Image by: Kate Mills
Concert Reviews

Concert Review: Sam Cullen at the Wine Cellar, with Gretel

Where: Wine Cellar
When: 25 Sep 2020
Roger Bowie

It’s young time at the Wine Cellar on Friday night. Not so much in the audience, but on stage is blossoming youth as Sam Cullen pounds out his impressive cohort of compositions, songs he’s been working on since early teens. And celebrated for the most part in the recent release of his new EP, 1000X.

But beforehand, more youth in the form of Gretel (Donnelly) and her band of Auckland University Jazz School students just setting out on, what, a long journey to success? or just a diversion from the study grind to express themselves artistically and emotionally through music?. Who knows, watch this space, enjoy the moment.

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Kate Mills

Gretel came second in 2018’s Smokefreerockquest, with the song “Catch Me If You Can” which features in her set tonight. She describes herself as electronic R&B, but to me it’s where  Erikah Badyu comes from. It’s just R&B tonight, without the electronica, jazz fusion which supports the voice, because although she does play, bass and on her computer and through her MIDI, tonight it’s just the voice, soaring and flying over the solid band effort; students,  remember, paying their dues, getting the basics down pat, a little flair emerging from time to time, but support the voice, give depth to the songs, make her sound good, even better than she is, the voice is the improvisation on stage tonight.

Gretel sits while she sings, perhaps a little shy, although she likes the lights on her, just a waif of a thing, using her hands, but singing with soul, with jazz, with freedom and the Wine Cellar turns into cabaret. Tomorrow’s Caitlin Smith perhaps? Not much talk, not needed, the song is “Talk Real Slow” followed by “A Little Less Conversation”. And perhaps she should stand up for the last two songs, in case the sitting down leaves you in a “Bad Mood” , or just in case the “Big Boys Don’t Play Fair”.

Impressive. We’ll see a lot more of Gretel.


  1. Talk Real Slow
  2. Little Less Conversation (Elvis Presley Arrangement)
  3. All Too Much
  4. Gone
  5. Catch Me If You Can
  6. Bad Mood
  7. Big Boys Don't Play Fair
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Kate Mills


Sam Cullen comes from Invercargill, where you might inject the world’s enema, if you were so inclined. Did Billy Connolly say that? I know Jim Hopkins did. And I’m allowed to poke fun at his hometown because it’s also mine, so there.

But great things come out of Invercargill, not just the road north. And the music scene has always been vibrant. And what else is there to do? Play rugby? Of course, but also play music, and Sam’s been at it since a student at Verdon College, and also a finalist at the very same 2018 Smokefreerockquest (I bet that’s where he met Gretel). What a great institution that is. And Verdon College is also a fine institution.

Sam now lives in Wellington where he attends, of course, jazz school. Seems like a trend. But there’s a compelling logic to learning the basics of unstructured free form, from where you can go anywhere. And where Sam is going, is  writing incredibly well constructed songs played in an indie rock way, songs which  in many cases could be deconstructed into country and folk. Just slow it down and add the acoustic guitar and Americana lurks beneath. Which is fantastic to my ear, because Americana is a broad church.

Sam comes on stage, looking very much like a school teacher not a rockstar, and sporting a very smart pinstripe. One day that suit might look like Delaney (Davidson’s) crumpled old dishevellment, but tonight it’s crisp and clean, and sends a message. My songs are clean and crisp, is what it says, short punchy statements with ear warming hooks and little flourishes from guitar and synthesizer. And although it’s a seated gig, the mind is having a good old boogie night, and would be up bouncing if allowed.

The set opens with a prior release (from 2019) “Shut the Door”, and Sam sounds a little like David Byrne. And then we are into the EP, with a deep chord intro to “Love Lies” where Sam’s tenor goes somewhere between Neil Diamond and Peter Murphy, before the beat comes on and the song takes off and rocks. There’s a more poppy feel to “Reasons” and hiding behind the ‘I hate Tuesday’ sentiments of “The Week” is another country song. I kid you not. Another smokefree song follows, “Groovin” with a little Alan Parsons feel, and back comes Peter Murphy racing up “The Main Drag”

Back to the EP now, with “All Night Long”, a song which actually does start with an acoustic intro before the drum beat urges us to the edge of our seats. “Yellow Flowers” is another old one, well not that old, Sam’s just turned 20. But then it’s time to do a cover, or at least Sam is going to play a cover and we, the audience are going to sing, because we all know the words. And who would have bet against “Bohemian Rhapsody” the new anthem from a recent movie soundtrack. Great fun, but seriously competent guitar work from Sam as he weaves the magic of Brian May into the mix.

The set then closes with the signature tune from the new EP, "1000X", which is just a great song, and an even greater song to this old Americana fan’s ears when you hear the acoustic version which closes the EP. I rest my country case.

Of course, there is an encore, because we deserve it, we’ve been such a good audience. And why not Billy Idol, we’re sitting down, so we can only dance with ourselves. Makes sense. And a final gesture to the great metropolis at the bottom of the south, just north of Oban, the “Small Town” of Invercargill, which Mick Jagger so unfairly disparaged when he was there in 1964 or 1965. What an arsehole.


Never mind Mick, forget the Rolling Stones, tonight at the Wine Cellar we see the future, jazz inspired musicians playing rock, jazz, R & B with a pinch of country. Go Gretel, go Sam Cullen, go see Sam Cullen. Listen to his new record. At least a thousand times….

Check out Sam Cullen's  EP   1000x   here and go see him live:

sam cullen tour

Image Supplied


  1. Shut the Door
  2. Love Lies
  3. Reasons
  4. The Week
  5. Groovin’
  6. The Main Drag
  7. All Night Long
  8. Yellow Flowers
  9. Bohemian Rhapsody
  10. 1000x
  11. Dancing with Myself
  12. Small Town
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Written By: Roger Bowie Roger Bowie has been collecting music since 1964, starting with 45 rpm singles, and then building an LP and CD collection from 1970. 1.8 per week since then. Not a vast collection, but eclectic and occasionally obscure. Roger is a big Americana fan, and regularly attends AmericanaFest in Nashville, held every September. Also, he once played golf with Alice Cooper...