It’s not every day one gets to meet a musical living legend. For me it started with a phone interview. After a somewhat cagey conversation with Eddie Low about a year ago, I didn’t know what to expect.
After all, how easy can it be to maintain musical charisma when your career started as a 17 year old supporting a national tour by Helen Shapiro in 1966?
Would Woolf be hard and cynical from years of scrabbling a meagre living below the level of his talents by fact of living in New Zealand?
The answer was the opposite – a lot of energy and enthusiasm coming down the line as we discussed music, his life and having few regrets despite coming to New Zealand with his family just after he came to the attention of a leading booking agent in London.
“Make sure you say hello”, he said at the end of the interview after I told him I would be going to the Masterton A&P Show.
Which I did. Ray was talking with a circle of people when I walked over with a cup of tea in one hand and a plate with two scones with jam and cream in the other.
Dressed in a smart black leather jacket and creased black dress trousers, Woolf was capturing just the right look for someone whose career had spanned early sixties rock and roll, psychedelic rock (including rediscovered psych classic “The Little Things That Happen” which Woolf penned after listening to a little too much Jimi Hendrix), to his present jazz crooner persona.
I knew I would be interrupting him but didn’t think I would have a chance to talk after the performance.
“Hi”, I said. “I interviewed you for the feature.” He said hello back and went to take the cup of tea. I said I wasn’t bringing him a cup of tea and he said “No I’m going to shake your hand.” He took the cup to tea. We shook hands. And that was it. My brief moment in the personal space one of New Zealand’s greatest pop stars of the 1960s and early 1970s was seemingly over.
Retiring to a seat out of the rain under the veranda of the nearby historic kiosk, I settled in to wait for the Rodger Fox Band to get going. Possibly due to the closure of the Remutaka Hill which had stopped one band from making it to the Show, they were running behind time but after a bit more sheet music shuffling, the band got rolling, supporting vocalist Erna Ferry with a surprising list of songs considering Fox’s heavy jazz leanings, including China Groove by the Doobie Brothers, Elton John’s Crocodile Rock and a Bill Halley/Jerry Lee Lewis/Chuck Berry rock and roll medley. Their best moment was when they got a disco groove with “I Love The Night Life.” Enjoyable enough.
And then Ray steps up the hay bales and on to the stage, his leather jacket removed to reveal a stylish black suit.
Like I remember when 1950s RnB artist Screaming Jay Hawkins played a Wellington pub in the late 1980s, suddenly the energy lifted. I was about to be reminded why great live music gives you something a record never can.
Woolf was doing what all great entertainers do – summoning up energy out of nowhere and blasting it out into the audience.
His instinct to communicate immediately expressed itself with a promise to “take your mind of the rain,” later reminding everyone that “sh*t happens so just go with it and enjoy the music” – or something like that – before launching into Stormy Monday.
With every song I was become more in awe of his vocal skills. By Van Morrison’s Moondance both Woolf and the band were heading towards it, Woolf’s energy charging everyone else, with some particularly good solos coming from the tenor sax.
It was in this jazz pop vein that Woolf found his sweetest moments, finishing off the set with his version of Bobby Darin’s version of Mack the Knife, one of his favourite songs from his youth.
The rain beating down harder than ever and the set over, I went up to the stage, looked up, and said “Hey Ray.” He looked down. “Those were awesome vocals.” I misinterpreted him putting his hand out toward me as him being about to shake my hand. We shook hands. He thanked me and added “I appreciated the story. It was a really good.” Or something like that.
I’ve known Dave Murphy since his family lived in Masterton in the mid-1970s. He had just returned to New Zealand from a sorjourn at Nimbin in northern New South Wales, famous for its alternative lifestyle.
Dave was very much a hippy then but a few years later he was well and truly immersed in the Blues, working for a Masterton market gardening Chinese family at the same time as finishing of an horticultural degree, if I remember correctly.
By the mid-1980s he was already a technically accomplished blues musician. I remember him playing upstairs at the Oak Arcade in lower Cuba Street, one of those trendy new arcades that replaced the beautiful old buildings in Wellington that were deemed an earthquake risk, part of a destructive frenzy sparked by the introduction of “Rogernomics”, New Zealand’s version of Monetarism, by the new Labour government.
Dave disappeared off the Wellington music scene after a car crash, the catalyst for a deep depression that saw him give up all music for a significant number of years.
It would be impossible to suppose that such a story lies behind his music, such was the assured performance Dave gave at The Tin Hut – except perhaps in a small number of spirituals he performs on the night that hint at an inner transformation.
I’m not a huge fan of the song Amazing Grace, I have to say, but Dave’s performance had the conviction of a true believer. He chose to play a much more up tempo version than I’ve heard before which worked to excellent effect.
It is literally decades since I last listened to Dave play live, in the intimate setting of his family’s home. After all those years, the foundation of his music remains the same finger picking style of the early blues twentieth century musicians he admired then.
There is always the danger that homage can turn into impersonation but Dave has avoided becoming a slave to his heroes, and has instead become a unique performer in his own right.
There has been a noticeable broadening of his repertoire, with the inclusion of some of his own songs that in no way pale in comparison to the standards that fill most of his set.
Dave is a superb guitarist and it is this musicianship that his performance is founded on, but his singing as well is stronger than ever.
I suspect the character of his music will continue mature with the years, in the tradition of all good blues singers.
A testament to his performance was how much the musical energy lifted to another level in the space of just his first song, with Dave holding my attention to the very end of a set that started a bit later than it needed to.
