People, and music journalists in particular, are quick to laud superlative praise on all sorts of people. I must have read hundreds of biographies and write-ups proclaiming the so-and-sos to be the “hardest working band in music”. But as The Eastern take the stage in Ballyholme Yacht Club as part of the 2014 Open House Festival, and with over 200 shows played in the last year there’s no doubt these plucky New Zealanders are the hardest working band in Bangor, Co. Down right now.
Jon on upright bass, Alice rosin up the bow and Jess on banjo are the backup to Adam McGrath. The flannel shirt, the red beard and hulking 6’4 frame would have McGrath at home in any wooded area of middle Ireland but tonight we’re down by the sea and he’s waxing lyrical about Joe Strummer, Black Sabbath, Steve Earle and Sam Cooke as the moon rises over the bay.
When he tells you of his Irish roots though it’s believable; from dalliances with the Harris family of County Antrim to the exploits in the Southern Alps with big Paddy Moran, there’s a symmetry and a love of a good story running between both nations.
We go back to 2009 to the early EPs as The Eastern open with ‘Oh Mystery’ – an upbeat intro before the more blues-tinged, pensive ‘Crow River’. Songs are interspersed between tales from the opposite side of the world preceding the rasping, raw energy of ‘Hope and Wire’ the title track of their most recent record, written in the aftermath of the 2011 Christchurch earthquake.
McGrath’s clearly at ease with the folk club feel and recounts tales of meeting the devil drumming for Gene Pitney and awkward corridor meetings with Steve Earle before raising the bar for the second half of the show. The waning moon is fully risen and the stage is bathed in an eerie red light as the band dedicate a cover of ‘Blue Moon’ to Adam’s sick mother and Jess Shanks swaps banjo for lead vocals on the stunning ‘Southern Girl’.
This track could be the trademark tune of The Eastern. “You won’t find me in Texas” sings Shanks with McGrath confirming “she’s much more Antarctic than Memphis”. Whilst a country band in the truest sense of the term you certainly can’t call The Eastern Americana. It’s authentic Antipodean music with references to the Southern Alps, the Christchurch suburbs and the people and legends that make up the fine nation. At times, the songs tick all the boxes of the country standard with mentions of women and whiskey, trains and old Union Steam Ships but there’s an honesty in their hat-tip to the States and a tongue in the cheek when they know you can’t much more “deep south” than Christchurch, NZ.
Thousands of miles from home, on their first European tour, in a room full of strangers and yet everyone feels at home. Audience members are swapping stories of forty year wedding anniversaries and we’re saying hello to band members’ families on the phone. There’s an ease and a comfort exuding from the stage and as McGrath tackles a cover of Otis Redding’s ‘(Sitting On The) Dock of the Bay’, name checking the Bangor Marina it’s like being at a party where your oldest friend has just picked up guitar.
The night is brought home aptly with a completely unplugged rendition of Sam Cooke’s ‘Bring It On Home’ before a few whiskeys are enjoyed and we leave the warmth of The Eastern for the cool summer air by the sea.
Live Review by: Scott Edgar
The Waterside from the NZ tv3 drama series ‘Hope and Wire’
The Eastern continue their tour with shows in Roscommon and Cork before heading to Germany to complete their European tour. Their album ‘Hope and Wire’ is out now.