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Gig Review: Homegrown 2024 @ Wellington Waterfront - 16/03/2024 Part 1

17 Mar 2024 // A review by Danica Bryant

By some miracle, Homegrown 2024 hits a home run and finds Welly on an infamous good day this Saturday, 16th March. That sun is blazing down as the fairground rides and colourful outfits roll out onto the waterfront. The line-up is stacked, the mood is right, and it's going to be a Homegrown to remember.

Although the food trucks and buskers are up bright and early, the festival begins in earnest at 1pm. At the Lagoon Stage, Sean Hill faces the challenge of getting the first attendees up and moving. His DJ set smoothly blends Aotearoa's favourite international hits, from throwback tracks by Sade, Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Missy Elliot to recent bangers by Charli XCX, Drake and Tyla. As the audience swaggers in, the music envelops them in the Homegrown spirit. It bubbles and pops, liquid smooth with dynamic risers and dubstep-style drops.

Behind Hill, the giant screens display a psychedelia of vaporwave deserts, wild animals and interstellar exploration — just the right imagery for music so out of this world. On occasion, Hill interrupts to hype up the crowd, skilled as a host thanks to his work in radio, but for the most part it’s a seamless non-stop house and electropop mix. His confidence and charisma gloss over the odd rhythmic misstep, so that even this alert afternoon audience barely notice. Seeing a DJ in action like this is a true thrill. Sean Hill is completely locked in, unwavering in his commitment to a relentless beat.

Next up is Cassie Henderson, who sprints out to a rush of warbling synths and sparkling guitars. Home videos and bright feminine visuals flash behind her, as her raspy, bold vocal introduce the track Complacent. Henderson's set is an even mix of live instrumentation and digital backing track, which lifts the energy and gives the music a sleek pop sheen. Although she's a solo artist, she performs with two bandmates, whose backing vocals complement hers well by adding warm, heartfelt depth. Her climactic notes soar unbelievably high, but she does seem to struggle somewhat in her lower range. Nonetheless, the pure heart Henderson puts into each line is awe-inspiring.

The ballad Ghost gets some crowd singalong action, but there's no way to keep up when she lets rip on this one with her growling, guttural timbre. This original material is the most interesting. Cuts like Burns Brighter, which she dedicates to her first heartbreak as it took place here in Poneke, utterly shimmer with sincere emotion. This Love similarly shines with its Swiftian lyrics and melodies. However, considering Henderson later brings out her own guitar to play, this song may have benefited from its prominent acoustics played live instead of from a recording. The set is also surprisingly heavy on covers for a festival centered around local music. Whilst it's nice to hear Henderson's takes on Matchbox Twenty, Natalie Imbruglia and Florence and the Machine, shifting the weight so much towards other artist's work suggests her own line-up could do with some more energetic material to carry a festival setting. Regardless, Cassie Henderson's performance ultimately feels dynamic, engaging and earnest. Her songwriting is enthralling, and she seems right at home in the big, bright lights, showing plenty of promise as an upcoming Kiwi music great.

Over on the City Stage, Riiki Reid enters in full pop star mode. She welcomes her audience "to the dark side", where she and her back-up dancers are dressed in stylish all-black. Reid's music is pounding, proud pop, reminiscent of acts like Tate Mcrae and Dua Lipa, who she's clearly taken notes from on their stage characters. Her breezy attitude paints her as incredibly calm and collected, as if her sultry singing and wink-nudge commentary in between songs takes no effort at all. The carefully constructed choreography is a welcome addition to the set, powerful and tight, although it occasionally sacrifices the live vocal as Reid uses a hand microphone rather than a less compromising headset. Even when the dancers abandon her for sparser songs like Good Times, she is as confident as ever, her fluid dance moves dripping with sass.

