by John Nicholson
There was an unmistakable ease over the Milkboy Philly stage Friday night. From the opening set by local songsmith, Joey Sweeney to New Zealand’s transcendent headliners, Tiny Ruins. Modest and tactful, both acts poured themselves into each word of every song.
Joey Sweeney took the night off from his band, Joey Sweeney and the Long Hair Arkestra, for a solo set that swung us along from start to finish. With a soulful blend of alt country rock, rootsy folk and candid humor, his 30 minutes burned with a bold, old school attitude. Something like: ‘sure, you can listen, but I’ll be up here doing what I love even if you don’t give a shit about it’ — there’s a draw in that rawness. But we did care. A lot.
One of Sweeney’s final tunes, for instance, was an homage to Johnny Cash and daddy issues. He wrote it because he wanted to write a song Cash himself would sing. Another, he scribed about getting fired from a shitty job on a Friday. The liberation, celebration and loss. He sung the chorus “It was important then/It ain’t important now” with a voice reminiscent of Jeff Tweedy’s via Mermaid Avenue — easy and smooth, a perfect compliment to the former Philadelphia journalist’s cutting lyrics. Claws through sand. Though a drummer and bassist would’ve lit a fire behind the chugging strums and palm mutes, Sweeney didn’t need anything more than a Telecaster to tell his story. It felt great realizing the Philly scene is still alive and well.
After a short intermission, Tiny Ruins hopped up onto the Milkboy stage. What started as a solo project for lead singer and guitarist, Hollie Fullbrook, Tiny Ruins has evolved into a quiet, captivating indie folk trio. Influenced by melancholic British and Euro folk sounds, like those of Nick Drake, Sybille Baier and Laura Marling, the Auckland-based band thrives on mournful, minimalist storytelling.
With the help of drummer, Alex Freer, and bassist, Cass Basil, Fullbrook eased us into the lilting headlining set with “Carriages”. Laced with haunting three part harmonies, the first chorus came and the venue instantly flooded with a tight-lipped awe that never faded. From the outset it was clear how easily the band’s warmth would translate from their new full-length record, Brightly Painted One, to live performance.
Though often fragile, Fullbrook’s voice refused to break. There’s a hearty belly to her vocal range and she commanded it with great care, entering into luscious, angelic registers only when necessary. This was never truer than on , “Me At the Museum, You In the Wintergardens,” one of the band’s most popular songs. A tune for home, Fullbrook painted the wintery scene with deft softness, concise acoustic fingerpicking and a characteristic attention to narrative detail. With the accompaniment of Freer’s brushed drums and Basil’s sultry bass grooves, the song came to life.
Most Tiny Ruins songs follow this equation and they never fail to stir up something unmistakable inside the listener. Winding the show down, the trio fell into a cover of Bob Dylan’s “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” from John Wesley Harding. They prefaced the song by telling us that they played it at a Bob Dylan tribute show in Auckland once — “We were the most rocking band there,” Fullbrook giggled. It was a tight cover, with her lofty voice offering it a dreamier tone than the original.
They ended the show with “She’ll be Coming Round”, a cathartic, moving song that places you on a mountain top surrounded by mist and fleeing lizards. It’s an evocative piece about freedom, escape and death. Highlighted by an eerie outro that stops just shy of full-on atmospheric rock, the lyrics sent us out with a great notion: “That old free will might be a myth, but I’m gonna try and get me some.” The dark venue was quiet for a few moments as the last few notes lingered out and Fullbrook thanked Joey Sweeney, Milkboy and the city for a great show.