Nahko Bear has left the stage. It's the second song in at the Hi-Fi Bar in Melbourne on Thursday 27th November, and the effervescent and normally cheekily grinned front man is AWOL. The lanky charisma of bass player Dustin Thomas, and focused energies of guitarist Chase Makai and drummer Justin Chittams fill the void with a rendition of a Red Hot Chili Peppers and TLC mash up. The crowd respond in buoyant tones, filling the room with strains of the '99 hit 'No Scrubs.' And just as quickly as he exited, the much-loved raconteur comes back declaring, "my guitar string broke! And that is what you call improvisation, being in the moment!" Many thanks to that renegade guitar string, it created an impromptu trip down 90's memory lane – of which, Nahko, let alone the audience, were aware the band would wing. Happy Thanksgiving indeed.
The gig earmarked a significant moment for the American band, which mostly reside on the west coast. "Most of us go back and forth from Hawaii, I've been living in LA most of the last eight months, we've been on the road since April." The 'Water is Life tour' has been a mammoth affair, the US portion ending on 1 November and the Australian part on 8 December. Punters in WA can still catch the enigmatic frontman and Medicine for the People, before they head back home, but not for long. "For a minute!" he laughingly explains, "we come back to California. We do America for 10 days for a small little tour, and then we come back to Australia."
The band will play the Woodford Folk Festival for New Years, pretty spectacular indeed. "Yeah we are excited, we've been told it will be a really fun gathering, so we are stoked." Nahko explains the band now have a deep affinity for Australia, "Yeah we are definitely really excited to come back, and it is our second time in one year, but we love it, it's pretty amazing." First here for Bluesfest in April this year, he shares there is a big friendship and collaborative intention behind the tour "and the opening acts we are bringing, this whole package out there. It's a good feeling, it is like a family out there, with Xavier [Rudd] and Blue King Brown."
The band's music has galvanised audiences globally, with strong social philosophies and evocative lyrics. Nahko describes why, "I think there is a lot of just ... honesty in the music y'know. That really empowers people to be honest with themselves, and yeah, I think as far as even with live shows, we as a band have a really big light, and we are very, very passionate about our stage performances y'know." He couldn't be closer to the truth. The Melbourne performance was on Friday 14th November during AWME [Australasian Worldwide Music Expo] and simultaneously MWE [Melbourne Music Week]. Their sell-out gig was chock full of fans, embracing an electrifying performance.
From the ritual of the introductory song, a blessing and cleansing of the room with sage – it's music with a message. After all, anyone who comes out with an 'F**k Tony Abbott t-shirt' is certainly not sitting on a fence. The thundering percussion of The Burundian Drummer Group of Victoria and Declan Kelly with Diesel 'n Dub covering Midnight Oil 'dub-reggae' style made it a night to wear flats or no shoes at all. Dancing was most righteously in order.
This is live music at it's best, designed to make you feel something bigger than your own existence. Nahko and Medicine for the People go all out, and then some. The camaraderie, playfulness with the crowd and damn rocking acoustics make this one of THE bands to see. He sums up the feeling of their music, "we can use these types of practices to heal us and y'know more often, have them be just a code that we live by. You hear a band on TV and you go yeah that is pretty good, but when you see them live it is WOAH!" he exclaims excitedly. "It is something else ... there is something else that activates in you. I think there is a spark in the lyrics, a vibration in the melodies and the actual performance of it live." He goes to reveal, "a lot of people tell us it is a really captivating experience." It sure is. The adoration emanating from punters that night and 'I believe the good things are coming' signs waved constantly are testament to this bands effect.
The songs are epic, mini-documentaries that jam incredible amounts of meaning, jumping and bendbacks into 7-8 minutes. It's impressive, and adrenalizing. Especially crowd favourites 'Black as the Night' and 'Aloha Ke Akua' which are 9-10 minutes long. "Yeah, they definitely haven't been traditionally built!" he agrees laughing. With all this level of output, how does he stay grounded? "Ummmm, there is definitely a lot of recharging that has to happen y'know. After the shows and all the days off and stuff, a lot of it has to do with getting enough rest."
He adds "definitely when you are doing six shows in a row, [it] can take a lot out of you for sure. When you have days off that you can look forward to, you can say yeah I am going to do this and I am going to do that." He pauses and reflects on how exactly he regroups to give so much in a live show, "Hmmm, I guess recently, I've been giving myself an hour in the morning to do meditation and stuff, yoga and just like, quiet time. Doing it everyday [shows] can be really tiring." Chuckling, he adds, "I definitely have to quiet my mind, as it can get really loud in there!"
On the topic of loud, he shared his experiences of how some of the songs formed, namely 'Pueo'. "Down there in Hawaii, it was WILD that night, it was kind of crazy! But really cool." The crazy he is referring to is hallucinogenic, and how it can open a prism, a window into a literal other world. "Absolutely," he laughs. "It is interesting because, you surrender, you really have to let the message do its work." He reveals that some of his friends weren't in the same boat, "some people are like, they couldn't do it and that is the thing, not all of us are for it you know. I think I was lucky to have the right place at the right time. It was the beginning stages of everything and the right people around me y'know." Thinking back he muses, "It wasn't very traditional at all. It's like in a lot of situations where people say they had a bad experience, but I was able to work through it." When asked why he chose to share these stories online, he confides, "I was a little bit nervous about putting it in there, but it is a real story." He adds emphatically, "I was like nah, it is a real story." And much like what he stands for, it is the truth.
Nahko is a quintessential storyteller, and each song track for album 'On the Verge' is a snippet into his Puerto Rican, Filipino and Apache heritage, his culture and life experiences play a strong role. When asked if he's been to the former countries, he confirms with a resounding yeah." I went to the Philippines last October for about 10 days and I have family out there I had never met, it was pretty awesome. Last June I went to Puerto Rico with my older brother, we didn't meet any of our family we just went for a trip and it was full on, we went to places that y'know, didn't have much on." There was a strong sense of connection in both countries and he's wistful to return, "I want to learn more about them, and visit several more times if I can."
He shared the meaning behind 'Pueo' track, which is a Hawaiian word, meaning 'white owl.' It not only has cultural ties, but a strong bond to his family as well. "It depends on whether you are referring to a woman's medicine or a man's medicine. For men, what I have been told in the past, it traditionally was a woman's totem it was never a man's totem." He goes on to explain; "it got this rap about being like a black magic sort of … Ahh death, where an owl being viewed, was something in your past. Then in more of these times, the elders say that the totem [changes over time] has more meaning to both men and women, and it can carry messages like a grandfather totem."
Nahko advises for "different cultures it has different stories and different meanings or views. But for me in particular, because I grew up with those stories and knowledge in my growing up." It's clearly poignant for him, "when I saw those owls and wrote that song, I took it as a good sign, and it always reminded me of my mum. In some way it was weird, it was a female energy, and it was like a message that I had."
I asked if he had any messages for Australian fans thinking of trekking up to Woodford. He puts on his best Australian accent and cheerfully proclaims, "Come on up love! Absolutely, look forward to seeing you out there."