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Gig Review: Smokefreerockquest National Finals @ Q Theatre, Auckland - 24/09/2022

25 Sep 2022 // A review by Kev Rowland

I must admit I had to look up the address for Q Theatre on Google as I had never heard of it but having found it, I realized I must have been past it hundreds of times as it is right next door to Auckland Town Hall. Tonight, I was at the finals for Smokefree Rock Quest, the most important school competition for music in Aotearoa, and it would not surprise me if it was one of the longest running in the world as they were celebrating 35 years of the event. I can even remember one of my daughters competing many years ago and apparently more than 800 acts entered this year for what was the first physical event since 2019 with tonight being the ten who made it through the rounds held nationwide.

I wrote this review “live”, capturing my thoughts on each of the acts as the evening progressed, which means I had no idea who the winners would be until the very end. Although every music writer (and judge) attempts to be as objective as possible, everyone is subjective to a lesser or greater extent. Interestingly, I was sat next to the music teacher of one of the acts involved, and we agreed on what we believed to be the #1 solo/duo act and the top 3 bands, but would that be the same as the judges?

As is normal for me when attending gigs, I got there early and was soon chatting to Jessie of Ekko Park, who was there as part of the judging panel, about the amazing show they put on recently at Tuning Fork and how much we are both looking forward to the event being hosted by Written By Wolves at the beginning of November. It was then pointed out to me that there was wine, so I grabbed some and sat down at a table where I was soon joined by The Jehts who wanted to know who I was (an old man looking out of place) and then peppered me with loads of questions about how to make it in the music scene which was really cool and great to hear so much enthusiasm. As soon as they left, they were replaced by Stay In It, who also were asking questions and talking about their band. I then spent time chatting with Jared from Dead Favours before we were told it was time to make our way into the auditorium. The first three acts tonight were performing in the solo/duo section, with the bands to follow afterwards.

First up were Grace & Leigh from Kirsten School and Albany High School, a duo with one on acoustic guitar and the other on keyboards with both providing vocals. Their pop/folk approach was infectious, with their voices blending well together. There was no rush and certainly no sign of nerves from being the first act on, and even though they only had eight minutes they were making an impression right from the beginning and the accompaniment was designed to provide all the focus on the vocals. For their second number they did something I don’t think I have seen in the many hundreds of gigs I have attended over the years, with them sharing the same electric piano, which provided for a wonderful visual image while musically they were linked. On this song they swapped lead vocals, taking turns in providing harmonies for the other and all I could keep thinking was just how impressive they were. Their vocals are sublime even though they can provide an edge when required, their songs are wonderful, with the accompaniment allowing them to shine. The restraint they showed, combined with the passion felt far beyond their years. Whatever happens tonight, we are going to be hearing a great deal more from this duo, I am sure.

Next up was Micah from Mt Maunganui College, who was playing electric guitar, but also had a keyboard and laptop next to her so she could set up loops to provide a modern pop and soul sound. She has a vocal style which is warm and broad, and again I had to remind myself I was listening to someone who was still at school as opposed to a seasoned performer. I was also really pleased that I was not a judge tonight as there were obviously going to be a great deal of styles on show and it was going to be a nightmare to score objectively. Micah kept building loops, with her vocals always front and centre, making it sound as if she was a full band. The next song saw her up the tempo and develop a reggae style within the pop/soul. She was incredibly comfortable with the technology she was using, and she was already into performer mode as she encouraged the audience to clap along in time and even when she stopped the crowd kept going. She called out to the crowd in between singing and got a huge reaction.

Zac and Maddison were next, from Garin College and Waimea College in Nelson, who apparently used to complete against each other at different country competitions so decided to join forces. Zac was playing lead guitar, Maddison electric piano, and while Zac started on lead vocals Maddison soon joined her voice with his and then took lead for the second. I was again having a hard time understanding just how young they are, as apparently Madison is just 14 while Zac is not much older although he sounds as if he has been in the music business all his life and even gave us a perfectly formed guitar solo. For anyone at all interested in country music this was immense (I have already realized that just three bands in I have run out of superlatives). Zac switched to acoustic for their second number which again started with Zac on lead before Maddison joined in, powering over the top. They also have a striking image with Zac sporting a wonderful hat, and even if they were 10 years older one can imagine them being dressed the same. If they are performing material like this at their age, which was written specifically for the competition, one can only wonder what they will be doing in a few years’ time.

