So, fully committing to the idea of being an ‘outsider to the outsiders’ - the more respectable way of saying I barely recognised anyone on the setlist - I came in with a faint idea of what genres might be at play, and hoped that jumping in blind would work for the rest of the equation. Happily, it worked, and in such diverse ways too.
Of course, the show had to open with one of my most anticipated acts - both because I know them (for transparency’s sake) and because I know they’ve been picking up steam. Clad in matching NASA suits, Ripship - hot off their opening slot for Mermaidens - aimed for the stars with a beautiful set of irreverent and genre-defying two-piece rock goodness. A smorgasbord of spacey guitar effects, call-and-response vocals and ridiculously proficient fills meshed surprisingly well with lyrics about robot cowboys and lubing up Rubik's Cubes. Their music is cerebral and quirky without losing its accessibility, and I’m very happy to have finally seen them.
Vincent H.L. and his motley crew of alt-country dudes rocked the main stage not long after, with a more lackadaisical take on a type of songwriting I might compare to Uncle Tupelo or early Wilco. This might be the set I have the least to say about; some tracks started to blend together towards the end, which tends to happen when songs use the same kind of chord progressions - but the edge is taken off when you get three-point harmonies with heart. Not every band wore Halloween get-ups, but having a ghost for a drummer was one of the more eclectic moments of the night. Solid tunes.
The biggest surprise of the night was the only international act on the lineup, Japan’s own Heavenphetamine. My friend Sarah described them as “karaoke dream rock” after the set; whatever you want to call them, they’re extremely versatile, switching between ambient keyboard ballads and falsetto-fuelled robot rock without skipping a beat. All without a traditional low end too; the keyboards handled most bass tones, and even the drums forgo the bass in favour of snare-heavy fills. Sequestered on a small circular stage in the corner of the room, Heavenphetamine projected nothing but power, and they were the most exciting musical discovery I’ve had in a long while.
I must confess that I treated Kane Strang’s solo set somewhat unfairly; after the strong showing of bands preceding it, his minimal instrumentation and unassuming stage presence left me feeling rather disconnected from the whole affair. In hindsight, his brand of lyrically sly indie rock was appealing all the same. Lots of great quotables (“if your heart is a dog, my head is a firework”), and plenty of strongly written passages that prop them up, rather than crumbling underneath them. Closing the set with My Smile Is Extinct and it’s optimistically depressing sound also perked up proceedings a little bit. I might have to revisit these tunes and rediscover what I missed the first time around.
My Dick Move experience was felt more than it was seen; the crowd had packed itself like sardines around the circular stage, to the point where I could only see a bassist in a dog onesie. Thankfully my vantage point also offered a view of the setlist, and sarcastic titles like Femoids Attack and Noise Annoys made the band’s feminist punk attitude abundantly clear - if the rampantly distorted guitars didn’t already. Lighter tracks found their way into the 12-minute set too; I’m not sure if they were singing about getting pissed in the kitchen or pissing in the kitchen (in the vein of IDLES), but the chorus chanting of “I’m not a loser” was iconic all the same.
From the opening chords of Comfort, Hans Pucket brought Dave Dobbyn immediately to mind; they possess a very warm, vintage Kiwi tone, without sacrificing the buoyancy of their youth in the process. It helps that power-pop harmonies - and power pop in general - are my ultimate guilty pleasure, and they delivered them in spades. Each stage had a clear theme on Friday night; the Backroom was for the rappers/DJs/electronic artists, the Circle Stage hosted off-the-wall punks and unclassifiable bands, and the Main Stage held most of the clean-cut indie crews. In that sense, Hans Pucket were exemplary of their type, energetic and fun in the most timeless of ways. It was another shining highlight in a night full of them.
Unsanitary Napkin’s performance will probably go on record as the closest I’ve ever stood next to a band - and even closer to the absurd amounts of moshing. The Wellingtonians played in a similar vein of anarchist, feminist, any-kind-of-ist punk as Dick Move, but with a broader sense of who isn’t on the guestlist: no TERFS (on the bass strap), no white supremacy (on the setlist), and definitely no Peter Thiel (allegedly a literal vampire - their words, not mine). Lots of technical difficulties with the microphones, but that’s never gotten in punk’s way before. You will never hear another band cuss out “Silicon Valley succubi” like this, so if you enjoy that, get to one of their shows - and be careful where you flail your head.
Safe to say, I was pretty exhausted by the time Bozo came out of retirement and onto the main stage. Their swampy Western vibes emphasised endurance over sticky hooks or earworm choruses, and it was endurance that I had precisely run out of - as I ironically ran out of the venue.
Many of the bands that had played earlier were still hanging out, enjoying each set and chatting with each other, and that communal inclusivity and warmth is exactly why the Whammy Bar has prospered after twelve years in the business. Of course, there’s still another night of artists to be covered, so be sure to take a look at the lineup, because there really is something for everyone here.