A “music” review is, in some ways, perhaps a reductive way of reporting back on the annual Auckland Folk Festival. The event out at Kumeu Showgrounds, now in its 46th year, is a melting pot of “folk” cultures, musics, dances and foods, with a strong family-friendly and communal vibe. For three nights it was a great experience as usual, and the ever-present swirl of music created a lovely atmosphere to drift through.
As far as specific musical acts to sit down and get into, this year’s lineup wasn’t exactly the greatest for the festival, especially compared to its strong last couple of years. There were few real “wow” performances across the weekend. That’s not to say that the music wasn’t nice and pleasing within the ambience of the festival however, with plenty of accomplished and well-fitting acts blending into the atmosphere, just few jumping out.
The Veils’ frontman Finn Andrews delivered one of the better sets on the afternoon of the Saturday, playing songs from his upcoming debut solo album alongside a few Veils cuts. While musically at odds with the usual Auckland Folk Festival features, his backing band was fantastic... an Auckland all-stars lineup that included several members of Tiny Ruins, Reb Fountain on backing vocals, and a pair of string players. They particularly shone on the energetic Tom Waits-like “list song” One by the Venom, a list of different ways to die, and the hymn-like title track of the upcoming album One Piece At A Time. Another standout was a rendition of The Veils’ Axolotl by Andrews alone on his piano as an encore. He also played in the final Sunday night concert, this time joined only by Reb Fountain’s backing vocals. The songs were still nice (and mostly the same), but without the full band it lacked the same level of punch.
Melbourne group The Maes, consisting of multi-instrumentalist sisters Maggie and Elsie Rigby alongside a double bassist, put on a nice if unmemorable set of harmony-driven singer-songwriter folk. New Zealander Holly Arrowsmith’s Saturday slot was similarly pretty, and showcased some gorgeous songwriting, but the most memorable thing about it ended up being the couple that got engaged in the middle of a song, a lovely moment which seemed to touch the performer onstage.
The festival always has an act to appeal to its strong traditional Celtic leanings, and this year that act was Sophie and Fiachra. Coming from Quebec and Ireland respectively, the fiddle and banjo/Irish pipes duo played two straightforward sets of jigs, reels and other pieces that drew on the similarities and continuities between Irish and Quebecoise musical traditions. While some of their acapella tunes fell a bit flat for want of energy, their instrumental playing was incredibly accomplished, and satisfying in a pure traditional way.
Countless other artists filled the smaller stages around the large show ground site over the weekend. Bernie Griffen and The Thin Men played folk-blues with a dustbowl edge, though with occasionally weak vocals. Originz were a large crowd-pleasing ensemble whose many members delivered bagpipe-led fusion music with driving danceable drum beats - it sounds hellish I know, but it was surprisingly fun in reality.
The Jews Brothers Band injected some much-needed energy into the Saturday night concert with their virtuosic traditional Klezmer music and crowd singalongs. The highlight for me, however, was the little-known EthnoNZ, who fused a countless list of musical cultures, including Celtic, American and Māori, into a surprisingly loveable result.
The benefit of a festival is being able to wander through diverse bubbles of music like these and many more at any time throughout the day.
Of course the lineup is only one part of the appeal of the folk festival, and a large amount of my enjoyment came from the many spontaneous later-night jam sessions in which the boundaries between artist and audience dissolved entirely.
While this year may not have had the strongest lineup or the most exciting musical moments, I didn’t speak to anyone who wasn’t enjoying themselves or who wasn’t happy with the festival experience as a whole. So I guess that’s a win.