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Festival Review: Auckland Folk Festival 2021 - 31/01/2021

02 Feb 2021 // A review by Kev Rowland

The final day of the Auckland Folk Festival 2021 started up, and I headed over in time to catch Being. at Midday. Listening in at the Bluegrass tent along the way - people were invited to come in and play (but "No Accordions"), I then made my way over to some shade to drink my coffee and gather my thoughts. When I sat down, I realised The Eastern were at the next table, and I was invited to join in. We had long conversations about our musical backgrounds and how we had come to be where we were. Talk drifted over to other types of music, and the other band members looked horrified when, after a serious discussion on extreme music and how to win at Charades by using Carcass song titles, Adam declared they would play a Napalm Death song that night!

Wandering over to the Village, I realised Krissy was playing in a trio. I only caught the end of the last song, much to my dismay, but it was vibrant and full of energy. Then up stepped Roger Marshall to end this year’s blackboard series with his delicate laid-back gravelly vocals, complemented with his with guitar and harmonica. There was still a little time to spare, so I had a walk around and ventured back over to the Kids Stage where they were taking part in a Haka Experience.

By now, Jasmine Balmer AKA Being. was starting to soundcheck, which gave me the opportunity to sit back and just listen. I had not previously come across her music before, but the write-up in the programme had intrigued me and I was looking forward to her set. She was joined today by bassist Joshua Worthington-Church, and when they started, it was obvious he was not there just to hold down the bottom end, providing instead many different counter melodies that took the music to a different place.

Jasmine’s vocals were delicate and clear, and her songs contained multiple sections as she built stories within the notes. While she was playing, I realised there was someone outside the tent using Poi, inspired by the music, and the coming together of the two different artistic forms was quite compelling. Earlier, during soundcheck, Jasmine had noticed Charles and Emily (Aro) in the audience, so before starting the set itself she asked if they were game to learn a song and so they were invited up on stage to accompany her on the next number. Jasmine soon regretted having called them up so early as the combination of having to retune her guitar in a different key while struggling with strings that were determined to stay firmly out of tune due to the heat meant it took longer to be ready than she had expected. However, she did not let it phase her at all, and kept up the banter, so everyone was on her side and willing her to succeed. Of course, she did, and her direct alt-folk style contains wonderful vocal melodies and she easily switches octaves when the time is right, with music and words which were incredibly inclusive.

Jasmine also performed a few solo songs, the first being Overgrown; a lockdown number that included an acapella section. Her voice and guitar conjured up a world where we were all invited, a place where nothing else existed. The next of her solo songs was a cover of Iron & Wine’s Naked As We Came, which was in a slower tempo, but no matter the style her clear vocals were always front and centre. Josh then returned for a few more songs, taking a focal element in Count Me In where he provided a very strong counter melody.

With another 'rounds' set which included Being., plus Adam McGrath who I wanted to see in a solo setting, and Jenny Mitchell with her sisters in the main tent, I was confronted with yet another time when I wished I could have been in two places at once.

Jenny Mitchell was joined by her sisters Nicola and Maegan, and while Jenny is obviously the lead, it is the harmonies from the three of them which really took the music up to a different level. Here we had moved away from folk and were now much more firmly in the world of Country & Western, with delicate vocals which also had real power and steel behind them. I was immediately entranced, as Jenny told the story of her media studies which led to her discovery of Lucille Ball. This made her think about how we are rarely grateful for what we have, which is beautifully poignant. One Day is one of the songs available on the excellent The Grainstore Sessions which was recorded live at the gallery in Oamaru, while The Ocean was far slower, although still very much in the country style which shows what a wide cross-section of material was being showcased at the festival.

