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The anticipation is there in Elizabeth Stokes’ solo guitar riff under the opening lines of “I’m Not Getting Excited”: a frenetic, driving force daring a packed Auckland Town Hall to do exactly the opposite of what the track title suggests.
As the opener of The Beths’ Auckland, New Zealand, 2020 expands to include the full band, the crowd screeches and bellows. It’s a collective exhalation, in one of the few countries where live music is still possible.
The album title, and film of the same name, deliberately include the date and location, lead guitarist Jonathan Pearce says. “That’s the sensational part of what we actually did.” In a mid-pandemic world, playing to a heaving, enraptured home crowd feels miraculous.
In March 2020, everything seemed on track for another huge year for The Beths. Home after an 18-month northern hemisphere tour, they had just finished recording sophomore album Jump Rope Gazers and were primed for more extensive touring. But within days, New Zealand’s lockdown split the band between three separate houses. All touring was cancelled.
“It was existentially bad,” Stokes says. As well as worrying about economic survival, they lost something crucial to the band’s identity: live performance. “It's a huge part of how we see ourselves... What does it mean, if we can't play live?”
The band found an outlet through live-streaming, returning to the do-it-yourself mentality of their early days to connect with a global audience. The album and film have their genesis in that urge to share the now-rare experience of a live show, as widely as possible.
The fuzzy-round-the-edges live-streams pointed the way aesthetically. Native birds, wonkily crafted by the band from tissue paper and wire, festoon the venue’s cavernous ceiling while house plants soften and disguise the imposing pipes of an organ. The presence of the film crew isn’t disguised: much of the camerawork is handheld; full of fast zooms and pans.
With much of the material still fresh, the band was less focused on re-invention than playing “a good, fast rock show”, Pearce says. The tempo is up on crowd favourites “Whatever” and “Future Me Hates Me” (released as a live single on its third anniversary) as both band and audience feed off the mutual energy in the room.
Certain songs have taken on special resonance post-Covid. Pearce has found “Out Of Sight”, a tender rumination on long-distance relationships, hits particularly hard with live audiences.
Album closer “River Run” visibly brings Stokes to tears as a mix of achievement and relief kicks in. “You can finally relax at that point … You play the last note, breathe out a sigh and look up - and you’re in a giant room full of people happy and smiling.”