At times, Reid's lyrics are hard to make out, partly due to enunciation, partly due to a low vocal mix, and at some points partly due to earpiece issues which she coolly pushes through. Reid also bravely tests out some unreleased material on the crowd. Better Life emphasises a gritty 90's guitar riff and punchy gang vocals. Sore Eyes seems destined to be a hit, a track about "the hottest person you've ever seen" made unforgettable by its clapping percussion, thick chunky bass and catchy hook. Her 2019 release High Heights is an obvious audience favourite thanks to its summery sound, which generates an enthusiastic call and response. But there's time to slow things down too, with a collection of songs from Reid's most recent project Skin. These tunes highlight a more vulnerable, stripped back style. And yet through it all, the set's most memorable moment is undoubtedly when Reid whips out an electric guitar for Meet You. Cinematic, washed-out vocal snippets flood the speakers before its slick indie grooves give way to a "dance party" cover of September's Cry For You. Whilst Riiki Reid pulls out all the classic pop star gimmicks, it never feels contrived, rather only a natural extension of her artistry. That stage persona never slips.

Church & AP are in hot demand next on the Lagoon Stage. Their brash, over-the-top personalities are an absolute treat. The trio shout in unison, joking and playing off one another constantly. Free of any instruments, they work the space, feeding off the crowd's suddenly wild energy as the drinks (and more) kick in. The group take on Savage and Scribe's classic Not Many. generating crowd singalongs before masterfully stringing together a finely woven set of their original work. Church & AP's hard-hitting rap beats make expert use of sampling. Iconic hits melt into their own tracks with ease and receive fresh, slick flows over quirky digital production. Their lyrics rely on cornerstones of local pop culture, from referencing Brian Tamaki to comical, catchy 420-themed jingles. Any second of silence is interjected with a "Chee hoo!" holler, eliciting a sense of closeness in the audience.

The bouncing chorus of Magic Johnson is an especially exciting number, taking on the rap genre's common bragadocious themes, but using the performer's relatable personalities to keep it firmly tongue in cheek. It's also particularly interesting when the group dip into R&B, singing a number which riffs of My Neck My Back and Gold Digger and shows another side to their sound. Moreover, they mix an overall Polynesian feel to traditional rap to truly stand out from the pack. It gives a real sense of emotion and local connection to hip-hop's lyrics of resilience, power and confidence. They elicit some major laughs with a hilarious fakeout promising their “most personal song” to get the crowd “in their feels”, which turns out to be a breakneck, bellowed ode to drug deals and making cash. It appears off the cuff, but seasoned concertgoers will recognise and respect how tightly rehearsed this set must be, to make the casual atmosphere seem so polished. If there was a roof to raise at the Lagoon Stage, Church & AP would have torn it off from the first few minutes of their killer performance.

Kaylee Bell’s band arrive on the next stage over to massive fanfare, all decked out in swish white outfits and cowboy boots. Take It To The Highway comes in guns a-blazing, an explosive country tune with booming drums and an electric guitar solo to boot. Although the occasional transition plays through a backing track, the five-piece band deliver most of the set live. Bell’s lilted delivery leans into Americana aesthetics and timeless stories of love, heartbreak and self-discovery. Her faux Southern accent does feel somewhat out of place at Homegrown, but given country music's controversial purity culture, Bell can't be blamed for finding the middle ground between her Timaru childhood and her Nashville sound. She's big on audience participation, frequently engaging fans with call-and-response whoops and cries that keep the energy high. Although her music is mostly faithful to country, it implements strong pop features, through nostalgic coming-of-age style synths and stadium rock choruses. Bell's rhythms are punchy, and her lyrics keep their finger on the pop culture pulse, such as her spin on James Johnston collaboration Same Songs which shouts out Little Big Town, Britney Spears and Old Crow Medicine Show.

The set never eases its foot on the brake, keeping the vibe high with tracks like When Summer Rolls Around. To some degree, this does create a lack of peaks and valleys for the songs to breathe. But there's no doubt Bell knows how to write a banger. Current radio single Life Is Tough (But So Am I) is elevated by a guest appearance from collaborator NAVVY, whose vocals are initially shaky, but the duo’s undeniable chemistry pulls it together for a romping chorus. When Bell ditches the guitar in such moments, she’s just as strong, free from the mic to sing in a way that simply commands the stage. Attendees won't forget Kaylee Bell in a hurry, as she leaves them with the jaunty Boots N All, teaching them to line dance while she's at it.

