MERMAIDENS, REVIEWED (2023): The arc of their covenant

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MERMAIDENS, REVIEWED (2023): The arc of their covenant

Recently I interviewed Mermaidens' Gussie Larkin and Lily West for an extensive AudioCulture profile at the time of their fourth, self-titled album.

At one point singer/guitarist Larkin said, “Our audience has got older, more of a Radio New Zealand crowd, and we’re just leaning into that”.

By that she meant that audience which -- in the absence of print media coverage and the paucity of music journalism these days -- gets its information and steer from Jesse Mulligan and Music 101.

And when they played the Hollywood in Auckland's Avondale on their album launch tour, that demographic was certainly evident.

But the younger bFM crowd – only slightly younger in some instances – certainly hadn't abandoned Mermaidens so it was an interestingly broad demographic which turned out.

But not in the numbers we might have reasonably expected on a Friday night for a band with history and an album which had debuted at number one on the local charts. And was still in the top 20 after five weeks.

That reference to Radio New Zealand listeners had another resonance: the Beths are comfortably in that same zone. In a 2020 review I noted their audience at an Auckland Town Hall show, where Mermaidens opened for them, which surprised me.

And with their new album Mermaidens have finely focused pop songs like I Like To Be Alone (“put your hand in my back pocket”) which sit easily alongside the Beths and the more mainstream songs you are likely to hear when Mulligan has a band play live in the studio.

But Mermaidens' history and the more edgy and expansive songs on the new album allow them to design a setlist which – at the Hollywood – was clever and smartly tailored.

Screenshot_2023_12_09_at_10.02.35_AMOpening however was Gussie Larkin (guitar, vocals, full Quattro mode) and drummer/singer Ezra Simons as her alter-band/ego Earth Tongue which veered between hard rock space-prog of Yes and something akin to more straight-faced Spinal Tap riffery.

It was colourful (literally, colourful clothes being one the themes of the night) and enjoyable in its familiarity. It allowed Larkin to unleash her formidable guitar playing because the first half of the Mermaidens' set was emotionally more muted and musically restrained.

After an interlude by electro-pop Power Nap (aka Chris Cudby) which recycled Eighties soul-funk grooves, some Devo and familiar crowd pleasing beats, Mermaidens took the stage all dressed in red.

With guest guitarist/keyboard player Louisa Nicklin (Dimmer, DC Maxwell) they mostly explored the more psychedelic pop end of their spectrum with West's sensuous and melodic bass guitar high in the mix. Her often emotionally cool delivery can be utterly mesmerising.

This is intelligent programming because -- given the audience knows there is power pop and hard rock in their armoury -- the mood evoked is one of heightened expectation.

Screenshot_2023_12_09_at_9.57.02_AMWith two distinctive and different vocalists – Larkin more edgy pop-rock, West the sky-scaling offspring of 1967 psychedelic folk-rock – Mermaidens play off each other, and with a couple of technical problems early up they also have a playful demeanour.

They laugh together (West referring to the opening set by Earth Tongue: “hope you are enjoying the Gussie-fest”) and communicate with the audience.

Screenshot_2023_12_09_at_9.56.35_AMThey are cool but not aloof, and look happy to be there.

That is too often a rare thing for a New Zealand band.

The first half favours the more exploratory of their moods and then after a brief interlude of minimalist keyboards by Nicklin while the Mermaidens disappear, the band returns.

The costume change is emblematic: now they are in blue denim (aside from drummer Abe Hollingsworth). West gives Nicklin a denim jacket.

The signal is obvious: the arc of the concert has moved into their more rock personae.

Over four albums Mermaidens have built a sound and diverse body of work to draw on, but as important as that which they have captured on recordings, they know a show means exactly that: a performance, a show.

Screenshot_2023_12_09_at_9.57.54_AMHand-picked audience members join them in the closing overs for a little clever choreography.

A costume change might not seem much but clothes are visual signifiers and Mermaidens had it down.

In Earth Tongue Larkin appeared in glam-rock silver; Mermaidens open in red (West swaying in her floor-length dress); the second half getting down to the dirty business of rock'n'roll in serviceable denim.

If they have entered a covenant with their loyal following it is based on mutual respect, their part of the deal being they'll deliver.

At the Hollywood they kept their part in a set which – if lacking some disruptive elements for added texture – touched all aspects of their broad palette

And they worked an intelligent arc which took the audience with them, from head nodding quietly in the red section to enthusiastic dancing for the blue.


Demographics satisfied by a great band.


Earth Tongue, Mermaidens. Hollywood Avondale, Auckland December 8 2023.


Elsewhere tries to take a different approach to reviewing live concerts, often looking at the bigger picture or wider context rather just a setlist recount of the show.

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