As seen on TV, but even better: Conchords soar at Chicago Theatre

March 15, 2008


Flight of the Conchords may only be ''New Zealand's fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo a cappella-rap-funk-comedy duo,'' as their press kit self-deprecatingly notes.

But at their sold-out show at the Chicago Theatre on Wednesday night, musician/ comedian Bret McKenzie and comedian/musician Jemaine Clement not only confirmed that they're the most wicked and spot-on rock 'n' roll parody since Spinal Tap, but the best made-for-TV rock band since the Banana Splits, or maybe even the Monkees before them.

As fan club president (and, until recently, the entire membership) Mel would be happy to tell you, McKenzie and Clement arrived in American concert venues and on the roster of Seattle's eternally hip Sub Pop Records by way of college in Wellington, where they came together in 2002. A six-part BBC Radio 2 series in 2005 led to a spot on HBO's ''One Night Stand'' comedy showcase and ultimately to the holy grail of their very own series, just like Tony Soprano.

In addition to their TV favorites, the duo also road-tested a few new songs, offering a preview of their second season for HBO, starting in January. The most memorable of these was a tune in which Clement ran down a long list of his exes -- ''There must be 50 women who left me,'' he sang from the other side of the Paul Simon song -- while McKenzie served as the chorus of his former lovers enumerating his shortcomings.

To be sure, the popularity of the TV show is what filled one of Chicago's most prestigious venues, and the crowd howled with recognition at familiar jokes, both from the dialogue (''I'm tuning the guitar -- that's technical band stuff, and you're not expected to know that'') and the lyrics (''The humans are dead/The humans are dead/We used poisonous gases/And we poisoned their asses,'' sung robot-like through the vocoder, of course).

But as the strength of the album and the weakness of some of the more verbose between-song stage banter proved, it's the songs that really make the Flight of the Conchords soar. And these were every bit as effective onstage as they are in the context of the show, even though the duo rendered them with the most minimal tools: McKenzie's homely baritone and one-fingered Casio playing and Clement's acoustic guitar, impressive falsetto and occasional keytar (the best use of that much-maligned instrument since Herbie Hancock's ''Rockit'').

Yes, the lyrics were funny. And sure, the musical in-jokes were incredibly sophisticated. Witness the complex melange of Public Television children's show ditty and classic progressive-rock epic by way of Peter, Paul & Mary in ''Albi the Racist Dragon.'' Or the goof on half a dozen hip-hop subgenres in ''Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymenoceros.'' Or the James Taylor meets Mott the Hoople for a non-sappy Gen Y John Mayer-type genius of ''Sellotape (Pencils in the Wind).''

But even if all of that passed you by, there was the inescapable fact that the group's set list boasted more hooks than a lakeside bait and tackle shop. Legion are the indie-rock bands that would kill for melodies this strong. And the Conchords deserve and are welcome to all their success -- just as long as they don't start pulling an Amy Winehouse on us.