On the Beat

Flight of the Conchords: Bringing clever back

Jemaine Clement (left) and Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords in concert at Cary, N.C.'s Booth Amphitheater Monday night, July 18, 2016.
Jemaine Clement (left) and Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords in concert at Cary, N.C.'s Booth Amphitheater Monday night, July 18, 2016. ssharpe@newsobserver.com

As those great rock philosophers in Spinal Tap once put it, it’s such a fine line between stupid and clever. But hit that line just right, and you can make mockery that is the stuff of genius – which brings us to the greatest satirical band since Spinal Tap, Flight of the Conchords. The duo of New Zealanders Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie put on a brilliant show Monday night at a sweltering Booth Amphitheatre for a near-capacity crowd.

Close to a decade since their cult-favorite HBO series ended, it’s actually a bit surprising that Flight of the Conchords endure as such a hipster touchstone because they don’t come across as the least bit hip, trendy, arch or cool. They specialize in deadpan, self-aware stage patter and punchlines old-school enough to feel straight out of vaudeville.

But they’re just so likable, not to mention quick, with enough improvisational chops to play off the crowd and the surroundings. After an opening set by standup comic Arj Barker, Clement and McKenzie ambled out with no fanfare, sat down and started with a little banter about how they were “one of New Zealand’s biggest bands” - in terms of number of members, since they said that most New Zealand bands are single-member “groups” like “John.”

Continuing the strength-in-small-numbers theme, they were later joined by what they called “New Zealand’s Philharmonic Orchestra,” which consisted of a single cellist introduced as “Nigel.” And that was it for onstage players, with McKenzie and Clement playing guitar, bass, piano, autoharp and the occasional well-timed percussive device.

The Conchords’ set clocked in at just under two hours, with 14 songs and probably 10 times that many punchlines. About the only number the entire night that had me checking my watch was “Bus Driver’s Song,” which was merely good as opposed to the brilliant hilarity of the rest of it.

Deadpan drollery was the order of the day, with Clement and McKenzie drily attributing every gesture and action to rocked-out passion - such as breaking a guitar string on the very first song, “Chips and Dips (Rock the Party).”

“Yes,” Clement explained with a shrug, “our answer to pretty much everything is, ‘That’s pretty rock ’n’ roll.’”

Since it was as much spoken-word comedy show as concert, there were plenty of hecklers in the crowd who tried to join in. But McKenzie and Clement expertly defused them all. And of course, local surroundings came into play, starting with the temperature.

“It’s still hot,” Clement observed a few songs in. “And you’re probably one of those parts of the country that doesn’t believe in global warming.”

Speaking of local references, they lobbed a quip or two in the direction of North Carolina’s notorious anti-transgender law, House Bill 2. But the best line of the night about that was the not-kidding declaration that they’d be giving some of the show’s profits “to the gayest, most transgender charity we can find.”

While they’re hardly instrumental virtuosos, McKenzie and Clement are adept at putting across different styles ranging from folksy pop to Barry White-style love-man theatrics, and even what they called “country and eastern.” Their take on hip-hop with songs like “Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymenoceros” is lowbrow, but rendered with so much affection and self-mockery that it was clear they were making fun of themselves more than the genre.

Other highlights included a new song called “Seagull,” which McKenzie sang as the titular character while Clement narrated each verse as a sort of mansplainy Greek chorus; “Business Time,” the hilarious ode to middle-aged eroticism; and “Bowie’s in Space,” a Thin White Duke parody tribute that resonates even more since Bowie’s death earlier this year.

After commencing the encore with a “photo opp” in which Clement and McKenzie hit a series of epic mock-heroic poses with their instruments, they concluded with “1353 (Woo a Lady),” a faux-folk ballad about wooing women, 14th-century style. By the end of the song, they were out in the crowd, playing dueling flute solos while pelvic-thrusting as the crowd roared.

Clever, indeed.

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi

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