Dave Gibson is on stage in a red bomber jacket and a hat that reads ‘Drop Out’, wiping away sweat and telling the crowd that it’s been 10 years since the last Elemeno P show in Wellington. In the song that follows he edits in a few Wellington-themed lyrics (“I met her at Fidel’s cafe”), just to prove that his references are 10 years old, too. The crowd love it, though. They remember.
He tells us that there’s something special about the sweaty, messy setting of the mostly-crowded bar and we eat it right up; cheering even though Meow is a clean, presentable place once you forgive the condensation on the ceiling. I was worried that their 2018 tour would work like Gibson’s cap – an attempt at recapturing some sort of idealised youthfulness that only serves to accentuate every minuscule display of exhaustion. I shouldn’t have worried.
It’s not that Elemeno P managed to recapture the snark of youth that gave Nirvana any sort of edge in 2003. And it’s not that they managed to mask points of tiredness – the occasional song in the middle of the set pushed and pulled slightly. But the four musicians all played with a vivacity and intention that’s as exciting as it ever was – and in the crowd, no one’s over-analysing. Not even a little. No one was there to see a band trying to prove themselves. We were there to perform with the band and they knew that. Gibson turned the microphone on us at every opportunity he got and Scotty Pearson regularly stood up behind his kit to sing along, feeding off an excited crowd.
Before the opener (Carb on Carb – who played a stellar set) even came out, the crowd were singing to the Spotify playlist. Weezer, Queen, Biggie. There was a kind of anxious energy in the air, a densely packed room of people all warming up for the same performance. Like a lot of shows, that kind of energy led to moments of rudeness. A group of younger fans tried to commandeer a microphone, more intoxicated crowd members started to push to the front in handsier ways, and the odd plastic bottle went flying. It was about to get a bit much when the headliners came out. In the space of three songs, the crowd was jumping to 11:57 and it seemed to fall away a bit more. Everyone was too busy dancing or singing along.
Elemeno P still sound great. They were well rehearsed and tight, managing to perform and emote their music with the kind of energy it needs. At times (usually when tours like these come off as cash-ins) returning bands can feel caged in by songs that lost their meaning a long time ago. Performances can seem like bad museum exhibits – looking through a window at taxidermied music that sounds a lot like it used to, but just doesn’t breathe. That wasn’t that case here.
Sure, literal interpretation of some songs might be less relevant now (although Ohio still seems to work in the current political climate). But the songs mean more than that, and it’s a special moment when a band can perform that ingrained, cultural meaning.
Because of this, some of the most beautiful moments in their set were covers, Pink’s Raise Your Glass and Weezer’s Say It Ain’t So, respectively featuring bassist Lani Purkis and Pearson on vocals. In those songs, it felt like any division between the band and audience began to disappear. Everyone in the room had a similar enough connection to those songs that singing them with the band unified the crowd.
It was a savvy, inclusive move by a band that understand what their fans want out of the show. That understanding showed when they played their own hits too. Songs like Verona and Fast Times In Tahoe (which made for a great encore) were polished and tight, with nothing that could throw the audience off singing along.
There’s something special about an unabashed nostalgia gig. Maybe it’s the thrill of a band knowing exactly what their audience wants and using that knowledge to slowly tease out the biggest reaction? Maybe it’s an absence of the anxieties and doubts that come with releasing and touring new music? Or maybe it’s that the songs have had time to wear in – to become a part of people’s lives in a way that new music just can’t be. Better Days was playing at your wedding; you bonded with your high-school friend over Fast Times In Tahoe; you listened to Every Day’s A Saturday on repeat back when every day was.
I think this was the real joy of seeing Elemeno P in 2018 – as rowdy as the crowd might have been, there was an undeniable sense of excitement. A giddiness and anticipation that everyone was going to hear their favourite song and everyone else would know the lyrics. And that feeling wasn’t misplaced. The band knew what to play and delivered it with the kind of energy and enthusiasm that only comes with love. Specifically, the kind of love that only comes with a history. If there’s even a remote chance of this tour being the cash-in I had wondered about, they’re working far too hard for their money.