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Festival Review: Auckland Folk Festival 2021 - 30/01/2021

01 Feb 2021 // A review by Kev Rowland

The last folk festival I went to prior to this one was when I flew to the other side of the world, attending Fairport Convention’s 50th Anniversary Cropredy Festival in 2017, but for some reason I had never been just down the road to Kumeu to attend the Auckland Folk Festival, which has been running for a great many years. However, based on this weekend’s experience, I know I will be back. Held at the Showgrounds, with plenty of room for camping, it is impossible to really express what was going on, as there was literally music in the air, coming from one of the seven separate stages or from tents, there was just a real feeling of inclusiveness and community. It was palpable, and it has been quite a while since I have seen so many people genuinely happy, with so many smiles. The warmth we were all feeling was from more than just the blazing sun.

I arrived before the bands started on the Saturday (I missed the kick-off the evening prior), and as I walked around the site trying to take it all in everywhere there was the sound of instruments being tuned and music being played. Children were flying kites and playing football, while the adults queued for coffee. As I sat under a tree for some shade, listening to some guys discussing the merits of different periods of Miles Davis, a phrase from The Castle came to mind; "So much serenity". Having worked out where all the different stages were, I then made my way to the main marquee where The Black Quartet were warming up, meeting up with Muzic.net.nz's photographer extraordinaire Steve Bone.

10am; and those who had made the effort to get up in time for The Black Quartet were in for a real treat. Comprising of four classically trained musicians who met at music college, there are two violins, viola and cello (it was nice to see cellist Rachel Wells on a small platform so that her head was the same height as the rest, as they were standing while she was seated). The music they play is often instrumental and it comes across as a wonderful mix of classical and folk, with a complex interweaving of harmonies and styles. It felt like a real melting pot, and while they were playing, everyone was entranced by what they heard. At one point Jessica Hindin said they were worried about such an early start, but the longer they played the more people came into the tent, drawn by the delicate swirling sounds which made for the perfect start to the day. While they played their version of Bohemian Rhapsody, the tent was in perfect silence as we were all transported into another time and place, and as soon as they finished there was rapturous applause.

One of the highlights of their set was Bruce Springsteen’s I'm On Fire, one of just a few to feature Rachel's amazing vocals. It was soon apparent that my reviewing strategy was going out the window, as originally I was going to move around to get a flavour of what was happening on different stages, but there was no way I was leaving until these guys had finished, as they created a very special magic indeed. Another vocal song was Four Seasons In One Day which include harmonies and an acapella section – according to my notes this was "simply stunning". They mixed it up, with Trip Rip being far more trad folk, while their version of A-Ha’s Take On Me was wonderful. They ended with Toxic, which I am sure Ms. Spears never imagined could sound like this, becoming a thing of string-drive beauty. I wandered out of the tent into bright sunshine, thinking if it was like this from the very first session, what was the rest of the weekend going to be like?

Having spent an hour in one tent, I now felt somewhat guilty of not exploring more and decided I would try to get more of a wider flavour of the festival. So, it was up to The Mill stage to listen to some of a 'rounds' session. For me, these sessions were one of the highlights of the weekend, with three different artists taking it turns to play a song or two in an hour long setting. This allowed people to hear different artists, compare them, and also make notes as to which they enjoyed so they could then be sought out for a full gig. Here I spent some time listening to Barry Saunders, who often performs with Delaney Davidson, creating more magical spells and showing that the word 'folk' really is a just a huge church with a different approach. I then made my down way to The Barn.

On my way there, I passed a blackboard concert taking place at The Village, where people literally put their name on a blackboard to be able to play. I then found myself side-tracked at the kids tent. Here some youngsters were being treated to You Need Skin, followed by the perennial favourite The Big Ships Sail On The Ali Ali O. Some were given a microphone to join in, while others were playing games while listening to the music.

Making it to The Barn in time for the session being hosted by the Titirangi Folk Club, I caught some songs by The Outsiders, which featured Irish and Northumbrian Pipes. I had only been on the site for a relatively short time, and here was even more music which was totally different to what I had come across so far, with delicate harmonies mixing and changing between the different styles of pipes. On one track they were joined by a double bass, which also provided a wonderful bottom end to the sound.

Sadie and Jay recently relocated to the Waikato from Australia, and both of them provided vocals while Sadie was also on double bass and Jay was on acoustic guitar. They started with The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood - anyone who is going to approach a song made famous by Fairport Convention with Sandy singing is always going to grab my attention. Sadie’s wonderful vocals combined well with Jay, and I was soon rapt, totally enjoying what was going on. They were then joined by violinist Rachel Miranda Evans, who they originally met at the Wellington Folk Festival. As there had only been minor rehearsals, Rachel was basically improvising over the top. Sadie said they did not provide a chord chart; it was up to Rachel to follow the musical flow and add melody where she felt it was right.

