Graham Reid | | 10 min read
Often the openers are artists on the cusp of making a name for themselves but have to play to what must seem depressingly small audiences. As the famous Hertz slogan said, “When you are only No. 2, you try harder”.
At this year's excellent Auckland City Limits, the local openers – Jed Parsons and band, Jess B and crew, Alien Weaponry – gave no indication that they were phased by the small numbers they drew. In fact, unlike some others who commanded huge crowds but delivered fairly perfunctory performances, they seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves. Each in their own way.
Parsons – who will doubtless soon not be referred to as “Mel Parsons' cousin” – won a Radio Hauraki band battle competition to secure the slot (against a large number of contenders we imagine) and told cringe-worthy jokes, laughed and delivered his well-grounded and sometimes expansive pop-rock with genuine joy.
Some of his songs seem a little unwieldy and every now and again there were lyrical tumbles, but you got a real sense that with a little more refinement they could be enormously popular because he is an entertainer with a strong bracket of ear-worm songs.
Jess B from Mt Roskill was extraordinary. With her uplifting, energetic meltdown of ragga and hip-hop, she filled the space around her with energy and colour, had P-Money on turntables (you can guess he wouldn't do that for just anybody) and had a small crew of rappers and dancers (yep, Paris Goebbels has a lot to answer for) who added breadth and further brightness to a strong set.
Her name might be too readily mistaken for a few overseas artists but Jess B (only 18 I believe) was an absolute standout on the day . . . so much so that I had to tell her as she hung out later in the day. She seemed as pleasant in person as she was commanding on stage. A real artist to watch, an EP soon after her three singles so far.
Also early up – and far too early given they were both in typically devastating form – were Alien Weaponry and Head Like a Hole.
Alien Weaponry's cauldron of disciplined metal, te reo, prog-metal and cultural identification is always a head'n'heart pounding event and despite the small crowd they didn't hold back.
They played one of the stages in the main Western Springs stadium and looked like they deserved to be there in front of 50,000.
As did HLAH who reminded you that they have been one of the best, most entertaining live bands this country has produced, at times a kind of grind-metal Bad Seeds.
Booga Beazley is a natural, salacious and charismatic frontman who channels everyone from Elvis (the judo moves) through Lou Reed (that wrapping of the mike cord around the arm) to Nick Cave and every decent metal singer.
Their set included the recent End of Life, back catalogue material and The Immigrant Song thrown in seamlessly.
They really are the band that couldn't be killed and an object lesson in furious energy, humour and commitment.
Later in the day the re-formed D4 also showed similar tendencies with their uncompromising garageband rock'n'roll. Usually down the front at concerts you get the young enthusiasts but among the latter-day converts to this classic Kiwi band were a considerable number of persons of mature years who were there when D4 roared to attention two decades ago.
The band still looked and sounded pissed off, intense, uncompromising and hyped on pent-up internal energy.
Sad to report then that they expended more power and fury in two songs than Scribe could muster in most of the set I saw and sadly walked away from.
With P-Money, he was a late entry when Young Thug pulled out but after P-Money mashing up some familiar tracks and beats, Scribe came on, paused for water and a breather after some fairly innocuous nods to his hits and . . .
Putting it politely, he was far from match fit and equally distant from his heyday. It was disappointing.
As, for me, was Thundercat who – along with the Libertines, Grace Jones and Beck – was one of the must-see international acts.
He drew a big crowd but from the off – while acknowledging he is undeniably gifted – his jazz fusion set seemed to set a land-speed record for guitar work (he had his equal in the keyboard player) and at times it just sounded like Frank Zappa/Mothers instrumentals played with more intensity and pace in a trio setting.
I joked with a pal that I fought the fusion wars of the Seventies and didn't need another tour of duty. After 20 minutes of such intensity I went up behind the standing crowd and sat down to just listen as there wasn't much to see. Within another 10 minutes the people in front of me had drifted away and I could see the stage again. People vote with their feet at festivals, especially when there are two other options out there.
Thundercat has an impeccable track record of collaborations and such, and a few decent songs but they were simply vehicles for his jazz-funk chops. Musicianship 10/10 but . . .
I drifted away too, followed some of the crowd and ended up at the Golden Dawn stage which was packed for Fabulous/Arabia, a local mini-supergroup who had people dancing and singing along. They were playing soft-rock/yacht-rock covers and people – many of them far too young to have known these Seventies and Eighties songs when they were fresh – thoroughly enjoyed themselves and, worryingly perhaps, many knew all the words.
Odd that this was Thundercat's competition.
Earlier on the same stage was a typically delightful set by Scott Mannion/Tokey Tones. Mannion, who was behind the Lil Chief label (and therefore Tokey Tones, Brunettes, Nudie Suits, Princess Chelsea et al) has lived in Spain for a number of years and my guess is this might be the first time he'd ever appeared under his own name (albeit with a band of Chief pals on stage with him).
He seemed extremely nervous – and more slight than ever – but over the course of his set of slightly baroque but crafted pop (done no favours by the outdoor location and sound) the set rose gently and proved to be one of the musical delights of the day.
And oddly enough, given their brand of Scandi-pop is so ubiquitous as to be globally generic, so were Sigrid from Norway who had classy songs and energy. Not my thing – I have heard maybe too much of this? – but I can see why they drew such a large, young and appreciative crowd.
