Review: Allah-Las at Neck of the Woods

Words By Ali Nicholls

Leading the contemporary movement into 60s revival psychedelia, heritage Americana heroes Allah-Las washed their dulcet waves upon the shores of Tamaki for the first time on Saturday.

It’s another languid summer evening in the littlest Big Smoke, and K Road is pulsing with life and anticipation. The doors are flung wide at every evening establishment with the undulating bass of a hundred different stereos filling the humid, heavy air. Lads out on the town weave in and out of a maze of a thousand road cones, bumming darts and planning a big night. The street is heaving with activity and possibility, and all the while beneath the hot concrete slabs a following is congregating in the hallowed halls of Neck of the Woods. 

I hadn’t heard of the Allah-Las before the tour of their latest studio album LAHS was announced. People described their music as ‘melodic’ which seems like a remarkably broad description for a band gathering such anticipation. LAHS didn’t cross my radar either until the announcement of the band’s imminent arrival, when all of a sudden it seemed that this was the band to watch for those who want to be surprised. Needless to say, my descent down the shadowed stairs to Neck of the Woods was one shimmered with curiosity. I knew Allah-Las would deliver, but exactly what I would receive was still very much a mystery.

Tamaki locals Joe Ghatt open the show with a shower of head-bobbing, smooth-grooving psychedelic numbers. Their sound echoes that of a recently emerging niche in Tamaki’s music scene from the Shore. Drawing heavily on old school psychedelic blues and Americana rock tropes mixed with the beach-bum aesthetic of Shore kids, the sound is chill but the energy is hot. The crowd out tonight loves it. It’s not the usual Neck of the Woods cohort, and there’s a comfortable range of ages amongst us. The night is open for grabs.

I didn’t actually realise when the main act was starting. Initially the bassist came out on stage and got set up, eventually waiting for the rest of the band with his hands casually resting on his bass. The drummer followed shortly after, and then disappeared again. Then the lead guitarist, then the drummer (out for good this time) then the keyboardist all trickled on stage. All in all, we had a good quarter of an hour to adjust to the prospect of eventually hearing some music. But once the lead singer arrived, the crowd sparked up. With no introductions or greetings we’re hurled straight into the opening track. I’m impressed with the gaping lack of pretension that these guys carry to the stage, but to some extent it feels as though the excitement of the event is a bit lost to the casual atmosphere. Still, I’m here to be surprised, so I happily hold out.

As it happens this pretty much summarises the show in its entirety. The opening song is a meditation on the tropes of Americana, blues, and psych rock. It pushes up against the borders of the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan in its roots influences, but it also seems to sit comfortably with the more classic psychedelic sounds of the 60s like The Zombies and The Byrds. Tame Impala would be pushing it a bit too far, but they’ve certainly got some stoner vibes swirling around in there. What really seems to keep them in rock territory is the vocals, which are straight forward. Very minimal harmonies, nothing dissonant, and nothing too unsettling. It’s very easy to listen to. Or at least it would be if the bass wasn’t so loud as to be drowning out almost all other instruments in the band, vocals included. Neck of the Woods may not be the most classic rock-friendly venue, but we can’t have everything. 

As we inch deeper into the set with the second and third tracks, I find myself waiting for the energy to lift a little. Aside from the lead singer, nobody has yet needed to open their mouth to breathe which says to me that everyone’s feeling pretty damn chill up there. And so am I. The crowd cruises through the set alongside the musicians, and warm fuzzies are abundant. And although there’s certainly nothing wrong with reclining back into the sound of Woodstock with the modern comforts of the 21st century, I can’t help but wish for a little more oomph from these folks. And from here on out, that’s pretty much the vibe: chill, American, with a whiff of the Devil’s Lettuce to it. 

I find myself wondering for the next few days what we mean when we throw around the phrase ‘revival’. Especially in the context of Americana psych rock, a revival of sound also surely means a revival of political orientation. The desperation of a disenfranchised, traumatised generation seeking freedom from war, liberation from oppression, and an alternative to the idealised future of their predecessors is what gave rise to one of the most influential music movements in Western cultural history. And yet it seems that as the stakes that this music is facing have changed, so too has the energy, and thus the sound. The early sounds that their sound pays homage to comes from a retrained context, where the possibility of a free generation was endlessly enticing to those who could sense it. But we live in an era where endless possibilities result in endless questions, where we don’t sit still because there’s simply so much out there and so much of it is at our fingertips. So these songs don’t need to be about the throbbing heart of a nation realising the violence inherent in its history, and the necessary fear of change that is defining the lives of so many young people. And maybe it couldn’t be, because we simply don’t have the luxury of possibility anymore. We’re a generation shaped by the falling sands of finite time, and our decisions regard how change ought to occur, not what that change should be. But we don’t hear that grappling tonight. Instead we hear an honouring of a sound that has had its time, but perhaps needs to be transformed rather than revived in order to retain its radical legacy. 

Allah-Las put on a supremely chill, mellow-grooving, free-wheelin’ show that anyone who can’t help but nod along to Sultans of Swing would have enjoyed. But it lacks the power, and the potential, that gave that music its initial potency. Which explains to some extent why nobody had to breathe through their mouth. There was nothing to yell about, nothing to be angry about, nothing to kick up a fuss about, in the songs. Their sound revives a time that should be remembered, but not without some kind of honouring of its purpose. And lord knows there’s plenty to be kicking up a fuss about right now. 

The sound of Allah-Las has a place, but they’re going to need to fight for it if they’re really going to revive the lifeblood of their heritage sound.