Dave has never lost his modesty. His engagement with his audience was as unpretentious as ever. It included the story of how he and his dobro were reunited years after it had been stolen. Dave discovered it being played by a friend who had bought it on Trade Me.
Dave pointed out how beautifully the 30 year old dobro had mellowed with age and sounds better than ever. The same could be said of Dave Murphy.
Wits End, at the southern entrance to Featherston, is better known for its new age products than live music. But this has changed with a partnership between Victoria Brown and musician and artist Campbell Kneale.
Given the unique character of the venue, a brief description is deserved, this being a space about the size of a small living room which makes for limited ticket sales, a homelike environment, and complete focus on the music and musician only an arms-reach away.
I had already listened to recordings of Birchville Cat Motel, the name Kneale usually performs under, but this turned out to be a shadow of the impact his music has when performed live.
Kneale started off by moving into a prayful state, breathing into a microphone to create a sound akin to Tibetan throat singing.
Through a combination of cheap electronics, percussive instruments and malfunctioning appliances, Kneale then began to gradually alter the texture of the music which evolved into a crescendo of sound and energy, but never lost its subtlety, or became overpowering.
Anyone who has ever lost themselves totally in music will understand the essence of Kneale’s performance, the difference being that Kneale has trained himself to enter that state of mind in front of a live audience, a feat of courage and skill not to be underestimated.
As the music continued to evolve, Kneale slowly distilled the river of sound back into a human voice but not his, a neat and tidy way of coming back into the conscious realm.
Where Kneale’s music had an almost industrial edge to it, Gooch, best known as a member of Trinity Roots but performing solo under the title “0-0”, was more reminiscent of your French Impressionists like Debussy and Satie, with a delicate and richly melodic composition.
While sitting comfortably under the label of “minimalist electronica”, Gooch’s music was both a classical and jazz inspired – the arrangements were orchestral while the performance was improvised in the spirit of jazz.
While Gooch primarily used electronic instrumentation, he included live percussion to enrich the sound and add extra elements of spontaneity.
The overall impression of the night was that while electronica is mostly critically overlooked, in the hands of musicians like Kneale and Gooch it expresses the present cultural moment better than any other musical genre.
Featherston has always had a strong connection with World War I due to its proximity of New Zealand’s largest training camp, which was just a couple of kilometres north of the south Wairarapa town.
However, I can remember a time, growing up in Masterton, when most memories of the camp focused on its role during World War II as a Japanese Prisoner of War camp, and specifically the incident in which 64 prisoners were killed, 94 wounded and one New Zealander killed.
Times have changed and the World War I camp is almost the sole focus of discussion. Almost nothing of it remains, as all the buildings were either demolished or moved off the camp immediately after World War I.
However, Featherston itself still enjoys an amenity built by citizens of the town for the soldiers – Anzac Hall – a stunning building, rich in native timber and the spirit of the past. Which makes it an ideal venue for Farewell Zealandia, a series of three concerts of “forgotten Kiwi songs of World War I”.
It is also hosting the companion exhibition of the same title, originally created for Te Manawa Museum in Palmerston North, which will later appear at Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History.
This first concert featured the luxury of an 11 piece salon orchestra (popular in the 1910s and 1920s) as well as four vocal soloists, with the Anzac Hall showing it has outstanding acoustics for this type of performance.
The conductor was Brett Lowe who also did an outstanding job of arranging the music based on 100 year old sheet music that likely only had the vocal melody and accompanying piano arrangement. The quality of the performance was all the more impressive given the musicians only had one rehearsal, in the morning of the concert.
The brains behind the concept are David Dell, archivist and historian at the Sheet Music Archive of New Zealand Trust, and Tony Rasmussen, social history curator at Te Manawa.
The two hour concert was built around Dell’s telling of the stories of the composers and lyricists behind each of the 10 songs performed by the orchestra and singers. These opened the door to another world, and to some degree the lives of the songwriters, which being a time of war naturally includes both tragedy and romance.
Much of the details of their lives has melted into the mist of time, but good luck and the sort of synchronicities that have “meant to be” written all over them, prised open the door of their lives just enough to let the light shine through all the way to 2016.
One example of this was Arthur Vivian Carbines who Dell could find no information on till a desperate-last, minute long-shot phone call on a trail that had seemingly gone cold got him in contact with Carbines’ great nephew Allan Carbine who told him the tragic tale Carbine’s death on the New Zealand assault on Chunuk Bair at Gallipoli.
Carbines, who had joined a medical unit only a few weeks earlier, was carrying back the wounded Lieutenant Colonel William George Malone, commanding officer of the Wellington Battalion, when a soldier mistook them for Turks and shot them dead. Allan said the story was told to his mother in an Auckland bank by a teller who was at Gallipoli with Carbines, and recognised the surname as possibly being that of a relative.
Even the photo of Allan Carbines that is in the exhibition has an unusual story. It was one of a number of photographic portraits of staff killed in the war that was hung in the offices of Carbines’ employer for many years, rediscovered many years later by someone who was sorting through a deceased relative’s estate, who had thoughtfully searched for a family member to pass it on to. They had been put in contact with Allan who brought the photograph to the opening of the exhibition at Te Manawa, revealing a pleasant and sensitive subject.
As for romance, that belongs to Corporal Ernest Franz Luks and pianist Winifred Lonsdale who performed together at Trentham and Featherston military camps, becoming the first couple to be married at Featherston military camp in 1916.
