How I love the Auckland Folk Festival. It’s the first time I’ve never been here before. That means 47 years of not being here. And it’s thanks to Jenny for asking me.
Out west in the once bucolic wine country of Kumeu, now of course almost a suburb, sits the old fashioned Kumeu Show Grounds, which still boasts an annual Agricultural & Pastoral show in defiance of creeping urbanisation. Forget the city, we are almost out of it, and only the lines of traffic, even on a weekend, remind us of the conflict between growth and tradition.
The show grounds are almost, but not quite, completely taken over each anniversary weekend by campers with guitars, and fiddles, and banjos, and floral dresses and pigtails and beards and straw hats; and lots of kids but no pets. I might use the word hippy, if it weren’t so anatomically ambiguous. And no alcohol, except you can bring your own, and no doubt it’s party time at night, but I don’t know about that because I’m one of the commuters who leave the big smoke each day, and creep home at night ahead of the setting sun and against the rising moon illusion.
It’s a peaceful place, for peaceful folk, and music for folk which embraces tradition and lore and transcends the limits of border, culture and language. Globalisation is not a modern concept of trade and commerce, it’s an ancient tradition of recording human history through lyric and rhythm and song, shared on makeshift platforms by folk vocalising musical sounds and supported by odd shaped instruments. It’s phenomenal, and as Ivor Tiefenbrun (the founder of Linn Music) suggests, it touches us from a distance, and that’s why we are here, amongst a maze of tents and vans and cars, to wander between the several stages, sampling the food stalls along the way, to be touched from a distance. Touch is the most sensitive of sensory experiences, and that’s what music does, in a physically safe and incubated way, unless of course you dance, or embrace, or even sing along, and all of those expressions are possible and permitted, just as personal space and introversion are respected.
It’s a Folk Festival. In Auckland. Every year.
First up on Friday night is the traditional Powhiri, but this time with a difference as the audience responds this old mountain thyme with a folk waiata, and the infectious enthusiasm of a folk festival crowd is evident from the get-go.
First up is Sadie and Jay, a Kiwi /Aussie partnership with Scottish and Welsh roots, back in New Zealand after winning the 2020 Celtic Album of the Year in Australia. They make four appearances over the weekend, but this is my only taste, and I’m sure it’s just a taste of their range and repertoire as they promise to 'go light' with a bunch of blues rags, some of them inspired by time on a Blues Train, which involves performances along the line interspersed with drinking on a train. Joplinesque. Some originals, a song about leaving Auckland for Papamoa, an Americana song about the open road, a Shawn Colvin song, riding “Shotgun Down the Avalanche” before breaking their promise (we never accepted it anyway) to go darker with a song imagining the homecoming of the many diggers who didn’t make it back, a homecoming of the mind. “The Black Queen” about the woman who escapes the city to recover from her cancer and builds a glass bottle house. Did she drink all those bottles empty? A song sung through “French Doors” and finally a song about the “Black Friday Fires”, a fact of unlucky life in the lucky country. A fine start to a short festival Friday.
Jenny Mitchell, I must declare, is a colleague of mine on the Tussock Country Music Festival Trust board and I have gotten to know her over the past few months as a very fine and intelligent young lady. She autographed her first album for my birthday before we ever met, and I slept in her bedroom when hosted by her family last September for our first board meeting (she wasn’t there of course, going home to Dunedin). And I have all of her music and I play it often. But, extraordinarily enough, this is the first time I have seen her perform, apart from the two songs she played at the Country Music Awards in Gore in 2019. So I am here on this Friday night, prompted by her, and keen as mustard. No pressure.
I am not disappointed.
The first two songs are about her Irish grandparents who jumped on a boat to New Zealand in 1957 almost on a whim, but driven by hardship and a determined gleam in grandma’s eye. Jenny is their history, and their immortal voice, delivered in a serenely effortless style and a confident, friendly manner. ‘Things don’t always work out the way they do in your mind’ reflect the tribulations of young love, although it needs reminding and wondering where all this wisdom and experience comes from in 22 short years. That sense of wonder is only partially sated when her young twin sisters, all 32 years of them combined, join her in a song about “Travelling Bones”. The juxtaposition of gypsy and necromancy in a song about the conflict between the instinct to settle down with the troubadour spirit begs the question of whether Jenny has been here before. But of course she was sixteen like Maegan and Nicola just six years and a lifetime ago.
