When they first visited these shores in 2002 to play at a tiny venue at the Edinburgh Fringe - where they became a word-of-mouth sensation - Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie introduced themselves as “New Zealand’s fourth-most-popular folk parody duo”. In fact, though Flight of the Conchords do far more than folk, pairing daft lyrics with deft pastiches of every genre from hip-hop to jazz, skewering cliché with hilarious (and Grammy-winning) precision.
What’s more, now playing to crowds of 20,000, they might well be New Zealand’s most popular band, period. With a wealth of hits from two albums, a Radio 4 series and a critically adored 2007-2009 HBO sitcom to choose from, the Conchords could easily have coasted by with a set of old favourites. But they’re not resting on their laurels; on Wednesday night the new songs outnumbered - and often surpassed - the old.
Timid party anthem Chips and Dips somehow got the audience chanting “baba ghanoush”, while Summer of 1353, a flawless folk ditty about “wooing a lady” (with duelling recorders), deserves a place alongside Monty Python and the Holy Grail in the league of all-time great medieval spoofs.
According to Clement, the pair have been working on the sprawling, gunslinging Ballad of Stana for “about 14 years”. If so, it was time well spent; a wild country send-up with a hint of Nick Cave’s hypersexual Stagger Lee, it’s one of their weirdest and most ambitious songs yet.
In the eight years since their last UK tour, the pair have been busy in Hollywood: McKenzie won an Oscar for his songwriting on The Muppets, while Clement voiced a singing crab in Disney’s Moana. But success hasn’t gone to their heads. Wednesday’s utterly delightful show found the Conchords as deadpan and low-key as ever, apologising for turning up “three months late”, having postponed the tour after McKenzie broke his wrist.
Now in their forties, the duo’s idea of rock’n’roll excess is eating two chocolate muffins in a single day (the subject of a wonderfully bathetic non-anecdote between songs). The only nod towards arena-sized grandeur came halfway through the set, when they were joined by “the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra” (a cellist called Nigel).
Their brand of shambolic laissez-faire helped to gloss over a few genuine hiccups, such as Jemaine flubbing the lyrics to fan favourite Alfie the Racist Dragon. But the show would have benefited from being tighter; after misjudging the running time, they were forced to cut a song from the encore.
The cavernous O2 isn’t the most hospitable venue for comedy. The tunes sounded better than ever - take away the jokes, and their carefully crafted melodies would still put many serious musicians to shame - but their understated banter felt at odds with the space. In Clement’s words, “It’s quite weird when you have a lull when there’s so many people here.” At times I was left wishing I’d caught their March previews at the cosier Soho Theatre instead. Judging by the rapturous cheers from the upper balcony, though, I might have been the only one.
Touring until July 4; for tickets visit flightoftheconchords.co.nz