Graham Reid | | 7 min read
As happened in the Eighties, it has become fashionable again – especially among those who don't live here or recent refugees who've had some road to Damascus enlightenment about bucolic provincial life – to knock Auckland as a city where the traffic is terrible, houses are unaffordable, public transport is woeful and so on.
Some of this is true . . . but it is a city with more than 1.65 million residents (and thousands of guests each day) so it does have something going for it. Not the least that population supports a diverse arts, food, cultures and music scenes.
Late last year -- thanks to the agency of Mark Roach, the Auckland City Council, Recorded Music New Zealand and APRA -- Auckland was recognised as one of the international cities of music by UNESCO and we residents see the evidence all the time.
All the major and many minor international acts come here (and often go nowhere else in the country) and this past weekend when Auckland celebrated its anniversary weekend under punishingly hot skies we enjoyed a free Sunday evening concert by the Auckland Symphony Orchestra on the waterfront (with the best fireworks display I've seen in the country, Mr Dotcom's one notwithstanding) and then yesterday it was the annual Laneway festival which put on more than two dozen acts from new names (Polyester, Wax Chattels and more) to big internationals (The War on Drugs, Mac DeMarco, Father John Misty and others) and locals who are now internationals (Aldous Harding, Baynk).
It was a wonderful day out in beautiful, shady Albert Park in the central city – we got the bus in, took eight minutes – where there were also decent and diverse food options, well managed alcohol sites and, mercifully, numerous toilets, free water and sunscreen stations.
It is a massive undertaking and I'd take my hat off to the organisers if my nose wouldn't get burned.
Auckland might have been celebrating itself but this is a culturally diverse city like no other in the country with a lot to celebrate.
And at Laneway to a soundtrack which touched on many styles.
We were early enough to catch the first act of the day, locals Wax Chattels who delivered a thrilling cacophony of declamatory, sci-fi influenced noise from keyboards, drums and hugely distorted but percussive bass. They were quite rightly very well received by the small audience at the Thunderdome stage – actually just narrow, treelined Alfred Street in the university precinct.
They may have only released one single – Gillian – but already they look poised to take on the world. And the world should be very afraid.
An hour later on the same site – and due to a line-up shuffle – was their polar opposite: the finger-picking acoustic music of sensitive singer-songwriter Julie Byrne from New York whose cow-eyed folk was a balm to frayed ears but, after a while – and an interlude where she appeared to be silently centring herself as her accompanist of synths offers wafts of beats and wooshes – it tended to get very samey.
Still, you don't often have Kahlil Gibran quoted in the 21st century so . . .
Ninety minutes later I caught the tail end of Die! Die! Die! who reaffirmed to devastating effect that the Thunderdome was aptly named. With almost militaristic precision they delivered their sonic explosion, and I wished I had seen more.
But I had been delayed by wanting to catch young Billie Eilish (age 16) who at 2.30 pulled the first huge crowd of the day to the Rotunda Stage.
The place was packed, she came on late and I was massively underwhelmed.
Before a sea of hands and phone-cameras she threw herself about (she can't dance), got breathless, had the good fortune that her audience would sing large portions of her stop-start hip-hop/rock songs for her. And, because she courts controversy, got the audience to shout “Suck a dick” which is probably very risque if you are her age or at your first Laneway when you can drink legally.
For my money Billie Eilish was an extremely modest vocal talent and when I returned after a snatch of Die! Die! Die! there had been an noticeable attrition of her crowd.
To be fair though, it was about 30 degrees and there wasn't much shade other than around the periphery.
The day was hot, for me she was not.
Of more musical interest and with a more engaging stage personality was Sylvan Esso who – despite suffering a cold she said – delivered her accomplished electro-pop to a very appreciative crowd on the Fountain Stage.
First up on that stage had been locals Polyester who are early in their career and whose indie-pop harks back to early Eighties funk-pop in places and early Smiths at other times. They have a debut album coming soon but one would hope that their sometimes tuneless tunes are given more punch in the vocals which were often lacklustre and uncommitted when you knew a good song was there for the taking. Early days though.