While the judges made their impossible decision (my vote was for the last act), we then had guest band Haven. This trio have twice finished runners-up in the competition and have kept playing since then. One can tell they have been gigging a lot as they are extremely confident onstage, with singer Ryan wearing his bass in a style very similar to Mark King of Level 42. This is high octane rock and roll, packed full of energy and pop hooks, fitting stylistically very much with the classic Kiwi sounds of the likes of Th’ Dudes and Hello Sailor. For their third song (they are special guests after all) they started slow, but it gradually built into a pop rock number with twin vocals which was inviting, while they were also using the twin effects of mini breaks and the bass following the guitar line, so much so that musically there were times when they reminded me of Café Fistfight. Ryan and Tyrone swapped some dance steps in front of the drums, showing yet again how much they have been playing together as there is the confidence which only comes from sharing the same stage. Tyrone took over lead vocals for the next song, which commenced with him accompanying himself until Harrison hit the drums and we were off on an energetic blaster. They amped it up for the last song and while they were playing the judges came back to their seats next to me, so who was going to be the winner?

Now we were onto the band section and coming onto the stage was an eight-piece outfit, Mystery from Alfriston College. As well as a rhythm section and guitar, there were two keyboard players and three singers and it is difficult to realise the people in the band met in music class and are from years 9-13, so the youngest was only 13 years old! The singers were so into it, grooving and moving right from the beginning, sharing lead vocals as well as harmonizing while the driving Motown sound was getting lots of reaction from the audience. The drummer was hitting really hard, the bass was fluid, the keyboards were providing choppy melody while the guitarist was providing lead licks, then there were the voices. One of the keyboard players took the opportunity to dance across the stage getting everyone to join in with the clapping, and I was so glad I had attended tonight as there is no doubt we are going to be seeing and hearing a lot from this next generation of players, and Mystery are from Manukau which is just down the road from me! Full of confidence and ability here is a band who we are surely going to hearing on the radio in the near future.

Their There are also from Mt Maunganui College, meaning one school had a finalist in the solo/duo category and in the band category, which shows just want wonderful opportunities and teachers they have there. These guys are a trio with female lead singer on acoustic guitar, a bassist providing harmony vocals and a drummer. While the singer was excellent, there was something about their sound which was slightly out of balance as while it she was slow and gentle, the bass and drums were quite a bit heavier. She switched to an electric for the second, and although this had a more complex arrangement than their first one it worked much better, especially when they got to the chorus. Although they got off to a slow start, I was now very interested in what they were doing, and I could see how they had made it through to this stage. There is definitely something about these guys, with all three having the chops (the bass solo was perfectly formed and fitting in the arrangement), and they are another who have practiced the stop/start action and getting it right. It must be so hard for these guys to get up in front of hundreds of people and nail it in just two songs and my hat goes off to all those taking part tonight.

Next up was Bright Sky from multiple schools in Wellington, and apparently, they were the youngest band in the finals but had also been playing together for five years, forming when one of them was just eight years old! They are a quintet, with drums, bass, guitar, singer, and sax, the first appearance of that instrument tonight. This is pop with some jazz elements, and perhaps unsurprisingly they are confident on the stage, but again the balance was off, and while the rhythm section were driving, the bass felt too filthy for what they were doing, with the guitar too much in the background. For the next song, the sax player switched to keyboards, and while the rehearsed jump got a load of cheers from the audience, they did not seem to be at the same level at what had become previously. Mind you, they are all incredibly young and there is still a long road in front of them, and then the guitarist opened up with a blistering solo at the front of the stage and I could not help but wonder why he had been hiding that most of the set as it was great!

Now we had Stay In It from Palmerston North Girls High School, one of the bands who had been talking to me beforehand. They had also been in the final of the sister event, Smokefree Tangata Beats, the previous night (where they finished second): they were in finals on two consecutive nights so were already playing the circuit! This was wonderful classic soul, with everyone singing, while instrumentation-wise we had drums, keyboards, and bass while the lead singer had a sax around her neck. I was mightily impressed, and I noticed the judges were thoroughly enjoying this as well. The arrangement had loads of space within it, with a perfectly formed sax solo allowing them to shift the mood, while the four-way female harmony vocals were a sheer delight. The bass combines with the staccato keyboards and drums to create a platform for the wonderful vocals which were like velvet placed over the top. Then halfway through they suddenly went into double time, loads of vocals, and they had a hook in the middle which was insanely catchy and had everyone singing along – for me their second number was easily the song of the night so far as it had everything, and I just wanted to get up and dance while singing. We ended with some vocal gymnastics, and I was blown away by what I had just heard. These girls are still at school remember!

