Barbara Manning has been flirting with indie-rock
stardom (whatever that is) since her first recordings with 28th Day back in
1985. Over the past decade the San Francisco based songwriter has made a name
for herself both as a solo artist and as a member of World Of Pooh and her most
recent band, SF Seals. She disbanded the Seals in '95 and has a new solo album
due in June. Manning has been touring New Zealand the past few weeks with her
regular rhythm section (Joey Burns-bass & John Covertino-drums) along with two
of New Zealand's finest guitarists, David Kilgour from The Clean and The
Verlaine's Graeme Downes.
The tour wrapped up in Auckland this past
weekend (Saturday, March 8) at Luna, a small downtown club. A crowd of about
100 turned out to catch the show that opened with Downes playing a quick solo
set accompanying himself on electric guitar. A four-piece, the Magik Heads,
followed with an impressive half hour of folk-tinged pop songs.
was long time Kiwi favourite Chris Knox. Knox, as always, looked as if he just
walked in off the beach: shorts, loud t-shirt and bare feet. He opened his set
with a delicate little number sung in a falsetto that would have made Brian
Wilson proud. He filled his allotted time with a series of catchy, off-beat pop
tunes. Alone with his electric guitar and tape machine, Knox treads the common
ground between the Beach Boys and the Velvet Underground, making his guitar
squeal and howl, singing his delightful melodies over the top.
Manning brought her band on-stage at about 12:30 and opened with the dark,
brooding title track from her 1988 solo LP Lately I Keep Scissors. She
continued the mood with "Isn't Lonely Lovely". Then things lightened up with
her ode to Dock Ellis, the pitcher who, legend has it, threw a no-hitter while
on acid. The subject matter may have been lost on the Kiwi crowd but, they were
digging the sound guitarists Kilgour and Downes were coming up with. Downes was
in particularly good form throughout the evening, tossing out neat, melodic
solos left and right.
Manning's voice is both warm and edgy, at times
reminiscent of Suzanne Vega or former Belly leader Tanya Donelly. But it is her
songwriting that separates her from the crowd. The dozen songs she performed
ranged from bittersweet tales of lost love to psychedelic musings on what would
happen if the sun absorbed all the water from the earth, all with strong
melodies and inventive arrangements.
The 70 minute set hit its high point
with "Arsonist Story," a series of songs scheduled for her next album. The 10
minute song-suite really gave the guitarists something to sink their teeth
into, rivaling the legendary guitar duels of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd of
Television. It's a shame this group of musicians are together only on a
temporary basis, but with the miles that separate them, it's lucky we got to
hear them at all.