We don’t need a belaboured intro for Whammyfest the second time around, so let’s just jump right into another batch of fine independent musicians populating the Whammy Bar and Backroom. Click here for our Radio 13 review of Whammyfest 2019 Night 1.
Grown Downz were a musical cyclone, kicking the night’s proceedings off with a Taurangian tour de force of pure punk rock. With some different sound crew members on the night, the guitars sounded louder and the drum tones sounded a lot punchier - or maybe everyone was bashing their kits a little bit harder. Nevertheless, the raucous two-piece delivered every pleasure that half-singing half-shouting vocal styles and soul-crushing drum fills can conjure up. If you need to get an 8:30 crowd flailing with midnight intensity, Grown Downz is certainly one of the best bands you can call.
On Friday, it was easily definable in terms of which genres inhabited which stage, and it established a pattern. In Descendents singlets and Fleetwood Mac t-shirts, Old Loaves threw Saturday’s preconceptions out the window completely, letting their brand of big, burly, bearded metal rip without relenting or repenting for a second. Being in the pit meant that the lyrics were naturally indecipherable, but the catharsis in that haze always has the power to transcend words. Overall, a nice surprise from a genre I’ve gradually shied away from over the years. Note to future self: bring more heavy-duty earplugs.
Despite offering a supergroup lineup to die for - reining Na Noise and Hans Pucket members into some kind of Whammy Cinematic Universe - Dateline initially took a couple of tracks to grow on me. Once it all clicked in the harmonies of Such a Bitch or the intense 3/4 surf rock track in the middle of the set, I was hooked and ready to sway the night away. My comparisons are usually inaccurate when it comes to a band’s actual influences, but imagine if The Futureheads leaned into a Beach Boys influence more than a Gang of Four; add a little Kiwi ingenuity, and you might reach a similar sound.
Speaking of Na Noise: what a riot. In a lineup of strong female-fronted acts, they ended up being the masters of in-the-pocket hypnotism, blending ‘60s percussion and drum patterns with a pastiche of ‘80s new wave’s love for the mechanical. It helps that they have as much fun performing as we do listening, with plenty of wholesome on-stage banter and chemistry backing it up. Infectiously fun lo-fi goodness, right down to the reverb and delay-filled “HA” echoing between the pillars.
Alone and hunched over a keyboard in the centre of the circle stage, Dunedin darling Lucy Hunter offered a completely anachronistic sound to the rest of the festival. Ironically enough, even though she said her songs “weren’t that scary”, the haunting piano chords and dissonant counter-melodies ended up feeling the most like Halloween music. I appreciate her technical proficiency, and her willingness to indulge more off-beat sensibilities in the service of emotion. Personal track highlight goes to The Flu, for translating the swirling nausea of sickness so accurately and smoothly into musical terms.
Friday’s Backroom lineup admittedly didn’t entice me much, but Holly Afoa - with her co-conspirators Michael and Lily - drew me out to crack that apathy wide open. She delivers all the hallmarks of quality, slightly jazzy R&B; the husky vocal restraint before belting it out in the home stretch of the chorus, vivid paintings of troubled relationships, and those pesky Maj7 chords that just hit you in the right spot. Made all the more intimate in the less populated Backroom - and with witty audience interaction - Afoa was consistently affable and charming throughout her entire performance, and has converted a new fan in the process. Kudos.
I left earlier than usual, but not without making sure I caught a couple of tunes from Oscar Dowling on the way out. I wish I could have seen more, as his acoustic guitar was rather quiet when I was present - but his contorted figure and equally contorted delivery over sparse chords felt macabre in all the right ways. Another musician to add to the ever-growing backlog of music to dive into.
It’s an odd feeling, to have the underground so easily accessible that you can’t even tell what’s really obscure or popular - or maybe that’s just me. Maybe that’s the reason why Whammy has been prosperous in celebrating their longevity; straddling the precarious line between curation and mediation, knowing when to rein in a mood and when to let it loose. Here’s to another twelve years, and here’s to whatever exciting developments appear next year.