So now we get the Mitchell Sisters in heavenly harmony, with Nicola picking on Uke and Maegan shaking in her shoes. They sing a song of their own choosing, a Tamworth favourite by Bennet, Bowtell and Urquhart called “Love or Money” and then we get the songs from last years EP, The Grainstore Sessions, including “The Boxer” and another Paul Simon song about love and a rock. Is “Lucy” a feminist is a question prompted by a university challenge to write a song about Lucille Ball, the same tug of war between domestic bliss and a life on the road. The sisters were on the radio a little earlier in the day, along with Delaney and Barry, and the youthfulness of it all is driven home by a tribute to Barry and “Hands on my Heart” , sung every week for years by child Jenny at the Gore Country Music Club. 10,000 hours and Irish genes define excellence.
“So Far” describes the long journey to wisdom, the encouragement to dream and soar, anchored by the parental rocks which seal her feet to the ground, and which arrives at 19. My god, what about the next twenty years?
The sets at the Festival are festival compact, 45 minutes, unless you are good and the audience demands more, and so it is “One Day”, one fine first festival night in Auckland.
Two acts and I am sated. The Mitchell Sisters are sensational. We’ll see them again on Sunday, but right now it’s off home enriched by the stories behind the songs which now adds knowledge to familiarity. There’s a moon illusion on the way home, it’s huge, a perfect end to a perfect start.
Saturday morning, 10.30, songs in the round. Delaney Davidson, ubiquitous Delaney this weekend, and Barry Saunders are joined by veteran singer/songwriters Brenda Liddiard and Martha Louise in a little tent far away called The Mill. We are going to get the full Delaney and Barry on Sunday, but this is their folky, ballady moment as they swap stories in song. There’s a new Delaney song which came outta his head, Martha has a rowing boat of her mind, with all her riches piled inside, Brenda brings recent events to the fore with a song about shooting, and Barry remembers meeting Alison Holst on a Kaikoura beach and writing a completely unrelated song about the “Magnetic South” back in the day when it was cool to meet a cook. And so it goes. The grizzled and the old, the young (elsewhere on this occasion) and the bold, it’s a Folk Festival for all sorts of folk. Brenda reminds us in a cappella that “Life is a Degenerative Disease” and we all feel a little more fragile, just “One Step Away”. But Barry and Delaney combine and “Word Gets Around” that they have been writing new songs, and an album on the way, in search of the “Little Dollar”.
There’s always more at a festival than one person can see, that’s the beauty and the shame, and the choice becomes at times frantic, and never fully rehearsed, due to that disease called life, which is why they have a programme, an old fashioned programme, which is delightful to hold and behold. Much better than an app, because everything is on the same page and so we can be, and I relax in my portable seat and sip my Old Fashioned, and resolve just to stay where I am for the next couple of hours, because the programme tells me we’re going back to the old country and round the world, and the old country isn’t in Britain as you might think, but in that great mysterious battleground world of east meets west in the Balkans and Bulgaria. Music which is not entirely unfamiliar, but not which I would ordinarily confront unless I was travelling. But I can’t. So I’ll let the music transport. Touch me from a great distance a few short steps away. Kiwi Olivia Simich, in her Bulgarian dance costume is our MC, from the Balkan Music Society and Klapa Slapa, which promises a hoedown but is much more sedate, take us on a traverse through Macedonia, Serbia and Bosnia, countries which have been ravaged in conflict for thousands of years, despite cultural threads cut from the same cloth. Balkan Express is father and son duo Petar and Dragan Atanasov, with Peter the father on accordion and Dragan on voice.
The music is gypsy folk opera, and tantalises, but at the same time one reflects on the paradox of powerful, emotional music and it’s impotence in times of war. Maybe it’s the words, and Tui Mamaki provides a clue with her mesmerising and hypnotic renditions of Bulgarian folk songs with dirge drones and sharp guitar and offbeat syntax. Tui is an enigma as well as a melange of Kiwi and French and adopted Bulgarian. On the one hand here is world music, no, universal music, epitomised, as English French and Bulgarian languages intermingle just as Arab, Asia, Andalusia meet at the world’s crossroads between east and west. Her voice is powerful and intense, her range is huge, belying her diminutive physique, and the subject matter of these songs is sometimes very dark, in line perhaps with my earlier despair about the impotence. A song about the child seeing the light only to be told it is the light of death after a snakebite. Who makes this up? History, pain, disruption, dislocation, all things dark and sinister, that’s what. Beauty is not always beautiful.
