in splendour

by Malcolm Burgess

The Verlaines (with Ghostplane + Dominic Blaazer)
Thurs, Oct 23 The King's Arms

A week has already vanished since the Verlaines returned to Auckland last Thursday. Lead singer Graeme Downes might say that with each passing day we're a little closer to death and further away from maiden-hood, but it never pays to hurry things just for the sake of it. He's made that abundantly clear over the years. Take this long overdue tour itself, or the two years it took them to work up to their first performance back in the day.

Thankfully, the percolation is over, the brew dark, the creamer thick and oily - hardly burnt or bitter. The Verlaines - older, wrinklier, but still with a great head of hair - royally rocked the cradle at their recent King's Arms appearance. Or should that be "manifestation" - for isn't that the word usually applied to ghostly sightings like this? And cradle indeed - seeing as I'm too young to remember the band the first time round. To be honest I don't really remember too much from the evening in question. All I know is that on Thursday, Graeme Downes returned from the ether.

Admittedly, this was all experienced through a haze - whether of my own making or from the fumes rising off the crowd, I can't be sure. Maybe it was Downes' own special atmosphere, carted around by roadies just to keep him alive while away from the chill hypoxia of Dunedin academia.

The perennial, ageless and mythic qualities of Flying Nun - helped along by the miraculous image its name still conjures - had fortunately left me familiar enough with the hits, whether culled from soundtracks, music TV flashbacks (DJ-vu?) or lurking behind Steve Malkmus's thin, whiny cover (calculated to leave you yearning for the original).

The word Verlaines had long ago become for me a synonym for something that had gone beyond and assumed a life of its own. Thursday proved that this something was still alive, although not in your everyday sense: more like the youthful twin used to demonstrate time dilation in special relativity theory videos.

And the King's Arms, C4 and Flying Nun industrial complex deserves a shout out for doing its nonchalant best to make the band relevant again just in time for this Best Of resurgence.

On stage, twenty years later, the only thing that wasn't smoke-cured as a Marlin was the hair (that great head of hair - did I mention that?), Leaner, and with a fashion sense that might be trend-setting for its very absence, he stood his ground amid the swirling smoke with his buddies in tow.

I once naively thought Downes was Paul Verlaine, as the song goes, having long suffered a crippling inability to understand song lyrics. Whoever he called himself, he was always the coolest guy in the videos: standing still, or at most swaying just a little, doing his bit for the evolution of shoe-gazing indie rock. It was a pose destined to outlive the safety dance whose future cringe the video extras seemed too engrossed in at the time to care about.

Ah, and the voice. When he did take the stage, it was with the great, off-key siren vocal chords of effortless pop-rock. Later in the evening, Downes' gift for orchestration rose from the depths as the brass section blew its lungs out, piercing the fog like a greeting - or warning - from a spectral ship lost one evening off Banks Peninsula, and now on a valedictory tour of the nation whose flag it had always flown.