Approximately 2,000 people are on site each day at the Auckland Folk Festival, and those are good numbers with which to stage a sustainable event. There are of course heaps of volunteers and organisers but specifically I need to mention the sound guys who work the six venues and ensure the artists get the clarity of projection they deserve. The sound quality has been excellent everywhere so a big hats off. In return let me also mention a comment I overheard from a member of the Production Co, in charge of the Main Marquee, that this is the best festival he has been involved in. And part of the reason is that even the loudest of performances does not intrude any more than modestly from one venue to another, and for the most part not at all. That’s so cool for everyone.
Ok, energised by The Eastern, it’s off to look around. A little taste of Shimna’s List, high octane trad disco is how they might be described. Shimna Higgins last seen in Radio 13 pages as the fiddle player in Sam Bartell’s band back in October. Awesome. Aro are on the main stage, and the rustling of feathers as I sample their very focused Waiatas to New Zealand’s native birdlife.
But then another new discovery, from way under the radar, emerges in the form of Raylee Bradfield accompanied with three piece band (Dion Driver, Chris Orange and Renee Cosio) singing songs from her 2019 album Where Wildflowers Grow. No notes, and no photos, so she remains anonymous, but her songs are compelling Americana, a slightly rockier version of Gillian Welch and definitely now on my radar. Very cool. And Raylee comes from Owaka at the entrance to the Catlins in South Otago, but now writes, sings and teaches here in Auckland. To be continued…
And now I go Looking For Alaska, a duo who were mightily impressive at The Anthology Lounge back in November with their three piece band, but tonight it’s just them with Steve Daniell on bass and Huia on backing vocals. Second time round is always the test, even though the albums are on regular play chez moi. Aaron is a bit husky after a big night out in Queenstown a few nights ago, but it actually does him no harm, apart from the hangover and brain cells lost, and if he has been eating gravel then it’s all the more to make the contrast to Amy’s amazing voice. Beautiful songs, beautiful harmonies, haunting lyrics, memories of great Aunt, falling into you, letting you go, where have you gone, it’s the entire new album in the Light and Shadow of the setting sun. And the banter of newly- weds, still not quite believing that it has come to this, after 8 years together, and adjusting to the new formality, resisting it, but loving it at the same time. Long may it last. Civil War. Which might well describe marital bliss, if you like your marriage with a touch of cynicism. But no, this just sounds like The Civil Wars, and they weren’t married, that was the problem. But no (twice), these civil wars are as seductive as are the songs, and when Amy lets loose there’s a wondrous hush throughout the marquee…where the f...1 does that voice come from? Alaska? Don’t go looking there, try the Philippines, try Cambodia, but don’t go looking there either. Just because her hair is blue it doesn’t mean she lives on an iceberg, and just because she looks a little Asian it doesn’t mean spice. No, try Gizzy, try Maori, because this diminutive powerhouse with the schoolteacher’s accent is just a schoolteacher’s daughter from Gisborne and her voice rises with the sun. And never sets. Aaron beware. The audience is in awe, the audience wants more, and their first song written together, from their first album, is squeezed in, when they are seeing each other only in their sleep. Long may they slumber. Aaron and Amy are Looking for Alaska, and find each other instead. Amazing!!
Well, now it’s after 8pm, and the party is starting for those in residence, and will go on into the wee hours, but I’m off home to recuperate, because Word Gets Around.
Barry Saunders and Delaney Davidson are the unsung New Zealand Country Music Artists of the Year for 2020, a status which got lost behind the curtain of covid droplets which forced us indoors to read newspapers and who does that anymore? So the news was missed by most, but Auckland Folk Festival haven’t forgotten, and I haven’t forgotten the gig at the Wine Cellar in May 2019 when they toured their collaboration Word Gets Around. They were back at the Wine Cellar on Friday night, and Barry tells me it was fucking loud, and he’s not sure how the folk at the festival are going to handle it. But this is open air, not concentrated bunker, and even in soundcheck it sounds perfect and dissipates over the camping grounds, the show grounds and the vineyards and it’s high noon on Sunday at the Folk Festival.
Chris O’Connor is back on drums, with an arrow through his head, but it’s only a drumstick between his teeth, and all is well and beating. Jono Burgess is new on bass but is often seen at Freida’s in various incarnations and fits right in behind Barry and Delaney, with Barry on acoustic rhythm and occasional picking and Delaney anchoring with gritty guitar and haunted rhythm which we know so well. They start at the end, it’s “A Long Way Home”, but it can’t be, they are at home already. And we get a new song. “Mindreader Blues” and the promise of the new, heralded in the round yesterday morning, tantalises us as they revert to the album and play it pretty well all through in muddled up order because it doesn’t matter. “Out of Our Hands” is introduced by Delaney as the pop song they wrote, and “Special Rider Blues” by Skip James is hauntingly beautiful as always. Barry tries to be serious, and Delaney foils him every time, it’s a comedy act to fine country music and a heavy breathing end. “Little Dollar” again, but this time it rocks, and a handful of their respective originals and it’s more than an hour and we could take a lot more but it’s a festival and you don’t get more than 1 hour at a festival. Unless you are Barry and Delaney.
Quick change, and Jenny Mitchell is back, this time with sisters right from the start, it’s the Mitchell Sisters and I’ve already given my verdict, but this time they totally nail it. Some nerves on Friday night, but in front of the big crowd on the big stage and they might as well be home on the farm.
The set is similar but different from Friday night. Paul Simon is a rock again at the outset, and “Lucy” makes an early appearance before “One Day” and “The Ocean” from Wildfires. The twins, Maegan and Nicola play their favourites, “Love Or Money”, which we heard on Friday, plus a blast from the past with Jeannie C Riley’s “Harper Valley PTA”. It can only be Gore where they still play that song! And did you know that Jeannie C Riley is now 75, and the ‘C’ is for Carolyne and she became a gospel singer?