As Dell pointed out, it is highly likely the couple performed in the Anzac Hall at some point, making a performance of Ernest song “Trentham” in the same hall 100 years later all the more poignant.
People don’t realise how many songs were written by New Zealanders during World War I, Dell said in his introduction, with the archive holding the sheet music for 500 songs. Most were printed in small numbers of perhaps 50 copies or so. However, an exception would be Henry Ribbands and Charles James’ Land of the Long White Cloud which became the official marching song of the New Zealand troops in France.
Barrie Marschell, author of “There’s Only One Way Home, boys. It’s Through Berlin” – went on to have his music published in Australia, the United States and Britain after the war.
Generally speaking the 10 songs in this concert could be described as simplistic, sentimental to maudlin, patriotic to jingoistic, but also sincere in their feelings. There’s very little in the way of a real connection with the horrors of war, although Charles Fleming’s “Mrs Tommy Atkins” does ask the question of who will look after the women and children back home.
They are also extraordinarily sexless in the broadest sense of the word to include any sort of rhythm that we would associate with dance these days. It took the influence of black American music to enter the popular mainstream, finally arriving in New Zealand with rock & roll in the 1950 for music here to get jiggy. Before that New Zealand music was even more prim and proper than that of the mother country where at least the working classes added a bit bawdiness.
There’s no music that comes from an overtly female point of view either. The one woman composer, Elizabeth Ferguson Hume, is represented with “Lads of the Silver Fern” which could just have easily have been written by one of the male composers.
Just ahead of the national anthem – God Defend New Zealand – a song with its own fascinating history explained by Dell, which made much more sense as a composition as part of this concert, there was time for a few questions, the best and most intriguing of which was why there had been no songs written by Maori played.
Dell explained that some of these will appear in the final two concerts which will be performed by a trio. Interestingly, he pointed out that while in Britain (and here) people still remember some of the popular British songs of World War I such
It’s a Long Way to Tipperary and Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag, ours are almost completely forgotten – except for three Maori compositions – Pokarekare Ana, Now Is The Hour/Po Atarau (which was actually based on the melody of The Swiss Cradle Song by Clement Scott), and one other (the name of which I didn’t catch).
Dell surmised that this was because Maori continue to sing the songs of the past while European New Zealanders don’t. This may be true, but I’m also inclined to believe that Maori in general had a gift for musicality that was much more fluid and melodic compared to that of the relatively stiff European based popular songs of the same time. Songs like Pokarekare Ana remain ageless to this day, whereas the European compositions played here are very much a part of their time only.
Nevertheless, this first Farewell Zealandia concert was an enjoyable and very rare journey into a unique moment in New Zealand’s musical history, and certainly expanded my musical knowledge and experience into yet another sphere. It will be interesting to see what the next two concerts at 2pm on Sunday 10 April and Sunday 24 April reveal.
Further details of the upcoming concerts can be found here: http://www.eventfinda.co.nz/2016/farewell-zealandia-concert-series/featherston
There can be no doubt of the talent of Anika Moa and her ability to perform musically on the night. Musical energy flows effortlessly out of her although obviously the pre-requisite of musical technique has to be there as well. Moa’s ability to write a good tune is undoubtedly based on a powerful intellect being applied to the process.
On this night, her performance is both acoustic and electric, sometimes solo and at other times supported by the immensely talented Jol Mulholland, with a brief stint on bass for the encores from SJD aka Sean Donnelly who performed an acoustic set earlier. Jol is one of those talented multi-instrumentalists who can essentially create a whole backing band by himself, but it is Moa who is the inspiration for this particular performance.
I was pleased that Moa performed Dreams in My head, a perfect pop song. I wasn’t expecting her to as I thought she might associate the song with the period in her life where she was on the crest of being a bonafide female pop star with the looks and the songs.
Moa ditched this opportunity to stay real to her muse, which I respect, but I can’t help feeling that she has since thrown out the baby with the bath water. Her songs still emit light but Moa’s between songs stage conversation comes across as unnecessarily angry and cynical, like she is still fighting the 1980s’ battles.
In particular, she makes a big deal of being a lesbian when in fact to the audience at King Street Live being gay means nothing other than being gay and I imagine this is the case for the vast majority of Moa’s audience.
Generally speaking, the standout moments of the night are the electronica and electric guitar combos which have a great groove to them. But Moa never really allows herself and the night’s wannabee dancers (like me) to settle into a flow with every song preluded by a rather long introduction.
Despite a cold, Moa still manages to impress with her vocals as well as her electric guitar playing, going for the right notes rather than just a lot of them.
My concern for Moa is that she is putting herself in a box where she is largely preaching to the hardcore converted. She seems to be embarrassed about the softer sides of her personality and music. Every time she suddenly lets her heart out, Moa feels compelled to immediately dollop on a twice as much cynicism as an antidote. It would be nice if Moa allowed herself to lighten up just a little bit more.
Still, I did buy one her lovely Queen of the Table cotton t-towels which is now hanging on the wall at home.
Bush, Bog, Brine and Bugle: Yestermusic of Featherston County is not so much an embellishment on factual history but a subtle re-invention of it – reviving the past but informing it with contemporary twists. At first the conceit is not obvious which is part of the wit of this collection of songs, ostensibly from Featherston’s settler past.
Through the 12 songs on this CD, producer Chris Miller has created a series of evocative myths. Yestermusic is also theatre to the point where the potpourri of musicians Miller has employed are called the “Players” Through them and some masterful number 8 wire production skills, he has brought alive a parade of almost forgotten characters.
