“We made it!” Crowded House frontman Neil Finn jubilantly told 12,000 fans at the sold-out Auckland, New Zealand stop of the group’s “To the Island” tour. A COVID-19 outbreak may have caused chaos and postponements for the nationwide jaunt, but there were few signs of a pandemic as the reformed band reached that homeland stage.
Yet it was hard to shake pandemic thoughts while ecstatically rocking up to my first concert in over a year, feeling like a kid in a candy store after 12 months deprived of sweets. “DO dream it’s over,” I thought, my COVID-consumed mind inadvertently translating “it” to the pandemic. The words “They won’t win” had me wistfully affirming “Covid won’t win!,” while the lyric “They come to build a wall between us” made me yearn for the day border closures no longer divide the world.
As a Los Angeles-based Kiwi who has spent the last year at home in Auckland, such divides were at the forefront of my mind as I patriotically sang along, just days before returning to the U.S., where concerts, when they do return, will unlikely look the same as before.
It’s a different story in New Zealand, thanks to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern gaining enough control of COVID-19 to allow generous and perhaps under-appreciated helpings of freedom, which has enabled concerts, music festivals and events to entertain the masses throughout recent months.
There have been pauses along the way, like Auckland’s Valentine’s Day outbreak and subsequent lockdown, which postponed several Crowded House concerts. However, thanks to a mandatory two-week quarantine program for anyone entering the country, the virus is predominantly contained to the border, meaning large gatherings can safely go ahead under level one of the government’s four-tier alert system. Caution is still exercised, with masks mandatory on public transport, health and hygiene practices encouraged, and residents strongly urged to scan QR codes everywhere they go for contact-tracing purposes in the event of an outbreak.
Thanks to the country’s “team of five million” mostly complying, Crowded House’s Friday night gig capped off a week which colorfully demonstrated what the glorious light at the end of the pandemic tunnel looks like; just two days earlier, a jaw-dropping 40,000 Aucklanders swarmed the city’s waterfront, free of masks and social distancing, to witness and celebrate the country’s America’s Cup win.
Likewise, at Spark Arena, the only signs of the virus were QR codes for concert-goers to scan for contract-tracing purposes before getting the party started. But while I had previously joked I would happily dance my way through a set by the Wiggles for the sake of attending an arena gig again, not everyone was readjusting to the return to concert normalcy quite as immediately, with most of the venue remaining seated for the first half of the show.
That didn’t deter the band, which launched into “Weather With You” from the 1992 album “Woodface.” The record marked the third studio release for Finn, bassist Nick Seymour and late drummer Paul Hester, who formed Crowded House after Finn and Hester’s previous group Split Enz parted ways in 1984.
Thirty-five years later, after joining and touring with Fleetwood Mac in 2018-2019 (having filled Lindsey Buckingham’s shoes on guitar), Finn, 62, reformed Crowded House with Seymour and keyboardist Mitchell Froom, who produced the group’s first three albums. The Kiwi also brought on his sons and frequent collaborators, guitarist and singer Liam Finn, 37, and drummer Elroy Finn, 31, who have both enjoyed solo careers and stepped in for ex-drummer Matt Sherrod and former guitarist Mark Hart.
The five-piece had planned to spend 2021 touring the world, but downsized to a New Zealand trek, where their loved opening number was followed by hits like “Mean to Me” and the bouncy 2020 single “Whatever You Want.”
Longtime fan favorite “Fall at Your Feet,” poignantly intensified by Liam’s captivating backing vocals, was a highlight, concluding with the now rare, sweet sound of a mass singalong.
California-born and Christchurch-raised opening act Reb Fountain returned to the stage to join in on new song “Playing with Fire,” before Liam’s riveting guitar solo gripped the audience during “Pineapple Head.” Neil shared the track was inspired by Liam blurting out “pineapple head” while sick, delirious and bedridden at the age of seven.
The father-son duo appeared to exchange a victorious glance when the arena rose to their feet en masse during the melancholy “Four Seasons in One Day.” “Who expected everyone to stand up during ‘Four Seasons in One Day’? That’s historic,” quipped Neil, wearing a shirt reminiscent of Lady Gaga’s 2010 meat dress.
Things slowed down with the heartrending “Private Universe” before Fountain rejoined the hitmakers for their chirpy new single, “To the Island,” from their forthcoming record “Dreamers Are Waiting,” out June 4. Their first new album in 11 years, the project was completed virtually, with Froom in Los Angeles, Seymour in Ireland and Finn and sons returning to New Zealand from Los Angeles last October.
Despite a new album on the horizon, Crowded House still served up hit after hit, with Neil electrically sashaying around the stage during 1993 headbanger “Locked Out,” which concluded with Liam hurling his guitar into the air. The band then launched into “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” the 1986 chart-topper which has been covered by everyone from Miley Cyrus and Ariana Grande to Rob Thomas.
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Anthems “Something So Strong” and “Distant Sun” rounded out the set, finally igniting a party atmosphere worthy of the country’s largely COVID-free status.
It’s something the performers don’t take for granted, with Finn and friends honoring frontline workers with a cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” during the encore. “Thanks to all those heroes on the frontline here in New Zealand keeping everyone safe. Them and their families,” said the singer, who’s currently helming a Fangradio series, revisiting a different Crowded House album with each installment. “It’s a huge thing they’ve done that brought us all together tonight.”
The night ended with the crowd swaying side to side to “Better Be Home Soon,” and a lump building in my throat while hearing what felt like a personalized plea on behalf of loved ones as I prepared to say farewell to my hometown and return to my life in the U.S. for the first time in a year.
Watching my homeland’s unofficial house band belt out our unofficial anthems days before leaving perhaps wasn’t the smartest idea, the emotion tipping me into temptation to cancel my ticket. But as I masked up and boarded my first international flight in a year, still on that long-missed concert high, I’m happy that upon returning to the U.S., I can dream it — the pandemic and the party-stopping brakes it put on live music — will soon be over in my other homeland, too.