Jenny takes us on her family journey with the song about her grandparents, “Ends of the Earth” a song about her parents, “Let Me Be” and songs about her own lifetime’s experiences, “So Far”. No secrets in the Mitchell family when your daughter is a songwriter !
The audience is enthralled and demand more. And Jenny becomes Joni and the sisters belt out “Big Yellow Taxi” and it’s magic
Gore comes to Auckland and conquers the world. So now let the world come to Gore and the Tussock Country Music Festival in late May/Queens Birthday weekend! Tickets now on sale (reported elsewhere on Radio 13).
Ok, it’s a quick walk to the Mill where Reb Fountain is doing a talk and a couple of songs, with Dave Khan in attendance, and a quick walk back to songs in the round but it’s almost done. Being is just finishing, and the audience wants more but time is tight. So John and Susan Sutherland sing a little ditty, Adam McGrath gives us the shortest song in the universe, Napalm Death's “You Suffer”, (1.3 seconds long) which he keeps up his sleeve for times like these, and Jasmine (Being) recites a poem.
Delaney Davidson must be the hardest working artist in the land, or at least the most prolific, or just the best, one or all of them. Because he is everywhere, and here he is again accompanying and producing Troy Kingi’s 5th album Black Seed, Golden Ladder, leading Troy into the world of folk noir and a rendition of phases of life. Troy Kingi is a national treasure, a modest man of many talents, but an ambitious man no less, with the objective of 10 albums in 10 years in 10 genres, and the fifth is in the pipe, and this is the first showcase of songs which will be released later this year. This, therefore, is a treat. Better than ice cream.
But as Troy himself nervously admits, up until now he has been upfront but hidden, or at least protected by the cloak of a band, and a cloak as well. But here he is, stripped back, unplugged and uncloaked, but of course many of us have heard the Waiata he has recently recorded with Tami Neilsen, and we know that he can sing, and that his voice has never been heard, and that he can really sing, has a beautiful voice and a full range, and can match Tami in power and force. So we know we are in for a treat, and the rest of us will soon find out.
But what we don’t know is how Delaney once again works his magic in discordant harmony, nor that Delaney has re-programmed Troy to work on lyrics before melody, and this discombobulation has been traumatic for Troy and he is somewhat in awe of this dark haunted man. And well, the result is mesmerising. Troy reinvents himself again, or perhaps the true Troy is now unveiled and unmasked and it’s too hot for a cloak. We hear seven songs from his set, tales of sleep, of school, of birth, of death. Chris O’Connor brings on a drum, a big one, an oil one, and grinds and groans out a sensory smorgasbord and Delaney hauntingly breathes. A song about fatherhood from the perspective of the child seeing his father leave for the road; a fork in the road, and a song about retirement. This is going to be another triumph for Troy, and I’ll leave it at that. I need to take Helen to Alaska.
Looking For Alaska are back again in a different tent, and augmented this afternoon by Krissy Jackson from The Eastern. The songs cover both albums, hence the fiddle adds the Mumford touch to more upbeat songs such as “All I Ever Wanted” and “Hey You” Helen is mightily impressed and a little intrigued: Where is she from, Philippines, Cambodia? Right on cue, here we go again. Just wait, I advise, just wait. And sure enough, when “Hine Atarau’s” time comes, Amy tells the same story, without a smidgeon of impatience, it’s part of folklore by now, and respected as such. Gizzy, dizzy. Where the sun comes up first and never goes down. Just like her voice, the sun also rises. What a feast, what a confirmation that Hamilton has nurtured a rising star, two of them, Aaron and Amy, Looking For Alaska, still searching and we are the better for it...
It’s getting time to head home to the dog, but there’s a buzz in the air, something for You, Me Everybody. It’s Tui time, Folk Artist of the Year, and there are three finalists, Darren Watson, You, Me, Everybody and the Tattletale Saints, who are of course stuck in Nashville, where I last saw them a few years back, when the band were in hiatus. But they came back last year and I missed them. Shame on me.
But Darren Watson is here, with his bluesy folk, a sort of cut down version of Adam McGrath, and he makes his claim with a short six songs, ‘St Hilda’s Faithless Boy”, “Getting Sober for the end of the World”. A tribute to “Ernie Abbot”, and of course “Too Many Millionaires” ( or maybe not enough?).
It’s a solid performance from the journeyman, but it doesn’t sound like he thinks he’ll win.
And now the buzz grows, and the young brothers take the stage with their supergroup buddies and its bluegrass and Old Crow and it’s a mighty fine medicine show as New Zealand’s newest sensation takes the stage and give us a taste of their just released album Southern Sky. Helen and I are sitting beside two proud parents so we share their joy as 17 year old Sam and 19 year old Laurence from the renowned Frangos-Rhodes family pick their way into stardom with Kim Bonnington on guitar and vocals, Nat Torkington on banjo and James Geluk on bass. Enough, they are sensational, and a little birdie tells me they are coming to Gore.
But before that they are in Auckland next week and I will be there!
And the Tui is announced later on and it goes to Tattletale Saints, so our congratulations to Cy and Vanessa and we hope you are safe in the Tennessee cauldron.
Ok, that’s it, there’s a huge finale and a hoedown and a ceilidh and a hangover tomorrow morning, but we are sated and wend our way home.
The Auckland Folk Festival. Sensational. Never too late. We’ll be there next year. So will you.
Radio 13 thanks and credits Trevor Villers for all the images in this review.