The types will be familiar but their stories are not. Recording the characters of local history was a more haphazard affair 100 years ago, usually simple one or two paragraph anecdotes that passed from one generation to another.
Diaries that revealed the inner lives were few and far between. They would more likely record the number of bean seeds planted in spring than a settler’s feelings about their lives in their new home. Of course, there were exceptions, sometimes in letters to family and friends back home, but all in all, New Zealand’s European settlers were a taciturn lot, particularly the males who considerably outnumbered the females.
Miller has gone to considerable effort to research the times his characters lived in. The liner notes are an impressive piece of work, filling in details about the songs and enriching their meaning.
Many of the songs stand on their own merit as entertaining and often poignant tunes. One of the most beautiful and moving is Te Tuna Heke, sung in Maori, a sad farewell from an eel (tuna) who lived in New Zealand for 80 or so years who is departing for its final trip to spawning grounds far away in the South Pacific. Likewise the tara tern, which migrates between the Arctic and Antarctic circle several times during its life which asks itself if it is ready for the long journey.
Take away the Wee Fish has a more overt ecological theme, being a prescient ecological morality tale 100 years ahead of its time, its author “Fabian Guinness” considered a madman for seeing the danger of oil to the earth’s oceans.
Miller’s strong personal connection with Italy comes out in the fate of Ava Ragnatella, the Italian wife of a cruel immigrant Yorkshire farmer, whose fate is connected to the phenomenon of tarantism and the pizzica or spider dance from her home region of Apulia.
The little boot maker Rutherford did indeed lead recruits over the Rimutaka hill from Featherston Military Camp to Trentham from whence they departed for waiting ships in Wellington harbour, as can be found in a letter to the editor at Papers Past. But whether the rag he supposedly wrote ever existed is a mute point.
No Google search will find any pages dedicated to the subject of the Ballad of Swagman Magee. Instead it is an entertaining yarn with just the right amount of tongue in cheek humour to leaven its warning to all young men.
One of Yestermusic’s most charming moments, and the one that ends the collection is The Last Post (The Poppy & The Fern). Ostensibly a remastered recording of an original sound recording in situ by Canadian sound recordist Samuel Beaumont in 1918, it captures enthusiastic but terribly disfigured former soldier Timothy Mandrake playing the Last Post on harmonica somewhere in the bush above where soldiers were bivouacking for the night as part of their training. Scratches and hiss from the original recording remain. Like most of Yestermusic, a grand piece of historical imagining.
Here is a link to the album liner notes online (http://bit.ly/1OK0wcQ) or search for “Featherston’s Finest” on Spotify or iTunes. For more info on the album, contact Chris Miller at email@example.com.
Alda Rezende (Brazil, based in Wellington, vocals), Matiu Te Huki (Aotearoa, vocals, guitar and traditional Maori instruments), Caito Marcondes (direct from Brazil, percussion), Kristoff Silva (direct from Brazil, guitar)
Unfortunately, the performance started early and I arrived late for this event, but nevertheless the quality of the music was such that it deserves a review. Opportunities to hear quality Brazilian music live in New Zealand and especially Masterton are rare, even more so when some of the musicians have come directly from Brazil.
I’m a lover of Brazilian music but recognise that often I am enjoying music that is half a century old. My knowledge of current trends in popular Brazilian music is practically zero (although I do have a Lambada CD from the early 1990s). And being such a vast country there are bound to be numerous strands of authentic Brazilian music that I am not even aware of.
The fact is my own taste and knowledge is mostly via Bossa Nova which while a definable sound is also a spirit and a flow, a church that accepts a rich variety of influences, from indigenous to jazz and on this night Maori. It’s a sensibility as much as a distinctive sound, that combines Brazilian sensuousness and rhythm with a certain intellectual awareness.
The question surrounding this performance would be how comfortably Te Huki’s strong Maori flavour would mesh with that of his Brazilian co-musicians. Sometimes in “world music” the path to hell is paved with good intentions, producing interesting experiments but music that is too contrived to genuinely work.
In the end, there was never any awkwardness about this performance, whether the song was The Girl from Ipanema in Te Reo or one of Te Huki’s own compositions. The foundation of the night was Te Huki’s ongoing creative relationship with Alda Rezende which has been going on for some time, I understand.
The two Brazilian musicians were brought over by Rezende, hence this sublime match up. One would never have guessed that the five had only played as a group for a few days and a few performances.
The music flowed beautifully, with a clarity of sound that allowed every instrument to be heard clearly while their sounds weaved beautifully in and out of each other. The rhythms were lovely and the feeling rich and almost spiritual – something Te Huki in particular brings to every performance he gives.
Over the period of a few songs it slowly became obvious just how good Marcondes and Silva are. Lovely acoustic guitar from Silva that in the best Bossa spirit was disciplined at the same time as relaxed and improvisational. Rezende’s voice has a deep resonance that reminds me of Sarah Vaughan in her later years, and has the same sensuous and mature character.
Before the last number Te Huki spoke of how humbled he was to play with the Brazilian musicians and while numbers were small, how he appreciated the audience being part of this development stage of the project. The last number was a Te Huki original I have heard before and previously been deeply impressed with. It never fails to send shivers down my spine.
Talking to Marcondes afterwards, despite his down-to-earth manner, I slowly discovered just how impressive his background is. As well releasing a number of his own albums, Marcondes has written scores for a number of Brazilian films.
