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March 20, 2009 | by  | in Music |
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Mt Pleasant

THE PIT BAR, BATS THEATRE – 20/03/09

Jonathan Phillips has burned his bridges in New Zealand. If his recent show at the impossibly small Pit Bar was anything to go by, we won’t be seeing him again in Wellington any time soon. He seemed clam and collected when he shook my hand, and had mumbled something about the “glowing” review I gave to his EP. Then he plugged in his guitar, and was transformed into a train wreck of neuroses, nervousness, self-deprecation, irony and a string of seemingly self-conscious smiles. I would have described it as a chameleon performance, expect for the fact that when he starts to sing Phillips exposes himself with a disconcerting degree of starkness. His voice is even more thin and childlike when heard in person, and, given the miniscule size of the venue; he often opted to sing without a microphone. The only source of amplification for his guitar was a tiny, battered practice amp.

Phillips has no respect for the conventional form of a song. He would often stop mid-riff, or cut out the volume on his amplifier, or drop his guitar forcefully onto the floor. Once, he even cut off a verse in order to explain how out of time his guitar loop had been the last time he’d played that song live. He never bothered to finish it.

I had wondered whether Phillips would be able to transfer the fragmentary nature of his recorded material to a live setting, but it seems that he is pathologically incapable of completion, gratification or perfection. At one stage he seemed to have a fit, ran outside, and attempted to push a fixed parking sign out onto the road. For a moment I thought that might actually succeed, and then I imagined him getting splattered across the cold asphalt of Kent Terrace by a speeding Skyline, with dysfunctional brakes. It would have been an apt, and utterly unsurprising end to his set, especially given the pervasive sense of nihilism that Phillips constantly exudes while in his performance character.

Some of the audience would have found his attitude distasteful, or perhaps even offensive. Only a couple of his songs received any applause. Still, I found it impossible to take my eyes off him. If there is any art that Phillips has mastered, it is that of provocation. Ultimately though, the most important question that was on my lips throughout the performance – “why?” – will leave New Zealand with him, unanswered. As he flees this country, apparently searching for a new beginning, I remain unsure of quite what to make of Jonathan Phillips the man. But what I am sure of is the music he creates as Mount Pleasant. It’s fucking beautiful.

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