Whatever song was being played, at the heart was Jenny’s wonderful vocals, often accompanied by her sisters (who also had the opportunity to sing some lead), and the explanations of each song added to the overall enjoyment. They performed a song about her parents and how their Dad finally convinced their Mum to go out with him, and it was filled with lush harmonies and wonderful lyrics. The person next to me said she felt there were times when they came across just like The Dixie Chicks, and I could certainly see where she was coming from. Vocally, the sounds being produced feel far more mature than one might expect, but in a very good way indeed, and I knew I had made the right decision in coming over to see her perform as it was a delight. Maybe I could get back to the 'rounds' in the Village and catch some of that set?

I managed to get back just in time to see Adam McGrath try to stand up, and somehow manage to get himself tangled up in the chair which led to John Sutherland’s wife having to sort him out. Adam gives the impression of someone who only really comes alive when he is stood on the stage, so he was not going to let a small matter like that phase him, and promptly told us the story of the time on Stewart Island when he held a young man off the ground by his throat against a wall (it was definitely deserved). This led to him being admonished by an old timer with the words "Never Trouble Trouble Until Trouble Troubles You", which of course then led to the song of the same name. Adam blasted through the number, full of emotion, wearing his heart on his sleeve and far rockier than one would normally expect from a folkie.

John Sutherland is Scottish and far more traditional in his approach, and the contrast between the two performers one after the other was quite incredible. Whereas Adam is full of energy and angst, this was more thoughtful and inviting people in. Then it was time for Being. and a further opportunity to hear Jasmine’s wonderfully delicate vocals, with Josh filling out the sound beneath. It made me think again of just how wonderful this concept was of having three very different artists play off and with each other. That was the end of the set, but the audience were not having a bar of it and were demanding more, and so it was agreed. Adam stood up and told everyone he had been discussing Napalm Death at breakfast, and so here was his version of a song from the classic Scum. A few people looked quite surprised at that, even more so when Adam performed all two seconds of You Suffer and sat back down again! I guess not that many folk lovers also appreciate grindcore. John’s wife, Susan, took the lead on his final number and it was delicate with picked guitar, absolutely gorgeous. Earlier in the day, Josh had told me that Jasmine was a wonderful poet who often performed spoken word, and she ended the set with one of those, which felt like a great finale to the set.

Time was pressing on now, and people were starting to make their way back to the main tent in time for Troy Kingi, who is now halfway through his 10 10 10 project of ten albums in ten different musical styles in ten years. I caught up with him backstage and he was telling me how incredibly nervous he was as this was the first time anyone outside the studio had heard any of the material. He was joined, both on-stage and on the album by Delaney Davidson, and as they walked onto the stage, I had a feeling this was going to be an interesting set. Not only were they both seated, and both wearing sunglasses but the guitar in Troy’s hands was definitely not acoustic and we soon discovered that while Delaney’s looked acoustic that was not how it was going to be treated in anyway. Troy explained to everyone that originally the album was going to be poetry with music, but he discovered he wasn’t very good at poetry, so instead it developed into an album about the different elements between life and death. Troy’s last album, The Ghost of Freddy Cesar, went to #1 in the NZ album charts, so perhaps it was not a surprise that on a Sunday afternoon the main tent was absolutely full of people wondering what he was going to do, but I can pretty much guarantee it was not going to be this.

I have had a few people tell me that this release was going to be a folk album, and while it certainly contains stories and is very different to what he has released previously, this is way heavier than any folk album will ever be. Wearing red top boots, Troy showed no sign at all of any nerves, saying he normally hides inside a 9-piece band, as he and Delaney started with Sleep. Delaney provided strong harmony vocals alongside Troy, whose guitar picking felt far more dynamic with the utilisation of an electric. Although they were both seated, they created a real presence, which was taken to a new level with Call My Name whereby Delaney set off a percussive loop by tapping on his guitar. Troy started this number with his guitar by his side, as he sang the words about going to school (apparently his daughter assisted with the lyrics). It is quite Beatle-ish at times and afterwards he commented it was one of the shortest songs he had ever written as while most of his material comes in at about six minutes in length, this was only about two.