Whether this combination ever plays in New Zealand again is hard to be sure of, due to the costs involved. However, Marchondes told me they were keen to get Te Huki over to Brazil, while Rezende said that appearances at a music festival like Womad might be the best option because of the financial certainty that would offer.
NB I can’t provide you with a video of the night but you can see a video of Caito Marcondes recently performing on Brazilian television here.
I’m accustomed to going to performances that pique my interest without knowing much about the band or artist. Kim Ritchie’s resume alone made her sound like someone I should see, particularly as my interest in country music grows. Grammy Award nominated, hits for the Dixie Chicks etc, my imagination flashed to visions of upbeat country pop melodies sung with a bit of verve.
I’m also used to having my expectations disappointed but usually find some elements of any performance to enjoy – sadly these were all too rare in this case. Which sounds a bit harsh, and possibly is on re-listening to the performance on my recording of the night (which I use for reviewing purposes only).
Ritchie has a nice voice, which has a slightly stronger country tinge when heard in playback, but the dourness of her song writing and performance played much stronger on the night. Generally speaking I would describe the landscape of the music as fairly monotonous with the occasional small peak of extra energy.
I know Ritchie has had great success with her song writing, but I found them lacking in much sophistication in compositions. Cole Porter she is not. I suppose I shouldn’t compare her to Cole Porter but the thing with a song writer like Porter was that he made cleverly constructed songs seem very simple.
Like everything else good in the world, a good song has a “surface structure” which is what everyone sees/hears, and a “deep structure” which most listeners are affected by but consciously unaware of. The lyrics of the song carry not only meaning and melody but also rhythm, all of which are anchored to this deeper structure.
Hence a singer like Frank Sinatra or Marvin Gaye, or soloist like Peter Green drop their notes in at the most unlikeliest of places but which actually connect with the deeper rhythm etc of the song. If you want to test this theory, try humming the melody to a guitar solo or vocal you love and then go back and play it and see how close you were. You may find you have actually dumbed down the song to a simplified approximation of the melody.
Anyway, getting back to Ritchie, I found her songs musically quite basic in their design, following pretty standard chord arrangements with melodies that rarely captured the imagination. She accompanied herself on the guitar with mostly perfunctory strumming of the chords, so there was not great joy to be had in the interplay of her vocals and guitar.
The primary focus of her music appears to be the lyrics but I didn’t find these particularly easy to get into. They seemed to be mostly maudlin musings on relationships and friendships. A line like “you can always count on me, like a river to the sea” commits two of the most serious sins of song writing – using obvious rhyming words, and vacuous cliques.
From her expansive dialogues between songs one could pick up that Ritchie has takes a workmanlike approach to songwriting. This is not a bad thing in itself. The famous song writing inhabitants of the Brill Building in New York treated it as a nine-to-five job and still managed to produce a huge number of memorable songs. But in this case, it felt more like Ritchie’s songs don’t come from a notably rich experience of life. In fact, it felt like Ritchie might have been lead quite a cloistered one.
A very pleasant person, of course, with plenty of in between song patter, even this only seemed to confirm my suspicion that she is not particularly perceptive of life and people. In introducing one of her songs, Ritchie described her experience of her first meeting the bass player she now collaborates with, not like anyone from Ohio she had ever met, with rings, tattoos, who “kind of scared me a little bit” till Ritchie found out he was gentle voiced collector of Bakelite. A great story – if it was 1962.
I couldn’t quite comprehend how Ritchie was so intimidated by his appearance as he sounded like one of many thousands of people you will find in any city in the world these days. In fact, it’s getting hard to find someone who DOESN’T have a tattoo, these days. He sounded like he would be right at home in Cuba Street, Wellington and surely even Ohio isn’t that much behind the times?
A bit of nitpicking on my part for sure, but I have so say my strongest response of the evening was a feeling of irritation which even artists in other reviews I have written about have not managed to engender. A work colleague who also by chance attended, was less damning, making the comment that Ritchie didn’t seem to have had a happy life.
She found also her “a bit folky” for her taste, which I thought was quite a good summation of Ritchie’s style, despite her “country” tag. Surprisingly for a country music writer, I picked up almost no country music flavours from her performance.
She came across more as an alt singer songwriter. There seems to be a real genre of morose singer songwriters and bands out there these days that are considered the inheritors of the mantle of the serious rock/folk music tradition of the 1960s and early 1970s, an umbilical chord that was in all reality cut by Punk/Hip Hop/House etc.
There’s heaps of this kind of music in the free CDs of “Best of 2014” that came with Uncut and Mojo magazines, for example.
But to me most of the artists are imitative in their personal style and their punts at originality become quite apparent as dead ends after a few listenings. In this, the music is a mirroring what is happening in the visual arts. The achievements of earlier generations of hugely talented musicians/artists have created dead zone in their wake in which the current crop are really struggling to match up to.
Sue Dyson, Dennis Marsh, Legal Tender, Gerry Lee, The Johnnys, True Touch/Gerry Lee
In many ways it was going to be a challenge trumping the line up at 2014’s Clareville Country Music Festival which was a cornucopia of country music styles and artists. It also had a different set of personalities choosing the main acts. The end result in 2015 was a less cluttered programme, but also one that was likely to appeal to a more conservative and older audience.
As a musical genre, “country” is a big stage that invites an exceedingly wide range of musicians to play on it. This is particularly the case in New Zealand which has only a small number of musicians and listeners primarily focused on country music.