While their first songs were covers, they then played The Hero of Waterloo, which was explained as being about both a person and a pub in Sydney. I really enjoyed both the sound and the stories behind their songs. Musically and lyrically, they reminded me a great deal of Mundy-Turner, but there were also similarities with Show of Hands; especially when Jay took the lead vocal role. Rogue Folk was a historical Australian song with wonderful vocal harmonies, while Salvation Jane was more delicate, telling the story about how a plant escaped from a garden to become one of Australia’s biggest invasive pest species. The combination of wonderful vocals, harmonies and folk hooks left everyone there very content, with the crowd even singing along to their cover of Bob Dylan’s Little Sadie.

It was time now to head over to The Village for another set of 'rounds'. Sadie and Jay were going to be performing, which was a bonus, plus there was an act I did not know, called Rough Town, as well as Looking For Alaska - their appearance at the festival was one of the reasons I decided to attend, as I love their excellent album Light and Shadow, and I thoroughly enjoyed the one time I had seen them live, so I was making the most of the opportunity to catch them as much as possible over the weekend.

First up were Rough Town, with two violins, an acoustic guitar and a mandolin. There is something quite special about hearing violins and mandolin mix together, as when they are on fire, the blending of the different musical threads works very well indeed. A really tight outfit, the audience joined in; enjoying the high tempo mix.

From there it was onto Looking For Alaska, who for this appearance were playing just as a duo with Aaron on guitar/vocals with Amy on vocals. Their first song was You Only See Me When You're Sleeping from their first album, and with Aaron providing solid accompaniment, their voices blended - Amy took the opportunity to really let rip. She is genuinely one of the most invested performers I have seen; she's always in the zone. During this song there were lots of hand movements, while Amy demonstrated that it is a clever photographer who can capture her with her eyes open. When she let her vocals go, her voice threatened to lift the tent off the ground.

It was clear from the crowd's reaction that most of the audience had not previously come across LFA, and Sadie was certainly impressed. She and Jay kicked off their next set with Publicly Transported, which is far more back into tradition even though it was actually inspired by a Brisbane bus ride. They played through some more numbers, with the mandolin player switching to bodhran at times. Their take on high energy traditional instrumental music was infectious and created a real vibe. From here on in, Looking For Alaska swapped songs with Sadie and Jay, with the highlight probably being Lily, which is about Amy’s Nana. Aaron’s lead vocals on The Civil War’s Barton Hollow were also hugely impressive, while from Sadie and Jay it was a deconstructed totally unique version of Rocket Man, which was an absolute delight.

The programme and the all-important guide included details on each of the acts. The first two bands listed were Troy Kingi and The Eastern, and under the latter it said, "The Eastern are a string band that roars like a punk band, that swings like a gospel band, that drinks like a country band, that works like a bar band, that hopes like folk singers, and sings love songs like union songs, and writes union songs like love songs, and wants to slow dance and stand on tables, all at the same time." I was intrigued, especially as I had discovered that the line-up can be somewhat fluid, but is based around Adam McGrath (vocals, guitar) and Jess Shanks (vocals, guitar). Today they were joined by Jono Hopley (double bass), Brendan Gregg (mandolin, vocals), Frankie Daly (keyboards, vocals), Krissy Jackson (fiddle) and Reb Fountain (vocals). Adam plays solo as well as with the band, and apparently the last time he played at the festival he had included a political song, for which he received an email after the event telling him he had got his facts wrong and that politics should be kept out of the event. Having now met with Adam, I know that is possibly the worse thing anyone can say to him, so of course he read the email out to everyone, dedicated the entire set to the person who sent it, and then proceeded to lead the band through a romp of one politically charged number after another.

They kicked off with a number from one of the most important folk political activists of all times, Woody Guthrie, in Ain't Got No Home and I was immediately taken with just how these guys rock. This is Springsteen-style Working Man Americana music that my ears have been heavily influenced by. Next up was another cover, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Fortunate Son, and I was in my element. It may have been sweltering, but they were giving it their all; they're incredibly tight and passionate. A minor faux pas from Adam meant that when he introduced the band, he forgot to include Frankie, and the audience shouted at him until he realised the error of his ways. He made up for it by mentioning her as often as he could thereon. It felt like a juggernaut onstage, and when they somehow managed to step it up yet another a gear, people started dancing out in front.

