After a blurry week of camping on the South Island, by creeks and herds of cows, at the feet of snowy mountains or atop dirty windswept hills, we’re not really sure what day it is. We’re not really sure which way is up, or which shoe goes on which foot. But here, back in the big smoke called Auckland, with the luxury of devices and calendars on hand we discover it is Saturday, and the evening is within arm’s reach. So we find a show that sounds promising – an Aussie band, funnily enough, playing in a bar called the Golden Dawn in the alluring district of Ponsonby. We make the journey down and hand over a mere Prawn at the door. I guess it’s not a Prawn in New Zealand ‘cause the fivers are yellowy-greeny-orange, but I dunno what they call them.
I figure a joint called the “Golden Dawn” is probably not aligning itself with the far-right political party in Greece and is either going to be luxuriating in sepia-toned surfy summer vibes or else referencing the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the magical organisation of which Aleister Crowley was famously a member. Given what I’ve managed to glean about The Babe Rainbow (that is, they’ve got a sepia-toned surfy summer vibe) one might reasonably assume the former, but the windows are lined with pentacles and grainy creepy mugshots and smoked glass and as we walk in we pass an old piano bedecked with dripping candles and a salt pyramid, so curiously, it’s the occult option after all. When I see members of the band milling about, dressed to the nines in turtlenecks and trousers and pinstripes and flowing golden manes, somehow the sepia-surf-meets-dark-heremiticism styling of the whole situation feels just right, and I cease to question it. We order a red wine and a club mate and settle in on wooden barstools by flickering light.
First cab off the rank is ARTHUR AHBEZ, Auckland local, well-tended beard-owner and, as we soon find out, thoroughly charming songsmith. He plays solo, just voice and semi-acoustic guitar, though his recorded material bears a full complement of rock and country instruments. It must be admitted: Ahbez sounds almost dorkishly enamoured with ’60s tropes, but no matter, because his lyrics and chord wanderings and song structures are inventive enough that nothing sounds strictly like pastiche or imitation; if he’s borrowing from the likes Neil Young, Syd Barrett, Bob Dylan and The Doors, it’s as much from their spirit of curiosity as any specific musical ideas. The set veers happily between gently oddball acoustic pop and proper weirdo folk, ultimately forming a woozy and half-familiar mood that’s as mellowing and cheering as the wine.
Now THE BABE RAINBOW swan onto the Golden Dawn’s exceedingly cosy stage and, complete with white-rimmed oval sunglasses and a friend taking video on some ginormous obsolete camera (like, some old leather-bound Bolex or something, literally hand-cranked) they trip into their set.
You’ve got to hand it to them: they’ve absolutely nailed the aesthetic, and that’s not meant to be a backhanded complement. The slightly-bonkers-aussie-psych-garage-surf schtick is a schtick worth mining if you can do it justice, and The Babe Rainbow are so convincing they seem to have emerged from a time machine; they don’t come across as revivalist poseurs. Of course, when you’re this referential (some might say derivative), you’ll have your detractors, but those who dig on this type of stuff are really gonna love you. It’s a calculated risk, a deliberate trade-off. Anyway, not only do they look the part, their sonic palette is on the money – just the right amount of bedroom crappiness in the guitar/bass/drum tones and great effects, and apt vocals that sit somewhere between the smooth nasal ethereality of Revolver-era Beatles, the slackjawedness of the Velvet Underground and the silliness of Gong. They even have some really good songs, like the lovely “Planet Junior,” and I only wish their execution of these songs tonight was as on-point as their outfits, their instruments, their tones, their general demeanour.
The set rolls along with a generally pleasing kinda momentum, albeit no crowd interaction whatsoever to endear the band members, but within the delivery of each tune there are too many weak moments: sections with missed notes, lazy mistakes, sloppy stop-start rhythms and even times where someone’s clearly just forgotten what they’re meant to be doing. Maybe my brain is in a nitpicky zone – after all, they’re clearly good players – but I feel like these tunes deserve a more slick delivery. Not too slick, of course, just coherence enough that nothing feels at risk of falling apart in an amateurish way. After all, the foundation here is dancey rock and roll with a backbone, not free improv or decidedly loose acid jams. It needs a bit more glue.
Anyway, nobody’s too fussed: the rooms dances up a sweat. At one point, a young moustached man in a safari suit and huge black goggles joins them onstage and delivers remarkable vocals – aggressively intoned spoken word, basically – while the band jams frenetically and Old Mate with the hulking camera wiggles his hips atop the bar. It’s genuinely strange, anti-orthodox, absurdist, in a way that feels true to the era and spirit it’s channeling. Despite my misgivings, I definitely get a kick out of The Babe Rainbow. Anyone with a penchant for rigorous psychedelic revival should do themselves a favour. After a Velvet Underground cover and a rendition of one of those I-forget-its-name-but-what-a-banger classics off the Nuggets compilations, the band disappear in a puff of lemonade flavoured smoke. We tumble out of the Golden Dawn, and along Ponsonby Road, towards the other dawn that lies dormant just over the hills.