Mention country music to most New Zealanders and you will immediately be greeted with stereotypes and the somewhat tiresome “yeah ha” but they don’t realise that they have been listening to country music all their lives, albeit not always through the most obvious channels. Listen closely to a greatest hits CD of Dean Martin, an Italian American, and you will notice that about half the tunes are actually country, to give just one example – “Little Old Wine Drinker Me”.
So for a significant part of the older audience (at lease) of any country music festival in New Zealand, country and pop music are almost synonymous. Catering to this older audience’s taste in country at the same time as presenting a programme that connects with current country music trends is undoubtedly a challenge, especially as the pop music charts as they once existed, and which was where genre crossovers occurred, is essentially moribund.
The Saturday night line up reflects this dilemma in the range of acts presented. While it would be impossible to satisfy everybody, what is noticeably missing in 2015 are younger contemporary country music artists of the likes of Dan and Hannah Cosgrove, and Abby Christodoulou.
Sue Dyson who now lives in Masterton, who I catch when I arrive around 7.30pm, who is the only artists on the night who does have this flavour, albeit with a connection to the past as expressed through her last song Walking After Midnight, “by one of my favourite artists Patsy Cline.”
Then it’s the turn of Dennis Marsh who arrives in his typical showbiz style just as the sun goes down, on the back of a quad bike, stepping off and straight into song. Marsh is the inheritor of a long tradition of Maori crooners who have found the country songbook a comfortable place to hitch their horse (sorry about the trite country cliché – ha ha).
As Marsh said in an interview for the festival programme, when asked if Maori country musicians bring something unique to the field of country music. “Yes – and Eddie Low explains it really well. ‘When Maori do country, the Maori sound often dominates the country sound. There are different tones and vibrato – we don’t necessarily sound all that country but it’s a unique sound New Zealand warms to.”
Marsh is unusual in that whereas other similar artists like John Rowles and Howard Morrison were recognised and appreciated early in their careers, Marsh has come from the opposite direction, almost accidently establishing his career, and becoming more popular the older he has gotten.
It’s a genre that isn’t really my cup of tea although it undoubtedly appeals to the motor home set, the tail end of The Great Generation. Marsh has a fine voice and warm personality but the showbiz razzmatazz, which undoubtedly works in the cabaret setting of a workingman’s club full of Marsh fans, involving audience participation and one extremely long joke in particular that won’t make any sense to anyone who doesn’t remember the television series Bonanza and appreciate outdated racial stereotyping, means barely more than half his set is dedicated to us listening to Marsh simply singing some songs.
Next up is Legal Tender from the Kapiti Coast, an act that can be anything from a duo to a full band, on this occasion incorporating its two core members, Ian Campbell (guitar/vocals) and Moira Howard (bass/vocals) and someone called Carol Anne on accordion and keyboards.
There is a sharpness and intensity to their performance, and a sense of joy in performing. I would categorise them as New Zealand contemporary folk music. New Zealand, of course having the problem of not having a centuries old folk tradition to draw on has made the evolution of our own folk traditions a somewhat awkward affair with an artist like Phil Garland eking a folk tradition out of, not quite thin air, but the scarce 19th century resources of the likes miners, stage coach companies, and hotel keepers.
Contemporary miners feature in Legal Tender’s own song about the Pike River disaster, followed by a languid version of Fleetwood Mac’s “For You” from their hugely successful mid Seventies “Rumours” album. While sadly played to death, the hidden secret of Rumours is how country flavoured it is, despite Fleetwood Mac being originally a blues band. They end the set with a drummer and on an upbeat note, with Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road.
Next it’s the turn of Gerry Lee, who by sheer coincidence has almost the same name as one of his biggest influences, Gerry Lee Lewis. 1950s rock and roll is the foundation of this set as Lee pounds his way using hands, feet and bum, through Lewis, Elvis and Hank William’s well-covered Jambalaya.
When he ventures outside the 1950s for Is This The Way To Amarillo, one of a sleigh of early 1970s songs about jealous lovers down Tex Mex way, it’s nice to hear the song live for the first time. Eagles and Keith Urban numbers add an extra freshness.
Lee’s chief failings are an exceedingly dull outfit that reminds me of what a Wellington public servant wears for brunch on weekends, and that he uses recorded tracks to back his electric piano.
A short interlude with the Kapiti duo Double Blend (I think) while The Johnny’s set up (they had a bit of drama getting to the event from Nelson, it appears) sees me taking time out for a burger and fries from one of the semi-circle of food and drink kiosks still operating.
I have to say at this point that like last year, there is an excellent atmosphere and environment for the festival, very relaxed and safe, in a lovely rural environment on another beautiful evening.
Back in front of the stage for The Johnnys first song, the roles of the three band members are defined pretty quickly, Suzi Fray (vocals, guitar, ukulele, melodica) is the extrovert crowd pleaser, Jo Taylor (on bass, harmonica and vocals) the hip cool, gothic one, while keeping an aloof distance from proceedings is Liala Gianstefani (drums).
Johnny Cash recorded 1374 songs, 1000 of them his own, Suzi tells us, so band’s repertoire certainly isn’t limited. The trio not only picks some of the ripest fruit from the Cash tree, but fortunately for them and us , Johnny Cash also recorded some classic country songs better known to me through other artist’s interpretations.
One of these is Jackson, more usually associated with the brief but golden run of hits by Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra. Another, Ghost Riders in the Sky, evokes the gothic spirit that’s always been an integral part of country music.