Jess took the opportunity to take over lead vocals, which totally changed the feeling of the band. By now, I was really aware of just how much social consciousness and community spirit was here. The stories and observations were compelling, while the music was such that there is just no room for percussion or any other instrumentation as everyone fills the gaps, all driving in the same direction. Adam was wearing his heart for everyone to see, and they ended the set with everyone coming off the stage and standing on the grass to involve the kids. Adam then realised there was a problem, as the children did not know the song they had been singing, so he got everyone to kneel down on the grass (you had to feel for Jono, his instrument is not really designed for that). He then led everyone in a few verses of Old MacDonald Had a Farm, with the children choosing what animal was next. When it was over, he stood up and shouted, "We are serious folk artists!", and I knew I had seen something quite special indeed. Our photographer Steve had said to me multiple times already that day, that The Eastern were incredibly powerful, and now I knew exactly what he meant.

It was then back to the main marquee in time to catch Aro - the husband-and-wife duo of Charles and Emily Looker. Performing much of their material in Te Reo, Aro started with some guitar from Charles before performing acapella, blending their voices together with the guitar then coming in to provide some gentle accompaniment. Their debut album, Manu, was released in 2019 and was inspired by journeys in a campervan around New Zealand, with each song being about a different native bird. Their follow-up EP, He Manu Ano, has been made available on their website as a free download, and for them this completes the album with the new songs.

During their performance Emily recorded live vocal loops to sing against. I was not too sure how the additional female vocals were being generated during the harmonies, but it turned out she was using a device that automatically adds thirds and fifths to whatever she is singing, which allows her to swell her vocals like a choir. The use of both loops and these harmonies allows a great many textures to be added to Emily's voice. It was good that this was used sparingly, as opposed to all the time, as their voices blended wonderfully together, and while at times the guitar was quite percussive in approach, it always worked. For me, their performance was a thing of beauty.

I now went over to see Raylee Bradfield at The Village. This was the only time all weekend I saw a drumkit, as Raylee was joined by drums, double bass and a keyboard player, who also provided supporting vocals. Her first song was accompanied by a Hammond Organ sound, and soon it soon slipped into Country singer-songwriter territory. The overall sound felt quite at odds with the clean vocals, and it was certainly very Americana. Raylee definitely has lovely vocals with a lot of range, and there were strong harmonies from the female keyboard player who switched the sound from organ to electric piano for the second number.

Up to The Mill I went, looking forward to seeing a full set from Looking For Alaska. When I walked in, they had been joined by Steve on electric bass (a first for the weekend) and Huia on additional vocals. I was making some notes when the people behind me asked if I knew who the band was, and what was going on. They had heard Amy’s vocals and, although they had not planned to be at this show, they had independently come in to find out was going on. Once they discovered a full set would be starting at 7pm, they contacted their friends to ensure they also knew about it. As this was a proper gig, with no sharing of the stage with others, Aaron also had his keyboards and Amy had an acoustic guitar to hand.

They kicked off acapella with When I’m Alone, before Aaron took the lead on Whole Again, which was written for and about Amy. Having only got married a few months ago, they are revelling in the newfound experience, although Aaron has already taken to heart the immortal words "Happy wife, happy life". A few songs in, and the crowd was already swelling - something that continued throughout the set. The Mill was a little farther away from the main areas, yet there were plenty of people who were being drawn in. There were wonderful harmony vocals on Fall Into You, and by the time they performed Home the crowd was solidly joining in on the chorus with gusto. Songs like Let You Go were far slower, and they commented that it is one track they do not play live very often, but they felt this was the right environment, creating a real soundscape with gentle repeated piano and harmonic vocals.

I think Amy must have a switch inside her head, as she was laughing and joking before All The Broken People, all smiles and messing about and then without even drawing breath she launched into the song and it was like there was a different person standing there. There appeared to be little effort as she started to stretch her range, really letting the power go. There were many different singers here this weekend, with wonderful range and styles, but whilst many of them were delicate and fragile, there were times when Amy just belted. Her power is a force of nature, and she uses it sparingly and to great effect, particularly in the likes of Hine Atarau, while the emotional Lily is always a favourite. The set ended with Aaron playing his acoustic behind his head, and this showmanship combined with their great songs left the crowd buzzing with enthusiasm.

My head was also buzzing, but not quite in the same manner. By now I had been capturing notes and concentrating on music for some 10 hours, and I realised my brain was fried. It was back over to the main tent for the showcase concert, and I tried to settle down with John Mitchell and his traditional Scottish folk style and banter, but it was clear I was music’d out. With the wonderful harmony vocals from Jenny Mitchell and her sisters in my ears, I took my leave as tomorrow was another day.

Images © Steve Bone

View the full day two gallery here

Please do not crop or use any of these photos for other purposes without written permission by the photographer.


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