Review: As of 34 – Jason Pemberton and Friends – virtue-pop in the temple of friendship

Claudia Jardine reviews As of 34, a night of music from Jason Pemberton and Friends, at The Loons, Lyttelton, Saturday 4 June, 2022.

It’s a bright autumn day in Ōtautahi, and my plans for the long weekend are turning out as I might have suspected they would. I make it to Muscle & Bone at Movement Art Practice in the morning, my boyfriend and I buy a glazed ceramic chip-n-dip serving platter with a McDonald’s playground colour palette from the op-shop, and then I check my phone. There’s an email from Erin Harrington, and the subject line says “Fwd: IMPORTANT: POSTPONEMENT Tonight’s Show.” It’s a bright autumn day in 2022, and I am unsurprised. How nice to read, then, that although a member of the band I am planning to see tonight is stuck overseas for another day, and the whole-band gig will have to wait until Sunday night, the show will still go on, albeit stripped back and acoustic. The email is apologetic, but I am secretly thrilled. An acoustic, sit-down show is exactly what I am in the mood for after a week on my feet at various jobs and a morning spent mostly in downward dog.

We arrive at The Loons loaded up with Tom Yum from Nom Nom Kitchen and are greeted by Jason Pemberton, on the door for his own gig. He apologises for the delayed start (many of the attendees are still scattered throughout Lyttleton eating their own Tom Yum) and immediately guesses I am the reviewer, thereby ensuring I cannot go incognito. Not that I would have been able to even if I had tried, as it seems that most of the audience are family and friends. The resulting vibe is cozy and relaxing, and the age range of attendees is broad. We all sit towards the front, and I notice that I am feeling a bit like the new person at a family gathering, soaking up the chatter and excitement in the room without knowing the context, feeling happy to be around people who seem predestined to have a good time. The pressure is off, in a way. No matter what I think about the music to come, it is obvious that this audience is keen to be here. I am charmed by my surroundings from the get-go.

Jason and his bandmates take the stage. For tonight, the band consists of Sean Templeton on bass, Ben MacDonald on lead guitar, Mia Parsons on keys and percussion, and Jason Pemberton on lead vocals and rhythm guitar. I quickly notice two things about Pemberton: he is comfortable chatting into the microphone, and he is very familiar. The audience is warmly welcomed to the show, and the missing drummer, Alex Parsons, is established as the scapegoat for any of the evening’s shortcomings. A lonely kickdrum, stripped of its usual neighbours, sits on the raised platform at the back of the stage, and though I will sense the ghosts of drum fills and ringing hits at certain points in the evening, I am quite satisfied with the volume levels as the band begins their setlist. As if to remind the audience that we are in Pemberton’s hands now, the first song is called “No Escape.” The lyrics speak of emotional depth, “your heart is so big, I’m afraid I might fall in and drown,” but the instrumentation is claustrophobic. Mia Parsons and Templeton add harmonic backing vocals to the mix and the walls of the song seem to be closing in, until the layers drop away and Pemberton is left whistling an outro to guide the audience out and away from the tension, as if he were Andrew Bird temping as a lighthouse keeper.

For the next song, Pemberton swaps the acoustic guitar for an electric but maintains a softness of style. There is banter about tonight being the MTV Unplugged version, and Sunday being business as usual. We are duly warned that if we attend both, we might hear the same jokes. Those MTV Unplugged shows have a special place in my heart because they tended to reveal the real meat- the idiosyncrasies of the artists, like Florence Welch’s lovable pitchiness, the genuine charm of Bob Dylan in a good mood or Kurt Cobain’s campaign to be president of the Proud Sufferers of TMJ Syndrome Society. This stripped back Saturday night show makes clear that Pemberton and his friends are great musicians. Their second song, “Selfish Lover,” features a sultry bassline, several key changes and a beautiful guitar solo by MacDonald, unhurried and at ease, seated on a high stool and totally in control of his instrument. I could feel that this song would have a heavier presence when played as intended, but without the drums MacDonald did not have to fight to feel his frequencies were being heard. And maybe I am sensitive to artists cringing at their own potential, but I think I did detect a drop in Pemberton’s ability to enunciate when singing of having sex with an assertive woman. 

The tracks that follow show a willingness to experiment with different genres, which I think comes from an enthusiasm for making music and the reality that these tunes span a fifteen-year period of songwriting. Musical consistency was likely not a priority. “Mad” starts out with a slightly haunted, free-wheeling electric guitar intro, settles into a swaggering jaunt and then spins out in a jazzy tantrum. Pemberton is quick to add that despite what the lyrics imply, the song is not about upsetting his own parents, but more of a general swing at intergenerational trauma. “Responsible” has a fast bluegrass-inspired beat, for which Parsons hops on to a cajón (one of my favourite percussive instruments) and MacDonald solos stylishly once again. Towards the climax of this song, my cold reviewer’s heart skips a little beat as Pemberton heads into the upper end of his vocal range and maintains enviable control. “Impress” is a slowdance-style number, which underlines my feelings about Pemberton’s lyrical abilities. He sings, “I wanna impress you… I wanna undress you,” and I think it is fair to say that the rhyme schemes in his repertoire feature no surprises. I do admire the consistency with which he economises his words, and the directness of his style is in keeping with the personality he displays on stage. The song ends in an emotive early-noughties piano outro, and able Parsons handles the responsibility well.