When you think about, Johnny Cash was quite the country Goth – the man in black – infatuated with songs about death, damnation and redemption. Of all the country music stars, who would be more suitable for an alternative post punk all girl group?
The Johnnys whirl through a mostly high octane run of hits – Daddy Sang Bass/Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Boy Named Sue, Folsom Prison Blues – liberally sprinkled with congenial patter from Suzi in between numbers.
The set winds down (or should be that winds up) with Cocaine Blues and Ring of Fire, written by June Carter, and Cash’s biggest hit. They finish with I Walk The Line, given a downbeat reggae flavoured beat.
Officially the end of the night’s entertainment, most of the audience are quick to pack up their deck chairs and head to (their motor) home. But Gerry lee and the True Touch band who have been backing many of the acts, return to the stage for an impromptu man that brings out the best in both Lee and the band, proving my earlier appoint about the need for live backing for Lee’s earlier performance.
They run through extended jams on some classic rock and roll including Johnny B Goode, Whole Lot of Shaking Going On, and finally Route 66 which morphs into Ray Charles’ What’d I Say.
It’s a reminder that traditional rock and roll, despite being over 50 years old, well past having any cultural relevance, and managing to survive the great rock and roll nostalgic revival of the 1970s (even Grease), still packs a huge punch when played well by a live band.
So what, in summary, can one say about this year’s Clareville Country Music Festival and its main acts? It’s a festival that many more people would enjoy if they gave it a go, even if it isn’t the type of music they listen to. They would most likely find it a lot more familiar and comfortable than they were expecting.
The festival is also a chance to discover that while country music is more associated with listening to the lyrics of life’s emotional ups and downs, it’s also equally a dance music. It’s also a chance to hear bands you are not likely to otherwise get to see in the Wairarapa, revealing fresh talent which has the opportunity to play in the best environment possible for both them and the audience.
The organisers have to play to the tastes of those they know will most likely attend, but if the festival is to build any sort of serious reputation, it will need to go beyond the motor home crowd pleasers and find a balance between entertainment and artistic endeavour. I suspect most who are presently coming will come back whoever the acts are, so the festival has the luxury of experimenting.
I don’t know what the Sunday performance of Celtic pub performers The Shenanigans was like, and variety is great, but when you start including bands in your programme whose links to country music are particularly tenuous, you run the risk of losing your credibility. On the other hand, I’m really glad they didn’t invite The Topp Twins to play.
The Clareville Country Music Festival has the potential to be more than a country music club get-together on a grand scale. Hopefully it will find the visionaries who will take to where it could easily be. Whoever they have next year, I recommend more people interested in music step outside the box to discover the Festival.
It was hearing Radio New Zealand music reviewer Nick Bollinger interviewing guitarist James Burton that piqued my interest in this concert. I was already familiar with Burton’s music without actually knowing this – most notably 1950s rockabilly hit Suzie Q. It was Burton’s groundbreaking playing that made the song, when Burton was barely 15.
He has played with a wealth of artists since, most notably Elvis Presley from 1969 to 1977, and along with Ronnie Tutt (drums), Glen D. Hardin (piano) and Norbert ‘Put’ Putnam (bass) who also played in Elvis’ Taking Care of Business (TCB) band, was going to perform in Wellington, backing John Rowles on his and Elvis’ hits (In the end, I don’t think Putnam performed at this concert but I haven’t been able to confirm this).
I have to admit to not being a great fan of Rowles’ music, although I fully acknowledge his talents as a singer. So to some degree I went to the concert as an uncommitted observer, unlike most of those who milled about the foyer of the Opera House pre-concert (although I did meet up with a old blues playing friend during the interval there for the same reason as me, so there must have been a few James Burton fans in attendance).
It’s hard to discern who was there to see and hear John Rowles and who was there for the Elvis connection. There was just the one tall gentleman dressed in a rockabilly style – slicked back hair, wearing a jacket with a giant Elvis image on the back. I admire such people for their commitment, and courage in presenting it to a world which has a tendency to ridicule too easily. But for the most part the audience is of the age where they are likely to have fallen in love with Elvis and Rowles some time in the 1960s.
Elvis and Rowles do a share a lot in common – in particular a love of pomp and showmanship, and powerful soulful voices. A lot of their aura was also based around their sexual mystic. While Elvis died young enough not to have to confront the issues that come with being an ageing sex symbol, unfortunately for Rowles, as he is quite honest enough to admit, this gets harder to conjure up with every concert (at one point someone in the audience shouts “Take it all off! – Are you serious? You might be disappointed.”)
The audience is quite anarchic at some points during the concert, somehow managing to be both fawning and mocking, almost at the same time. Rowles laps up the former in a somewhat gauche manner, especially when dealing with star struck 60 year-olds, and mostly ignores the later. In some ways, Rowles’s once huge popularity acts as a millstone around his neck, now that he has permanently moved back to New Zealand.
Unlike another Maori crooner, Denis Marsh, who never made it big on the world stage but how has a strong and stable following when he regularly tours New Zealand’s “workingmens’ clubs. Could Rowles, for instance, earn a living doing these sorts of tours? Probably not, partly out of pride and also because he doesn’t have the common touch (although I have just noticed on his website www.serenadesfromtheheart.com that Rowles is available for “Weddings, Birthdays, Fund Raisers, Private Parties, Grand Openings and Funerals” – I think he would be great for these).