The highlight of the set was Hunt Down Happiness, where they were joined by Chris O’Connor on steel drum percussion. Troy said this number would stand out, and he was quite right, with the screeching of the steel adding to the sheer nastiness of the song which made me think of Dr. John and some of his New Orleans stylings. The music was taken in quite a strange direction with a real edge to it all and managed to bring in both a stoner vibe and Sixties influences. Quite strange to be heard at a folk festival. All the songs he played this afternoon were very much in a rock fashion, often stoner mixing with psychedelia, and I kept wondering to myself what would the traditionalists think of it all?

As soon as Troy finished, I was off again, heading back to the Village. Looking For Alaska had already played in the round and a full hour concert, but here they were back for another. Given that everyone appeared to be at Troy's set, I expected the Village to be half empty, but it was rammed and overflowing, which showed just what impression Amy and Aaron had already made. This afternoon they were again joined by Steve on bass, and also by Krissy from The Eastern on violin (who was told by Amy to just wing it). As soon as I managed to find a space, Steve broke the top string on his bass, but instead of letting it phase him he just retuned the remaining four strings and continued to play it as if it were a standard as opposed his normal five-string. I have long given up trying to be seriously objective when reviewing Amy and Aaron, as I love their music, their songs and their voices, and Amy really was like no-one else here this weekend. It was obvious they could do no wrong as they went from Hine Atarau to Lily, where the addition of the violin was particularly poignant. You Only See Me When You’re Sleeping was more delicate, Where Have You Gone? was almost country and western, but there no time to hear any more as I headed over to see the showcase for the finalists for the Te Kaipuoro Taketake Toa - Best Folk Artist Award, part of the Aotearoa Music Awards.

I was particularly intrigued to see this as one of the finalists was Darren Watson, whose excellent Getting Sober For The End of the World I reviewed last year. With just a stomp box and guitar for company, Darren launched into Self Made, taking us on a journey back to pre-war acoustic blues with passion and power. Although there were times when he slowed it down, his material contained incredible emotion with an almost gospel approach to the vocals. One knows this is material from the heart, from someone who has really lived his life - it all felt incredibly genuine and grounded. The highlight for me was Ernie Abbott, the tale of the caretaker of Wellington Trades Hall who was killed in 1984 when he picked up an abandoned suitcase which turned out to be a bomb. Lyrically and musically, this is incredibly powerful, as it really makes the listener think and be involved with the story. Darren put everything he had into this performance, and it really was just that.

Tattletale Saints are currently trapped in Nashville, so there only two showcase performances tonight, with the other being from You, Me, Everybody. Sometimes referred to as the first NZ Bluegrass supergroup, they were formed by brothers Sam and Laurence Frangos-Rhodes who first came to attention as part of the family group RhodeWorks. Their first song, Wrong Side of the Law, immediately demonstrated that all of the band are really good musicians who link well together, switching solos and melodies between the different instruments and the double bassist changing from picking to bowing as the need arises. The only issue I had is that this is really dark subject matter, telling the story about someone who is going to be hanged for being a murderer, but it did feel really strange being sung by someone who looks so young! Whereas Laurence was lead on the first song, Sam took over on Watch ‘Em Go, which was taken from the new album released over the weekend. This song had a very different feel, and it was obvious here was a group that was very at home with their instruments. Kim Bonnington left the stage so the quartet could perform an instrumental, then returned to take lead on Don’t Hide Me Away. She is a well-known singer and songwriter in her own right. This was a band who are trying to move Bluegrass into more commercial and acceptable areas.

There was a short break and then it was back for the evening showcase. Here each band had a 25-minute slot to show off their wares, and as I had seen all of them play during the course of the weekend, I knew what to expect and was looking forward to it, although that would possibly not be true of everybody else there.

