Live in London, the first proper outing from Flight of the Conchords since their eponymous HBO show wrapped in 2009, begins with a quiet conversational duet reminiscent of “Jenny,” an early viral hit that made every other sixth grader I knew obsessed with the band back in 2005. The melancholy of the number mixed with the real weight of seeing Bret and Jermaine onstage together makes this certainly the only comedy special this year that plays like Concert for George. The longing for more of the duo’s verbose, pastoral folk rock has been that powerful.
But this isn’t exactly the same band it was ten years ago. Bret bursts into chuckles early in the special, and the message is clear: their onstage personas are held a bit more loosely in hand these days. The deadpan interplay is still there, but they have nothing to prove, and they clearly relish the opportunity to relax a little. It feels like two men playing dress-up in their old costumes for a bit to try out some new stuff. You’d think that’d make Live in London a pure nostalgia play, but it doesn’t. They don’t want to pretend it’s 2009, and you wouldn’t want them to either.
The old songs that are brought out (particularly “Foux Du FaFa” and “Inner City Pressure”) double as opportunities to show off the duo’s severely underrated skills when it comes to instrumentation and arrangement. The special almost closes with a proper version of the “Bus Driver Song,” a fan-favorite that was never properly included in the TV show. It’s such a spare rendition that captures everything that is rambling and weird and heartbreaking about Flight of the Conchords, that I almost wish they had ended it there.
The new material takes a second to get there—an early song about romance in the workplace is tightly written but feels like familiar territory—but once it does, you get to see Flight of the Conchords attempting things they couldn’t do on TV and couldn’t do before they were famous. The special is at its best when the new songs are epic pastiches of genres they haven’t touched before, as with an insane cowboy ballad or the medieval “The Summer of 1353,” which works through perfect Conchordian lines like “it is a rose-scented flower which I call a rose” all the way to a rock star recorder breakdown hat no other band on the planet could pull off.
The entire thing is activated by extremely dynamic direction from Hamish Hamilton that blends the Conchords’ natural stage presence as a duo with the kind of music video imagery we associate from the HBO show, all of which ranges from ironic to genuinely dreamlike. At these moments, it’s reassuring to know that as much as the audience might treat them like an arena rock band going on a victory lap tour, Bret and Jemaine too restless and creative to dive back into the old stuff without dragging up something new.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and comedian. You’d be doing him a real solid by following him on Twitter @grahamtechler or on Instagram @obvious_new_yorker. A real solid.