Drax Project out of Wellington had the reverse effect on me. White-boy falsetto pop in the slow verses then pumping dance choruses has become a cliché and while they do it well enough, they also milk it. And they still don't seem to have settled on what or who they are, witness their prog inclinations where their jazz school background comes front and centre.
Their musicianship is to be admired, their pop songs work because they trawl familiar tropes but for me – if not the hundreds impressed by such things – they did nothing.
On the other hand the mainstream pop of George Ezra was interesting, largely because he mostly avoids falsetto (indeed has a convincing baritone and real projection) and although he too delivers decent bite-sized pop-rock (with an excellent band) at least you got a clear sense of who and what he is, a classic singer-songwriter who enjoys chart success because he makes the familiar seem fresh and has lyrics which say something.
On a busy day when you need to sometimes eat, find shade and beer-up to rehydrate you cannot see everything so I only heard Aaradhna across a crowded field (as impressive as ever), missed Swidt and the Staves, caught enough of Car Seat Head Rest to be impressed (not the least by the guitarist's distain for the standard of stage attire, he wore shorts and tube socks!) and also enough of Katchafire who are as much a brand as a band but never fail to provide thoughtful and enjoyable reggae.
And although Avalanches were great – if you accept that what they do is mix in snatches of other people's songs and punch them up with Pavlovian beats designed to get punters moving – it's a good schtick and it works for them, just as it worked for Peking Duk (introduced on a video by Dan Carter).
More problematic were Tash Sultana from Australia and the Libertines: Sultana is an impressive multi-instrumentalist with a powerful and soulful voice who programmes loop and such. When she is in the zone everything stretches and her songs, such as they are, lose shape and focus. Witness the fact that every so often when she hit what we thought was the end of something people would applaud. But no, that was just a dip in proceedings and she was back in the song again. It was a strange but also strangely compelling set, although her origins as a street performer also came through when she did the beatbox/Pan flutes piece, something you could see buskers do in any major European city.
At their (fleeting) best you could see why the Libertines might have become the most “English” rock band since the Kinks if drugs and disruption hadn't sidelined Pete Docherty and halted their ascendency. But there was also a disappointingly ramshackle aspect to their set where songs meandered and Carl Barat seemed to just want to get on with things . . . after he'd re-tuned. It was both elevating and frustrating.
As was Grace Jones who, given the size of the crowd, just about everyone had come to see. Would she be amazing Grace or would this be a fall from grace by the almost 70-year old?
It was neither.
Starting her 75 minute set fashionably late by 25 minutes (maybe not her fault, let's be generous) she opened with Nightclubbing, then punctuated in a few from her most recent but decade-old and often autobiographical Hurricane album (which she likes more than album buyers) as well as classics like My Jamaican Guy and of course Pull Up to the Bumper, it all seemed over too quickly and often in a perfunctory manner.
Her band was good but – dressed in an outfit based on designs by Keith Haring – given her identification as an image icon as much as a singer meant that after every song she would disappear off stage while ad libbing lyrics or asking if we were still out there. Then after a couple of minutes she would return in another hat, drape or whatever. It made for a stop-start show – Beyonce's concert here suffered the same problem but at least she had screens of clips to keep the eye amused in the downtime.
Half a dozen, maybe seven songs, a pole dancer (male) on for an efficient but often lifeless Pull Up to the Bumper . . . and then she was gone.
It seemed odd that given she was a major draw she wasn't on a main stage where there were sidescreens so we could see the clothes better.
What can you say? You saw Grace Jones and her striking couture, and you heard her sing.
Probably won't happen again, so maybe that's enough?
But the other “headliner” (a sort of first among equals in a festival) was Beck who, given his vast catalogue could have done a soul, funk or even hip-hop show (maybe just ballads) but delivered a set of rock – and rocked up versions of material like Loser.
He danced, slipped off his leather jacket in one smooth James Brown manoeuvre, had a snappy band, pumped out hits, “spontaneously” dropped in Prince's Raspberry Beret as he had done in Melbourne (“Now back to our regular programme”), commented on the beauty of the full moon rising behind us, got people dancing . . .
What his set reminded of was not just how accomplished he is across many genres, but how he can pull many diverse elements into one song, but thread them so tight that they don't meander off topic or feel like the ideas are escaping from the shoe-horn.
That is one of his gifts. In a world of ADHD writers who shift their ground constantly and settle on none in any particular song (Drax Project by way of recent example), his work remains focused, economic and in many ways sometimes quite traditional (verse, chorus).
But that's what the audience responded to, singing along but also appreciating the song, the artist and the musicianship.
A highlight right at the end of a long day under a sometimes merciless Auckland sky.
And finally an important nod: this was a seamlessly enjoyable day out so it is hats off to the organisers for creating a kind of more sophisticated, comfortable Big Day Out for the 21st century where – even if you don't always enjoy an act – there is considerable diversity on the smorgasbord.
We have now got the idea of the cashless concert – load up the wristband for food, drinks and merchandise – and this time there seemed shorter queues for beverages and food (again, some real quality stuff on offer).
An excellent vibe too.
I have no idea if there were queues to get in later in the day, but those folks didn't get to see Jess B, HLAH, Alien Weaponry, Sigrid and others who were all on before 4pm.
Word to the wise, get there early next time.
You don't know what you missed.