Of course, the main tent was soon filled to over-capacity, and the set started with Aro. Emily and Charles both really enjoy themselves on stage, and soon the tent was filled with their wonderful voices. Huia was their first number, and they weaved their voices together with harmonies and a wall of sound playing against delicate guitar. For me, these guys were one of the highlights of the weekend, with their explanations of which bird had inspired each song, and the meaning behind it. Piwaiwaka is about following the right path, and the contrast between the strong and vibrant voice of Charles and the delicacy of his wife Emily is wonderful. They swap lead roles throughout, and this song really represented what they are all about. The guitar was almost a percussive instrument, providing some support and backdrop, but the melody was all in the vocals. When they left the stage, it was far too soon, as I could have listened to them quite happily for hours but tonight there was too much music to be had and it was time for the next act.

Sadie and Jay were back on the main stage, and tonight they commenced with an acapella number which was far more in keeping with traditional folk and a wonderful introduction to the set. Rachel Miranda Evans then joined them to improvise on violin while Sadie provided double bass and Jay guitar, and then went into Last Man Standing, a political number aimed at Trump, Johnson, and the Australian PM. There were some issues with the sound, and possibly this also impacted what they could hear themselves, as they were not quite as sharp as they had been the other times I had seen. them, The more the set progressed, the confidence obviously grew with the crowd even joining in on choruses, and they would have benefited from more time but sadly that was just possible.

Now it was time again for Troy Kingi and Delaney Davidson, and I must confess to being more than a little anxious as to how well this was going to be received. This afternoon the tent had been virtually full, but not rammed like this, and I could not help but think about the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when Dylan went electric. In truth, Troy is not a famed folk artist, but this is a folk concert so how would everyone take a set which was going to be electric guitars and rock? Troy and Delaney came onto the stage, no chairs tonight, and while Troy had swapped his guitar, he was still playing electric and they soon kicked into Call My Name, with confidence coming through from the way the set had been received in the afternoon. The highlight was again Hunt Down Happiness, which took on a different edge from the afternoon show without the percussion, but still incredibly powerful. Give Me Hell was even more brutal tonight, and as they went into Queens of the Stone Age territory, I really did wonder what everyone was thinking of it all. No need to worry though, as when they left the stage the crowd shouted him back for an encore. Delaney let him return on his own, and he gave the crowd Grandma's Rocket Poem which so many seemed to know the words to. Given that this song was never released as a single, this was really impressive, which shows just how many people have quite rightly fallen in love with Shake That Skinny Ass All The Way To Zygertron.

Now it was time for the announcement of the winner of the Best Folk Artist Award, which went to Tattertale Saints - congratulations to them!

The multi-headed musical beast which is The Eastern then took the stage, but instead of launching straight into a song, Adam explained that he had been talking that day to a couple who recently lost someone who had taken their own life due to the feeling of lack of support around their sexual orientation. This led to Adam teaching the rest of the band a song they had not previously performed just prior to the set as he wanted to provide a tribute, and the passion and emotion coming off the stage was incredible, with Reb’s vocals really shining. Adam explained they had played most of the political songs the day before, so instead they were going to concentrate instead on the drinking and dancing songs, and then they were off.

The Eastern are incredibly tight, powering through material in a way which is both aggressive and embracing, yet all with a total feeling of inclusivity, empathy, and compassion. People were dancing everywhere, with more and more blocking the view behind (brought back memories of me doing the same more than 30 years ago). We were in full-on party mode, as The Eastern were in town and going to rip it up. Sadly, they also had a truncated set, and although everything was now being put ready for Rough Town I was done. Even being told there was a ceilidh taking place was not enough to keep me there, my brain had turned to musical mush.

As I walked through the night, past the stages where I had seen so many amazing artists, with music in the air behind me, I knew this was not the last time I was going to experience this incredible event. Roll on 2022.

Images © Steve Bone

View the full day three gallery here

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


Other Reviews By Kev Rowland

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Following on from the single Pay, which I reviewed a few months back, Blue River Baby (BRBB) are back with the second single from their second album, which is due next year. We find them moving much more into a dub style, with Ree Thomson’s wonderfully clear vocals very much the centre of attention.
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