There’s a little surprise in the middle of the first half. Pemberton takes some time to kōrero his thoughts on the linguistic fuck-up of “they are us,” a phrase emitted by the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern the day a white supremacist killed fifty-one people in a terror attack at two mosques in Ōtautahi. The tangent catches me off guard, and it prompts me to reflect that so many of the local gigs I have been to since that day have not mentioned the tragedy at all, or have done so in a way that made me feel weird. It reminded me of seeing Nadia Reid in 2021 at the James Hay Theatre, and this moment during the show when she reflected on the fact that the citizens of Ōtautahi had been through a lot. She alluded to the mosque attacks without ever actually saying the words, and told the audience that she had been intending to do a show that night, but had canceled it. Maybe she had intended to show us, the audience, her sympathy, but it felt a bit more like the process of canceling the show had been an inconvenience. Pemberton, on the other hand, teared up and took several pauses before explaining how much Kāi Tahu’s public statement of “tātou tātou” had moved him in the aftermath of those events. Tautoko! I am here for the people in our community who do not shy away from our past. It’s going to take action, after all, to dismantle ignorance and prejudice and to create a safer Aotearoa for people of all religions to thrive in. The following song of grief, “Where,” provides an outlet for Pemberton’s feelings and the discomfort of wondering about how many lives ended on March 15 2019.

Pemberton openly acknowledges that the next number, “Treat You,” is similar to a song by Dukes, a local band of good repute from the late noughties. An original member of Dukes, Jo Barus, happens to be working the sound desk for Pemberton, so the plagiarism is passed off as something more akin to homage. I was a big fan, and I spot the similarities between “Vampires” and “Treat You” quite quickly despite Pemberton’s attempts to throw listeners off the trail with some salsa-esque percussion. 

I use the intermission to eavesdrop, as per usual. The sounds coming from the audience rows behind me are positive. There are statements of affirmation, admissions of secondhand anxiety, and a general consensus that Pemberton seems a little nervous but is finding his groove. What has pleased me the second-most about this gig is that Pemberton has been acknowledging the presence of the audience and looking after us. He has also shown a marked appreciation for his bandmates, who are clearly dear friends of his, despite what he might be saying about the absent Alex Parsons. The thing that has been keeping me switched on and focused, though, is the musicianship on show. They are all good at what they are doing, and seem quite comfortable while doing it. The songwriting is not particularly experimental, but the musical foundation is sound, and I am quite happy to listen to these four able artists take me to familiar places. My boyfriend and I also take the break as a chance to look up “Jason Pemberton” and find out he is one of the Student Volunteer Army guys! Hence the familiarity, and the strong Leadership (with a capital L) vibe he has been giving off. 

At the beginning of the second half, Pemberton explains that he felt compelled to complete this project (two days recording and what has now become two live shows) because he is heading off overseas. The album could not be complete without Alex Parsons, hence the unusual gig reschedule, because Pemberton seems to hold all of his bandmates on equal footing, and wouldn’t feel right proceeding as scheduled with a different drummer. It truly is the Jason Pemberton and Friends show, and as if to prove the truth of this thought, their next song “The Forest” features tight vocal harmonies and indisputable synchronization. “Son of a Slaver,” on the otherhand, slips in tempo in a few places, perhaps due to Pemberton’s open discomfort about singing about slavery. The hat of fast rock is briefly tried on, and then flung away. “Bicker” slows the speed down again and fills the stage with an earnest mood (Pemberton is not into bickering), and I can feel myself getting impatient with the well-explored limits of the instrumentation. The last two tracks, “You” and “As of 34,” crystallize my name for this genre of songwriting: virtue-pop. In his lyrics, Pemberton frequently returns to the idea that he is sorry to upset his loved ones, he doesn’t enjoy conflict, and he just wants to be himself. All fair thoughts to have, and an appropriate platform from which to voice them, given that he has pulled this show together by his own sheer will and work. 

I go to gigs in the hope that hearing live music will move me. I left this show, moved by the attitudes of Jason Pemberton and his bandmates, and the way they expressed their appreciation for one another and their audience. Afterwards, I reflected on the wholesome vibe I felt in the venue, and realised that it reminded me of a dear memory. It was my dad’s 60th, and he was up on stage with my brother’s band behind him, singing the lead vocals for “Back in the U.S.S.R.” by The Beatles. For approximately two minutes and forty-three seconds, my dad was on par with Paul McCartney, living his rock star daydream and singing his favourite song to a room filled with family and friends eating up every moment. Jason Pemberton put this show together independent of contracts and labels, and he has pushed himself through the task of organising a band in order to record an album and play two live shows (though he admitted his girlfriend did remind him at intervals to keep working at it). I’ve been there, and I gave up on trying to organise a band because I found it so difficult. So, congratulations to Pemberton and Friends for their efforts, and the great show they put together despite a setback.

As of 34 played for an unexpected two-night run at The Loons, Lyttelton, Saturday 4 and Sunday 5 June, 2022.

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