“Please don’t get too excited about our older songs,” said Jemaine Clement, three songs into Flight of the Conchords’ set at Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View on Tuesday night. “Because it hurts the feelings of our newer songs.”
Incredibly, this was not the lead-in to “Hurt Feelings,” the Conchords’ rap favorite in which the New Zealand duo gangsta-sulks the chorus “I’ve got hurt feelings, I’ve got hurt feelings.” Instead, it led into the even more beloved “Robots,” which might be considered the group’s “hit single,” if one were to imagine the most culty meaning of that phrase.
But the most important thing about Clements’ intro, even more than the trademark deadpan delivery with which he sold it, was what it promised: actual new songs. And there were a lot of them.
Which is a good thing, because while I was not about to miss the Conchords tour that kicked off this month, I also couldn’t really figure out why it was happening. The HBO show that shot them to stardom has been over for seven years, and they’ve only released one song since. Both Clement and bandmate Bret McKenzie have thrown themselves into the movie world on their own, with McKenzie winning an Oscar for his work on the soundtrack for the 2011 Muppets reboot, and Clement starring in films like the vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows (which he also co-wrote and co-directed) and the new animated Spielberg feature The BFG.
What’s more, I’ve seen the Conchords on two of their tours since then, and it was never as much fun as I thought it was going to be. They made no secret of the fact that they were emotionally and artistically exhausted after the second season of their eponymous show. It’s not hard to figure out why: partnering up while college flatmates in Wellington in the late ’90s, they’d had years to work up the songs that they integrated so flawlessly into the show’s first season on HBO in 2007. They’d even done a dry run of it, basically, with their BBC radio show in 2004.
For the second season, though, they had just a few months to put together 10 episodes’ worth of storylines out of their threadbare New-Zealand-band-struggles-to-make-it-in-New-York premise—while writing at least a couple of songs for each show. Then, of course, record the songs and film the shows. Good lord, it’s exhausting even writing about what they pulled off. It took its toll, and they clearly had no interest in doing a third season even when HBO dangled more sweet, sweet TV money in front of them.
From their snappy tailored suits to the raw energy that poured out of them, it was a kind of Conchords show that no one in the U.S. has probably ever seen.
Their tour in 2013 was especially disheartening—without new songs, or a cohesive look and feel, it was almost like they were already into their nostalgia phase, where people were shouting out the lyrics right down to the comic asides that had once seemed fresh and spontaneous. “Once again, without emotion!” and “Actually their lungs!” are very strange things to hear all around you in that “Freebird!” pitch that only seems to exist at concerts.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who walked away from that tour disappointed. And yet, three years later, with not a speck of new material released in the interim, here was the band playing a 22,000-seat arena in the Bay Area—several times the size, in fact, of the 3,000-seat venues the band was playing when their show’s popularity was at its height. How did that happen?
For one thing, the influence of the Conchords on popular culture grew exponentially in that time. A show like the cult favorite Garfunkel and Oates—with its surreal humor and fluid story-song-story structure, a carbon copy of Flight of the Conchords—couldn’t exist without Bret and Jemaine. But even the more mainstream Lonely Island probably couldn’t have had something like “Jack Sparrow” without the Conchords’ influence. You’d be hard-pressed to find any current musical-comedy act that didn’t pick up a little of the Conchords DNA.
But my guess is that fans also trusted the band to come back with something new and better for a tour like this—a tour which no one even seems to know whether to call a reunion or not. And on Tuesday, the Conchords delivered.
From their snappy tailored suits to the raw energy that poured out of them right from the start, it was a kind of Conchords show that no one in the U.S. has probably ever seen. They improvised, stretched their comic chops and generally tried to make each other laugh all night. This is a band known for not even cracking a smile as they say and sing their funniest lines—deadpan is everything in making a lot of the jokes work on a record or on TV. But live, it was amazing to see them having so much fun they couldn’t hide it from each other, or the audience.
One new song, a parody of cautionary cowboy tales, stretched past the 10-minute mark as Clement and McKenzie came up with weirder and weirder details in the story of a good girl gone bad. Her capital crime? Stealing spoons. Classic Conchords. Another, which kicked off the show, was about how hard they like to party, a theme which has come up before (giving us lines like “there ain’t no party like my nana’s tea party”). This one had them, at the height of their partying frenzy, checking emails on the toilet, so … yeah, perfect. Another song featured Clement playing McKenzie’s dad in a duet which goes from appearing to be a sad tale about a widower to an increasingly pathetic series of exchanges in which the son has to remind the dad that mom is not actually dead, but just left him.
These were mixed in with some of the older stuff: “Carol Brown,” “Foux du Fafa,” “The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room),” a medley of “Mutha-uckers” and “Hurt Feelings.“ But overall, the biggest and best surprise on this new tour is how many of those older songs they don’t have to play.