Clareville Country Music Festival 2015

Saturday Night Show, Carterton, 10th January 2015

Sue Dyson, Dennis Marsh, Legal Tender, Gerry Lee, The Johnnys, True Touch/Gerry Lee

 David Famularo

Legal Tender
Legal Tender

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.”

Denis Marsh - Clareville Country Music Festival
Dennis Marsh

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.

The Johnnys - Clareville Country Music Festival
The Johnnys

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.