Guest Review by W.J. Angus, with contributions from Ila Selwyn, Jo Hill, & Micky Nogher
Whatever came out of the pandemic, it stranded some amazing talent in unusual places. Down into the labyrinth of Lopdell Theatre in Auckland New Zealand, a buzz of age-spanning expectancy waited for two of these: Maggie Cocco, and her accompanist for the tour Bonnie Schwarz who would add much more than just ‘sad cello’ to the epic cycle of piano songs. Word is spreading. Originally opera trained and with experience singing with the famous and should-be-famous, Maggie Cocco of the incredible voice has taken to NZ as her adopted home and place to broadcast her new music.
The night kicks off with a full explanation of the logic of the song-cycle, “Like A Moth”, and project, ‘Science for Sociopaths’, delivered with a natural fluency that only Americans and the Irish seem to possess. Directly taking us into the musicality of winding vocal lines, developing harmonics of piano chords and deep cello bass, we feel the promised emotionality on the line, vulnerable and assertive at the same time. A little scary maybe. Maggie’s fliud piano became a river running through the songs, babbling high in the mountains, then a cascade roaring through a canyon to arrive at a still pool of reflection. The immediately mesmerized audience was swept through a tide of emotions as Maggie’s voice soared and plunged. If we have to make vocal comparisons, the captivated audience offered supplications like “a jazz voice, but with the depth, power, and range of Kate Bush”, and “Larkin Poe meets Penguin Cafe Orchestra”, and “a cross between Nora Jones and early Bonnie Raitt, sometimes hinting at the most soulful side of Dolly Parton, if she had come out of Detroit.” Moving through the set, the cello paints its glissando on the sweeping piano-vocals of the ever-catchy ‘I see you’, diving to submarine depths and adding an edge of menace to the song’s evocative lyric. The singer’s ‘bones are rattling with doubt’ and her classic soulful vocals are drawing us into a complex emotional world.
With her back to the crowd for most of the gig, we see that Maggie has large devil-wing tattoos. Something of the past is on her back. The exorcism taking place may be partly coming through the true romance of her new life here, but mostly tonight it is happening in the catharsis of this deeply moving cycle of songs.
The emotive core of the cycle runs with powerful lines and delicate subtlety from the magnificent songwork of ‘Down Down Down’ that works its hypnotic 6/8 time melodies into the heart, through the harmonies of ‘Hearts At Ease’, perfectly complemented by Bonnie’s swooping cello and double voicing, moving from tiny to vast harmonic swells. This rides us along tracks reminiscent of early Cher, calling up powers from deep places into the hauntingly dark and splendid lines of ‘In another world we’re fine’. This reminds us, ‘It was enough that you were mine.’ So much loss and then so much gained. This is what music is for.
In the second half, classic folky oddness comes from Bonnie’s songs, sung to her ingeniously arpeggiated cello, where again their vocals sit together like family and where classically trained accuracy and self-assurance matters more than the tuning of a guitar. In a world of small squeaky voices and competitive victimhood, it’s magnificent to see two powerful women heading so confidently to the top of their game. These women could sing the clauses of land law contracts and their harmonies would spin them into poetry. The best of New Zealand’s gloriously unvetted music scene shone in Auckland tonight. If you weren’t there, be there next time.
Pre-sales of Maggie’s analogue album Like a Moth are available on vinyl and CD at www.diggersfactory.com The Analog Tour from Maggie Cocco’s Science for Sociopaths continues with solo and w/sg performance dates in the US this December. Full itinerary available at https://linktr.ee/maggiecoccomusic. Bonnie will be touring NZ and Australia with upbeat folk-classical duo Good Habits. Maggie and Bonnie are due to reunite for more shows in NZ in February. Catch them together, or apart, if you can.