Next up were The Jehts, from different schools in Christchurch, and beforehand they were telling me they were classic rock, so I was looking forward to this. We were soon transported back into the Seventies, and I was definitely now in my element. Somewhat unusually for a rock band, only the guitarist was male, and the girls were out to show they can rock as hard as anyone. Some licks were kicked out and we were off into a band influenced solidly by the likes of Bad Company, a rhythm section which were locked in both to each other and the guitar while the singer was strutting the stage with an image and swagger straight from the Robert Plant playbook. This was just so much fun, with a singer who not only had the confidence but had the chops with great vocals while the band were tight (I need to call out some incredible basslines). They were definitely in my Top Three of the bands, but how to gauge them against Stay In It and Mystery as they are all so different? For me they had the edge just due to the way they performed, the quality of the songs, and a singer who had the audience where she wanted them – no need for a microphone stand as she was always in motion.

This Machine Means Murder are from Western Springs College, and I was sat next to their teacher so was intrigued to see what they were going to be like, especially as they described their music as post hardcore. Two guitars, bass, drums, and vocals, and they said at the beginning that they were no fun, and they soon went into a riffed attack which had more in common with grindcore than anything else, before they slowed it all down, and just had drums and bass. The guitars were being picked, the vocals were sparse, and then they ripped it up again – it was almost as if there were two bands on the stage, one which was meandering and did not have an idea what they were doing while the other was intensely focused. It certainly did not feel the right song for a competition like this as while I can imagine it working as part of a lengthy set, in this environment there was not enough time for the highs and lows to be effective. I am all for contrast, which is massively important in music, but this was more psychotic than dramatic. They only played one song as it was lengthy, but I think they missed the opportunity tonight.

The final act were Smoked Paprika from Hillcrest High School, featuring two guitarists, bassist, keyboard player and drummer and at the beginning of the set everyone apart from the drummer stood on the front of the stage stamping their feet in time with the kick drum, which was certainly effective. I had the impression they were going to go into doom, but instead they are a pop rock band with a powerful bass. One of the guitarists is also the singer, but although they were effective there was something about the arrangement which again felt a little off as it was not quite together. The singer then put down his guitar and picked up a sax, as they and slowed it down and allowed him to provide a solo which saw them move much more into a jazz rock fusion direction with a short guitar solo following afterwards. The music is choppy, and for their second number they pulled soul into the JRF mix and even had some acapella moments. Whereas the first song felt somewhat disconnected they were much more together on the second which just demonstrates at how difficult it is for everyone to hit the mark with just eight minutes to prove their worth.

They were the last of the acts, so it was time for the judges to leave and make their deliberations. I had no doubt that the top three bands were Mystery, Stay In It and The Jehts, with the latter being my personal favourite, but what would the judges say?

This meant it was time for the last guest act while deliberations were taking place, There’s A Tuesday who won the solo/duo competition in 2019 but are now a quartet with twin female vocalists who both played guitar, plus drums and bass. This is pop rock, with some nice vocals and hooks, with the two singers blending well together. I would have liked to have had their voices higher in the mix, as the drums were quite overpowering at times, especially when they were singing wistfully, and it would be interesting to hear just the two singers without the rhythm section, which is how I believe they used to play. It showed the talent of the bands onstage tonight that these guys did not stand out, which is strange given they have been playing as a unit for much longer. The bassist from Havoc was playing with them, so I do not know if he is a new member or a fill-in for the usual bassist, but he added some wonderful lines and complimentary notes, yet when it was just Nat and Minnie there was something quite special.

Now it was the moment we had all been waiting for, would I agree with the very difficult decisions the judges had to make tonight? See for yourselves.

1st Placed Band:
Smoked Paprika, Hillcrest High School

1st Placed Solo/Duo:
Zac And Maddison, Garin College and Waimea College

2nd Placed Band:
Stay In It, Palmerston North Girls High School

3rd Placed Band:
The Jehts, Christchurch Girls' High School, Christchurch Boys' High School, Avonside Girls' High School

2nd Placed Solo/Duo:
Grace & Leigh, Albany Senior High School and Kristin School

Musicianship Award:
The drummer from Their There, Mt Maunganui College

Rockshop Electronic Performance Award:
Micah, Mt Maunganui College

Smokefree Best Vocals Award:
Grace & Leigh, Albany Senior High School and Kristin School

M Best Song Award:
Stay In It,  Palmerston North Girls High School (first song)

APRA Lyric Award:
Cindy Xiong, St Andrew's College

Congratulations to everyone who took part tonight as it was an amazing evening with so many different styles. The music industry is in safe hands with the next generation, and I am sure that we are going to hear a lot more from some of these in the future. Remember, as well as solo success for the likes of Anika Moa and Bic Runga, this event has been a steppingstone for future members of OpShop, Kora, Evermore, Die! Die! Die!, Goodnight Nurse, Broods and many others.

Of course, the music on the way out was past winners Alien Weaponry, as if it could be anyone else…given that in 2016, they became the only band ever to win the national finals of both Smokefree Rockquest and Smokefree Pacifica Beats.

Photo Credit: Chontalle Musson  for SFRQ


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