Craig Denham and his buddies take us on a different journey. Although claiming not to be ethnomusicologists, theirs is no doubt an extension of the journey into realms where happiness is more a function of adversity as expressed in music, in contrast to South Eastern Europe whose music wears its broken heart on its sleeves. Caribbean, Latin American and New Orleans music, with its common African heritage, is in contrast decidedly more upbeat and often racy. Thus we get a little introduction to the origins of reggae, back to the 50s and 60s with mento and ska and Cuban dansant and its heady mix of jazz and rhythm and lazy beat. Rocksteady. “Tomato” leaves nothing to the imagination, if you can cope with ambiguity, and the great Paragons “The Tide is High” boost our flagging morale and we mentally dance. Then its back to the roots, to African Kwela, from the shebeens which is a word which has Irish, English as well as African and Caribbean origins. A global word. And a global instrument, the pennywhistle, and it sounds like the Soweto String Quartet. And the final chapter takes us on the underground railways as wayfaring strangers and ends up at Mardi Gras, with “Another Man Done Gone” and ‘Mardi Gras Mamba”. What an exhausting journey, and I only got up to stretch!
Craig Denham is normally in Prague, and Jon Sanders is normally in Ireland, but these two kiwis play this world music as a duo, but today are augmented by the everywhere Peter Scott on bass and percussionist/clarinetist John Ellis. It’s thoroughly enjoyable and loose and sometimes improvised, and its folk music, never forget.
Ok gird up your loins, lionise your girdle…just be prepared…it’s The Eastern, the legendary Christchurch band of gypsies fronted by softly spoken Adam McGrath. Until he has a mic in front of him, and he transforms into a Steve Earlish dervish, breathing political fire through lyric and song, and accompanied by a range of strings and keys and no drums.
There’s no doubting the passion of the man, an excess of passion which allows the band to play their parts in relative tranquility, as they launch into the Woody Guthrie lament “I ain’t got no home (in this world anymore)”. Followed by “Fortunate Son” the John Fogarty CCR classic. We’re in for a ride, and a nice surprise as the band see Reb Fountain looking for a seat and call her up ( Reb of course being an integral Easterner before stamping her own indelible mark on the future). So the band and the stage is full: Krissy Jackson on violin, Jono Hopley on upright bass, co-writer Jesse Shanks on banjo, Brendan Gregg on mandolin and the ever so forgotten but now unforgettable Frankie Daly on keyboards.
It’s a blast from the Easterly wind, and as usual Adam leaves you under no illusion where this Irish firebrand sits on the political spectrum. It begs the question: why are there no right wing folk singers? Or do they just nor dare?
There can be no great society built on the back of tax cuts, is the truth, because people like us just don’t, not even when we’re dead and gone. There is a victory song, and Jesse Shanks softens the rhetoric with a song about “Rosie’s Daughter”.
This man is a fighter, not with fists, but with words, but above all he’s a humanist and a keen observer of the human condition, especially the down-trodden. Like the song about the mother and child seen in Linwood Mall with the child giving mum heaps of grief, but they’re family, they are wearing matching LA Lakers sweatshirts. Two for the price of one. Together in struggle. And they finish on a predictable anthem, “Common People”, which Pulps the heart in post folk punk.
I like and respect Adam McGrath. I won’t always agree with him, but I respect his humanity and his uncompromising defence of the underdog. But above all else I respect his courage, as shown on the day of the Christchurch shootings nearly two years ago. He was singing up at Marty’s 13th Floor, singing with Alejandro Escovedo, just as , unbeknownst to us all, the terrorist struck. We all left Marty’s on a mini high, only to stumble to the depths of the incomprehensible. And yet both he and Alejandro turned up that night at the Tuning Fork, and sang through their shock and their pain. Courageous. Full stop.
And on that full stop note I’m going to close off this narrative around 5 pm Saturday afternoon and resume as Part 2, with Looking For Alaska (twice), Barry and Delaney (again), The Mitchell Sisters (again) and Troy Kingi still to come. Watch this space……
Radio 13 thanks and acknowledges Trevor Villers for the images in this review