At an event like a Laneway the ordinary like Billie Eilish will always be found wanting in the comparison with the extraordinary, and her fellow American Moses Sumney who played the same stage an hour later her was one of the highlights and revelations of the day.
With a soaring falsetto often heavily echoed and delayed, he conjured up ethereal states, embarked on improvised scat vocals, at one point with his small but sharp band brought to mind the jazz excursions of Weather Report, but also cut back to sounds which referred to New Orleans funk and even a blues holler filtered through 21st century technology.
If ever an artist made you want to go and listen to more of their music it was the exceptional Moses Sumney and you only hope he will return to play in a theatre or auditorium.
The same was true for Aldous Harding who was also outstanding and whose music hushed (most) of the audience she pulled to the long and wide space in front of the Princes Street Stage.
Her audience was smaller than I had expected but she was up against the end of Connan Mockasin's quirky set (more of that shortly) and The Internet.
But she was a compelling stage presence and if her music and presentation (full of facial nuance and small gestures) would seem to struggle in a large outdoor setting, if you were close to the front it was impossible to tear yourself away.
On the same stage a few hours previous was one of my favourites of the day, Australian Amy Shark who might have delivered more straight-ahead rock but she also knew how to sell every song through gesture and eye contact with the audience, and she looked genuinely glad to be there.
Her song Home (?), which seemed to be new, was a stone-cold winner.
Another whose music I am seeking out more.
She was one of the highlights of the day . . . as were Slowdive towards the end of the night whose widescreen shoegaze-cum-ambient guitar rock has undergone some deft refinement since their re-formation. Quite exceptional, if a little old school for some tastes I am sure.
Elsewhere on the day Perth's Pond impressed with their psychedelic rock, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever delivered very powerful widescreen rock of considerable density, (Sandy) Alex G was pleasant in a Wilco-lite kind of way and Badbadnotgood received much acclaim for their often retro-fusion jazz which, to these ears anyway, did not sound much different from that made by graduates of any decent jazz school.
And that brings us neatly to local hero Connan Mockasin whose music I have desperately tried to like or at least understand, but frankly I don't get the appeal.
I have no doubt he is gifted and certainly is much respected by many peers, but once again I found his set uncommitted and self-satisfied. It was often hard to tell the noodling around and detuning of his guitar from whatever song he might be playing, and when he invited a woman on to whistle she was received with rapturous applause (which suggests we set a very low bar) and as he ambled around he encouraged her just to keep going for a while.
It was another shapeless set, and when he covered La De Das and George Harrison songs it hardly matters what guests he had on stage (a veritable team of hand wavers for the later) it was a gesture rather than an effort.
People around me were right into it at the start, by 10 minutes in they were all talking and one guy shouted at a girl, “Which one's Connor [sic]?” She pointed to the guy hidden under a wide-brimmed hat and he said, “Legend”.
So there you go.
I remain unpersuaded about Connan/Connor Mockasin's particular genius on the evidence of this showing.
Mac Demarco (who had Mockasin and Moses Sumney on stage) proved the virtue of songs which engage and uplift an audience, as did Father John Misty and, closing the night, The War on Drugs (although anyone of age who didn't whisper “Waterboys” at a few points wasn't listening).
Of Bonobo I can attest to very little, in the 10 minutes I watched there was little of any consequence happening, a woman came on and sang inaudibly and then little of consequence started again. Pleasantly ambient, utterly ignorable what I caught.
There was more and better – Anderson.Paak and the Free Nationals brought everything from allusions to Afro-funk and Sly Stone to their energetic hip-hop set, Wolf Alice rocked – and of course much was missed because of overlaps.
All up however – from Wax Chattels to The War on Drugs, this was a terrific day out in the Park.
Quote of the day however went to locals Melodownz who in a hip-hop set which was sometimes excellent but at other times geographically, politically and linguistically confused (accents from Kiwi to Jamaican to gangsta) announced “The revolution will not be televised, it'll be live streamed”.
That's either ironic or a very gross misunderstanding of Gil Scott-Heron.
Still, it was delivered with such conviction that people applauded.
And now it is on through numerous other international acts coming to this city before the much anticipated Auckland City Limits day (Beck, Grace Jones etc).
The rest of the country can say what it likes about this place, but I love my city.