Then it's all high drama for Avantdale Bowling Club, who burst into a chaotic brass and percussion introduction for their frontman Tom Scott. This act is a unique blend of jazz, hip hop and electronica, and they’re the talk of the town for a reason. Over dreamy keys and rumbling big band drums, Scott spits out hooks inspired by fierce traditional rap, thriving in the contrast of the far more classically oriented instrumentals. The set opens with Years Gone By, which showcases deeply personal lyrics about Scott's family history and hidden insecurities. Noticeably, a double bass in place of the usual bass guitar makes the sound much deeper, moodier and unique. The latter half of this song sees the band members chanting, providing soulful backing melodies, and transitioning to warping Afrobeats percussion and choppy, affected vocal snippets.

Avantdale Bowling Club's prominent political commentary shines in Pusherman. Scott does not mince words, speaking with perfect clarity about gangs, stolen land, and the lack of value assigned to Maori beliefs. By this point it's clear Avantdale Bowling Club are not a show so much as an experience. Behind the performers, colourful, distorted visuals of 60's dancefloors and 90's VHS tapes give viewers the goosebumps with their eerie sense of nostalgia. Scott dives and tumbles across the stage, always in motion, always in sync with the sound. However, it's somewhat uncomfortable when he stumbles through an early verse and admits his lack of memory is due to heavy drug influence throughout the day. It's of course not out of character for a music festival, but this error would have been better left unsaid, especially because it darkens the already sad undertone to Scott's lines about addiction on Rent 2 High. Nonetheless, he fully commits to the performance art, giving the occasional eccentric character voice and heightening the personality that makes the music so strong.

The group's songs repeatedly collapse into cacophonous endings, seeing Scott stomp across the stage, shouting and throwing his mic stand around. It's like the music simulates the sonic end of the world. On Pocket Lint, Scott's breath control is especially impressive, with its demanding, racing verses. Unfortunately, at this point the sound system begins to experience serious issues, completely muting the group several times. But this is how Avantdale Bowling Club make their musicianship indisputable. To soothe the upset audience, Scott performs acapella to the front row. His band begin a spontaneous percussion number, keeping them clapping and building to an improvised raw, unplugged set that is more captivating than ever. It's a true feat to witness and an astounding show of adaptation. This act lives in the moment, for better or for worse. Any witness to Avantdale Bowling Club is guaranteed to leave with an intense and powerful impression.

Nightfall brings a teeth-chattering wind, but it's no match for the City Stage crowd, who are absolutely buzzing by the time Bic Runga arrives. They sing along to every word that leaves her lips. Runga starts her set with the roar of a harmonica, and her voice is in top shape, performing legendary tunes like Something Good and Bursting Through. She glows under the stage lights, her joy palpable. The lyrics of Get Some Sleep feel particularly emotional tonight, as the exhausted but energetic audience smile along to the call of, “I do believe I might be having fun”. Runga’s guitar playing is clean, and she occasionally toys with effects to spice up the style further. In a live setting, the structural creativity of her songwriting is especially on display. it's littered with infectious pop hooks, which don't always follow the typical verse-chorus structure but stick in your head all the same. Furthermore, Runga’s willingness to play her early material feels deeply moving, mixing the old with a new in a way that melds her past self to the incredibly resilient woman she has become.

She Left On A Monday offers up some country twang thanks to the use of what Runga believes is the first ever lap steel played at Homegrown. Its slower pace emphasises the dark lyrical storytelling. Dream a Dream shows off a high, honeyed falsetto scat, which defines the song’s whimsical and wide-eyes feel, and coolly plays off the band's laughing false starts. Tonally, its chords are striking, never going where you expect and bringing out a sharp, almost dissonant edge in the guitars. The band also skillfully navigate a tempo shift in its final moments, building dynamics to an incredible high with skittering drums and bass grooves. Election Night is another gorgeous standout, a romantic yet charged 2002 cut that sounds more gritty and raw in today's political climate. Its thrashing rock chorus is a set highlight, creating a heavier sound with the bass booming through the speakers before juxtaposing against the more mellow yet unforgettable Kiwi classic Sway. Then for her final song, the band abandon Runga and leave her completely solo on stage. She gives an intimate performance of Drive that hangs in the air long after she's gone.