Rowles belongs to an era when separation between star and audience was essential to maintain their aura. Living in a country with a population of four million it’s very easy to become over-exposed and devalued. But strip all this away, and you still have a fine singer. He just needs his own Rick Rubin (famous for revitalising the twilight career of Johnny Cash amongst others) to work their magic and Rowles could conceivable yet have another hit, or at least put out a critically respected album.
So anyway, I’m sitting next to a man in a large cowboy hat – the only cowboy hat in attendance – and he is telling me over the sound of popera being played through the soundsystem (incongruously given the genre of the concert), that he plays in a country/rockabilly band. We agree that mainstream Country & Western music from the 1950s and 1960s is preferable to alt country.
And then the lights dim, and Also Sprach Zarathustra, made famous by the film 2001, and traditionally the opening for Elvis’ live performances starts up and the band kicks off with CC Rider, Rowles entering stage right to introduce its members and immediately mellow the mood with Welcome to My World.
The energy and music steps up a notch again with a fine version of Little Sister, written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, with Presley’s version reaching No 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1961. Burton’s guitar and Tutt’s drums lift the rhythm up to another level without losing the essentially laid back flavour of the song. Rowles’ vocals work well on the song as well.
Incidentally, it is interesting to read on the Internet that Elvis had a remarkably wide range, described variously as tenor, baritone and bass. It is when Rowles covers songs sung by Elvis in the lower registers that the two match up most perfectly.
Then it’s back to Rowles’s own hits with If I Only Had Time and Hush Not a Word to Mary. Worth mentioning at this point are the skills of the two female backing vocalists whose names I didn’t catch.
Next up is You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling, a 1965 hit by The Righteous Brothers. Elvis began performing the song in concert in 1970, with pianist Hardin’s new arrangement showcasing Presley’s ability to further emphasize the R&B and soul aspects of the song, according to Wikipedia, that is.
The song was released on Presley’s 1970 album That’s the Way It Is and reprised for his 1972 live album Elvis: As Recorded at Madison Square Garden. It’s a little gem that I’ve never associated with Elvis and along the way a few such songs are dropped into the mix. It’s the first of three songs from Elvis’s late 1960s/early 1970s period that Rowles perfectly captures the spirit off.
But inevitably there’s going to be some 1950s Rock & Roll which actually wasn’t Elvis’ strongest suite although he sold it best. Heartbreak Hotel leads on to Hound Dog, and later That’s Alright Mama. Unfortunately we have to put up with How Great Thou Art, one of the dullest songs of all time.
In his patter Rowles has the lines down pat but unfortunately for him, his audience has a tendency to miss the cues, for example, there’s a great big awkward space when he says “Thank you for joining us”, leaving me with the task of conjuring up some applause. In between numbers, Rowles’s humour sometimes saves him, and sometimes digs a hole that Rowles barely manages to escape from with dignity.
I’ve already said I’m not a fan of Rowles’s own hits, but his self-penned The Girl in White, which I’d never heard before, is actually very sophisticated and appealing. It brings out the best in Rowles’s voice, reminding you that he just needs the right material to be able to produce a sound that very few others can match.
Burton’s guitar throughout is understated. He’s content for the most part to support Rowles with the occasional short solo, as is also the case for Hardin and Tutt. Essentially he’s a country rock guitarist – as Burton acknowledged in the Bollinger review, the music he played when he first started out “was called ‘hillbilly’ then.”
Hardin’s keyboard work is a bit lost in the mix, as often happens with keyboards. I know no one plays acoustic piano on stage any more but I believe that the best and only true way to play Honky Tonk/Rock & Roll piano is on a miced up acoustic. Electric pianos are but a pale approximation in comparison.
Likewise, while Tutt’s drumming is supremely professional and soulful, his drums are just too close to audibly perfect (ironically) thanks to modern technology. Rock & Roll needs an edge in its sound which requires a basic beat up drum kit. Then we are on to Cheryl Moana Marie – nuff said! But a good example of the genre I call “Maori Country”.
This is followed by Johnny B Good by the brilliant Chuck Berry. An interesting fact about Berry’s music is that it is totally black blues when played by him and totally white country when played by Jerry Lee Lewis, which fits in with my theory that all musical genres are essentially cultural in character.
Then it’s fast forward to 1968 and In The Ghetto by Mac (Baby, Don’t Get Hooked On Me) Davis. Once again the sophistication of the song’s structure is perfectly complemented by Rowles’s rich baritone, supported by lovely rolling guitar from Burton, and sensitive drumming from Tutt. Probably as good a version of this song as you are ever going to get in New Zealand in 2014.
Hardin gives the piano on Please Release Me an upbeat honky tonk feel which is far superior to the original lethargic version, followed by Love Me Tender and Tania, both of which are songs that make me think about things like how hard the seats in the Opera House are.
The music lights up again with Suspicious Minds which works for exactly the same reasons as You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling, and In the Ghetto, especially as once again it shows another side to Burton’s guitar.
And then, surprise, there is no encore. I think the first time I’ve ever witnessed that happening (or not happening).
I can’t say I am too sad about that though. I tend to think encores are over-rated and often see concerts end well past the best point for endings thanks to a drawn out encore. I’m going to hang around to check out the band members in the foyer afterwards as they are going to be signing CDs, posters and so forth.
But I decide to flag it. The truth is, meeting musicians after a performance is almost always a disappointment. They’ve already shared their muse on the stage. They become mere mortals again, once the show is over.
Wairarapa re-Views is an editorial based reviews and views site. You can contact its editor David Famularo at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can receive notifications of new reviews by liking Wairarapa re-Views on Facebook.