A lot has happened to Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie in the nine years since they concluded their HBO show. Each has become a successful star: Clement has performed in big TV shows and movies with actors like Will Smith and Paul Rudd; McKenzie has won an Oscar for The Muppets.
As a result, it’s tough to imagine they have a lot of free time to write new songs for the band that launched their careers, even as they’ve reunited Flight of the Conchords for a few dates over the last few years. And considering how beloved they and their TV show remain, it wouldn’t have been completely surprising if their new Live at the London Apollo special failed to live up to nearly a decade worth of expectations. But if you were worried that time and individual success would leave you longing for the heyday of Flight of the Conchords, their hilarious new special makes it clear like they never stopped being “present” for band meetings.
A spiritual successor to their legendary One Night Stand special from 2005, the new 90-minute special feels like seeing your favorite indie band from ten years ago performing in an arena. London’s Apollo is huge and covered with different instruments, and HBO’s top notch lighting and editing makes the show look as grand as its venue. Still, the band feels the same as ever when they step onto the bigger stage. Aside from being older (which they point out in classic Conchords self-depracating fashion, (they’ve gotten so “big”), Bret and Jemaine are exactly where we left them. Even when they bring out a third musician to help give the songs more depth, it doesn’t feel like they are too good to do this alone anymore, but that they have the ability to present a better looking and sounding show, which they do without sacrificing any of the silliness or intimacy.
Their 12-track setlist (13 if you treat one incredible medley of two classic songs separately, and 14 if you include a beloved favorite heard during the end credits) includes a roughly even mixture of newer songs from the last few year, and a number of songs they performed on their HBO series. Those well-known songs are familiar enough for singalongs, but also include new elements for fresh laughs. (Which old songs? We won’t spoil the fun, but with the exception of an even older one that was never actually on their HBO show, they are all in the top 20 of our rankings.)
The newest songs are all genuinely funny too. They include a sweet “father-son” duet with an even better twist than you expect, a medieval folk song that gets more and more hysterical the longer it goes, and a brilliant “Devil Went Down to Georgia” inspired saga. At times it feels like they are improvising a lot, but their entire act turns out to be much tighter than it first seems. Many of the songs, even the most well-known, tend to be on the longer side, with many going over five minutes. That’s far from a bad thing though. The format gives them the freedom to go off on great tangents, let a joke breathe or build toward an unexpected payoff. You never find yourself wanting a song to end, you just find yourself waiting to see what absurd turn it takes next, because sometimes it leads to dual recorder solos.
That showdown is just one of many great visuals, but it also highlights just how good they are musically. They move between genres and styles–sometimes within a single song–and even instruments without missing a beat. Their instruments include guitars, pianos, keyboards, recorders, bongos, a glockenspiel, and the flute. If they weren’t so funny, they could probably make it is a nonfictional band.
In between performances is plenty of their classic, inane banter, which they once brilliantly described as “professional talking.” They do “break” a few times throughout the show, as though the inherent silliness of their own performance is too much at time, but I thought it added to the performance because it is so sincere. These hilarious spoken segments not only stand on their own, they often have amazing payoffs during songs.
An “amazing payoff” is an apt description of a special we waited nine years for. It wouldn’t have been surprising if after such a long time away, during which they each achieved massive success on their own, this reunion simply revisited glory days instead of offering something new. But it’s clear the Flight of the Conchords never stopped showing up to band meetings, and the end of this special had us wondering when the next one would be.
Flight of the Conchords: Live at the London Apollo premieres October 6 on HBO.