Martin, Lee - Wunderbar, Lyttleton, New Zealand - 09.03.2022,
I had been waiting a very long time for this gig, but finally it was the night of Lee’s album launch for Gypsy Soul. I had promised her I would be there for it, so I had taken time off work and had flown down from Auckland back home to Oxford just for this. Due to red light restrictions she had to change the gig from The Piano to Wunderbar in Lyttleton, and we were in for a full house. Lee had contacted me on the Monday prior to the gig to let me know that the album had just debuted into the national charts at #14, and to say she was over the moon is something of an understatement. It may have been mentioned just a few times at the gig itself.
I set off for the hour-long drive to Lyttleton and was also looking forward to seeing Wunderbar for the first time. It is a well-known iconic venue, yet I had never previously been, and I was very pleased with what I found as there is one room with the bar (Cassels on tap!) and another which is set up with a permanent stage. Of course, tonight it was all 100% seated, and I found my way to my table (another review written with the aid of candlelight) and looked around. I was interested to see a video camera on either side of the stage, which were being used to capture the night, and could see we were in for an intimate evening.
Chris Ward, guitarist/producer/arranger, came over for a chat and we had a long discussion on how much things had changed since we both used to get in trouble with our respective wives for talking too much and not undertaking whatever job we were supposed to be doing together. Soon, I heard a voice shout my name and I turned around to see Lee heading towards me with a massive smile on her face. We greeted each other with a hug, and I said to her that I never thought I would get a cuddle from a bona fide pop star and her smile got even wider.
Tonight’s gig was going to be split in two, so that people could get more drinks from the bar during the interval, when we would also be shown Lee’s new video for Miss You. The gig started with just Lee onstage, performing When I Was Was Still With You totally solo, and straightaway everyone was entranced by her voice. She has the confidence which only comes with playing anywhere and everywhere, doing whatever she can to be allowed to perform. The first time I saw her play was some years back at one of her regular OGB sessions which is primarily a solo covers set with just a few of her own songs if she can sneak them in. She is very much a working musician, and it is this experience which allows her to be so totally relaxed onstage, so opening without any other musicians is something she is very used to. Her voice is rich, full of emotion, and no-one in the audience dared make a sound, or even breathe, as she were all placed under her spell.
Whiskey and Red Wine was played early in the set as it is a fan favourite but was on the Lost Girl EP from 3 years ago, and tonight’s focus was on the album. Again, it started as a solo piece, but saxophonist Ben Lill joined in on sax for the second verse, then Chris also started adding nuances and by the end, both drummer Stacy Miles and 5-string bassist Sam White were also involved. From here on in, the night was a band affair, but it was interesting to hear the arrangements as they are very strongly focused indeed on Lee, her vocals and guitar. It was far more about the other musicians adding different flavours and nuances as opposed to taking the songs in different directions. Ben probably had the largest musical input with his powerful sax, which is interesting as on the album there is a both piano and trumpet and here, he was filling in for both. Chris was incredibly restrained, keeping it tight and never overplaying, while one would never have imagined that Sam was just a fill-in as the regular bassist was away, adding a lot of complexity to the bottom end. Stacy was very similar to Chris, in that he deliberately kept his input quite minimal, using rim shots and different types of sticks alongside a technique which was just right for the evening.
As for Lee, tonight she was in her element, full of confidence, a chart album behind her and family and friends in front of her. She was incredibly relaxed, sharing stories with the crowd and jokes with the band. The first set was wonderfully balanced, with changes in pace and dynamics which allowed for everyone to hear the contrasts, always with her beautiful vocals at the forefront of everything. For some of the songs she put down the acoustic, showing she is more than happy to perform without an instrument to hide behind, taking the microphone off the stand and having a ball.
They closed the first set with Mystic, the Van Morrison number from which the album gets its name, moving her vocals more into blues territory and allowing herself to belt. Having the gig in this format meant we could all get another drink, and then we all settled back to watch the video for Miss You which was projected onto a screen. This is one of her more dramatic numbers from the album, and the video is certainly not what I would have expected, putting a twist on the lyrics. A break also meant Lee could make a wardrobe change, much to her delight.
Although tonight was all about the album, Lee started the second set with Itch (the current name although it could well change), which is brand new. This commenced with hard riffing acoustic and a feeling of aggression, but the overall arrangement had loads of space and much to everyone’s surprise (including the band, as it was the first time they achieved it) they stopped dead. Next up was What If I Die, my personal #1 from last year, and they absolutely nailed it. What was emanating from the stage was just how much fun they were having, combined with total confidence in their material, and they really could do no wrong whatsoever which allowed for little asides between them as they moved through a set which again was full of contrast and dynamics.
As it got towards the end of the set, we were given the drunk Mexican wedding number which is Wait Forever, with everyone doing their best to both keep it together and slur through the material. No-one was quite sure if the rhythm section would ever keep it together enough to actually finish but they got there in the end, much to everyone’s delight and hilarity. Lee ended the night with the song which will always feel personal to me, New Year’s Eve. Originally, she had to be convinced to record the song, as she had written it to vent, and in the studio they were unable to make it work. While Lee and I went to buy some food (and wine) TeMatera and Chris set to work and totally rearranged it, so by the time we returned it had new life. It has energy, passion, and is packed full of bounce and energy, and Lee was on fire as she sang “Screw You Too”. That was the end, so the band then hid behind the curtain until they were “convinced” to come back out for Thinking About You and then the night was over.
This was an incredible gig, and it was wonderful to see just how Lee and the band were received as this really is a remarkable album. They are now undertaking a nationwide tour, and I plan to catch up with them again in Auckland towards the end of April. Check out Lee’s Facebook page for more details as to where and when they are playing, as if you love great songs, wonderful vocals, all performed with a band who are having fun and enjoying themselves, then you cannot afford to miss out on this. And if you have somehow not heard Gypsy Soul, then you certainly need to give it a listen, as it is yet another wonderful release from AAA Records.