At long last, TEEKS arrives right on time to his headlining slot, and his welcome is incredibly dramatic. Throbbing bass and crashing drums giving him the true star treatment. Backed by a massive band and live vocalists, his voice has a gospel tone, rich and warm-bodied on opener Oil and Water. His stage presence is casually compelling, keeping a cool exterior that makes it impossible to take your eyes off of him. The screens displays underwater imagery, as comforting and tranquil as the music feels. TEEKS’ R&B style is sensual and soulful, his honeyed voice at the forefront of the rhythmic instrumentation. Bright guitars with a dreamlike quality to their slow strums craft this magic on the sexy If You Were Mine, whilst clean, crystalline licks ground the simple yet striking Into You leading into its 60's-feeling bridge. Throughout the performance, the arrangements frequently turn focus to the talents of TEEKS’ co-stars. It's the right decision when there’s a whopping seven accompanists to show off. There are songs empahasising half-time drum solos, just as there are songs to show off the deep, warm melodies of his back-up singers. Their faultlessly synced dance moves provide an extra spark. Elsewhere, the glorious basslines cook up that spiritual warmth beneath each of TEEKS' songs. Each number demands a fresh rhythm, with the drums moving from swung tempos to filmlike flourishes and pumping pop beats.

Whilst much of the material covers topics like love and sexuality, there’s also a thread of political activism. On the surface, Wash Over Me is simply about a river. But tonight, TEEKS reclaims it as a symbol of indigenous freedom. "From the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free", he declares to thunderous applause, calling for the end of capitalist, colonialist and patriarchal society. Even if this crowd is likely to stumble down the road to McDonalds right after the show, this courage and intent adds true purpose to TEEKS' already highly emotional sound. Unavoidably, Gaza is today's elephant in the room. Here we celebrate a beautiful festival, deep within the city of parliament where legal changes cause an increasing divide between our people and endanger the same artists putting on tonight's show. Yet it is nothing compared to the war tearing through much of the world. There's room later in TEEKS' set for the big hits, and indeed, they receive a loving response from his doting fans. The audience simmers softly until the jazzy piano introduces his remarkable waiata Never Be Apart, and they can sing their hearts out to its majestic melodies. But that charged introduction to Wash Over Me is where TEEKS displays the purpose and bravery that makes the very best musicians. Ultimately, it takes a truly powerful performer to hold a late night crowd’s attention through more ballad-heavy material, and TEEKS is that performer. He leaves Homegrown with the City Stage melting in the palm of his hand.

At least at this end of the waterfront, this year's Homegrown fired on all cylinders. Concertgoers treated one another kindly, celebrating the festival's much-needed sense of community. The environment provided a beautiful (albeit cold!) setting, the schedules ran smoothly, the staff went above and beyond to support attendees, and for the most part the sound was on point. Heading home from a day like this, it's hard to deny the event's power. It's days like Homegrown you're reminded why Wellington claims the title of the coolest little capital, and equally, why we are in so many ways, so lucky to live in Aotearoa.

Photo Credits (in order from top to bottom)

Cassie Henderson, photographed by Katie-Lee Webster
Riiki Reid, photographed by Katie-Lee Webster
Church & AP, photographed by Brad Miller / Islay Imagery
Kaylee Bell, photographed by Katie-Lee Webster
Bic Runga, photographed by Stella Gardiner / Stella Gardiner Photo
TEEKS, photographed by Katie-Lee Webster
Crowd Shot, photographed by Stella Gardiner / Stella Gardiner Photo

Photo Gallery 1
Photo Gallery 2


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