Stand and strum: The great Kiwi folk music revival

by Gareth Eyres / 29 April, 2018

Sonya Wilson, Cameron Bennett and Chris Priestley please the crowd at the Whangateau Hall. Photo / Gareth Eyres

In town halls and cafes all around New Zealand, the sweet sound of guitar and voice is making a comeback.

"What genre of music does Ed Sheeran play?" Ask any one of the 80,000 odd people who flocked to Dunedin’s Forsyth Barr stadium in March this year and you’ll get a different answer. 

Some will say pop. Others a blend (meaning they don’t have a clue), some will say “he’s unique”. So what is this type of music that is so popular these days?

The general opinion is that it’s the resurgence of the singer-songwriter. It's the single person on stage singing their songs, telling their story.  And there he is. Ed, his guitar and his loop pedal, the audience with their phones out singing along, happy as clams.

The “lone artist with guitar” has been a popular genre in New Zealand. Who hasn’t been to a party and someone picks up a guitar from the corner and launches into 10 Guitars, Hotel California or a Radiohead cover (pick your age group here.)

The problem is, if you are an aspiring solo artist, finding a place to strut your stuff. An audience. Giving it your voice. Becoming instantly Instagrammable overnight.

The solution is easy. Just look for your local Folk Club.

“This is what makes New Zealand great," guitar maestro Nigel Gavin declared as we stood on the breezy porch of the Whangateau Hall. The heaters were all on full blast, but they were fighting a losing battle. It had been a chilly few days previous, but it didn’t seem to deter the keen folkies that formed a line through the door, rugged up and prepared for their last Monday-of-the-month entertainment.

Two women in the second row are talking. ”They’d better be good,” the dark-haired one says, ”I’m missing Game of Thrones for this."

Nigel and his two musical mates, Chris Priestley and Cameron Bennett, were in the small Rodney seaside village to showcase their new album titled Unsung Heroes: Songs and Stories from New Zealand’s Distant Past.

Tonight they were the main attraction, but as tradition dictates at the Folk Night, it was the locals' open mic session first.

The Matakana district has a small but keen selection of talented musos on hand, and a number of them were there to strut their stuff and sing their songs.

First up, local music teacher and personality John Heyday and on bass, his sidekick Vaughan Williams.

John started playing and singing in 1962 in England. He was a contemporary of Ralph McTell (Streets of London fame), and played support to mega–folkies Pentangle and Mary Hopkins when they toured NZ in the '70s. Their 10-minute set is solid, and with the door shut and the energy from the enthusiastic crowds the old building starts to warm up.

What follows is a stroll through any New Zealand Saturday night singsong bands, but with considerably more skill and musicianship involved.

There are some darn fine players, and they’re passionate about what they play. One young local lad gets a tad passionate and goes 20 minutes over his allocated 10. John Heyday remarks, "He’s lucky that it was me running the show that night - if it was Janine [of local band The Pipi Pickers] she would have hauled him off the stage. It’s not on.”

Obviously, there is a protocol to this folk singing thing. It’s not a woolly hat and homespun jumper free-for-all.

Halftime break rolls around and there’s tea from a sixties-era gallon alloy teapot, three different types of biscuit (the chocolate wheaten are wolfed down like there are bears in the crowd) and Greggs instant coffee.

The banter over the break is lively, but in strict timekeeping manner, it’s soon time for the main act.

Chris Priestley has been around the Auckland music scene for well over thirty years. He was a co-founder of Real Groovy Records, owner of the famous Java Jive Music venue, and, appropriately for a coffee aficionado, the founder of Atomic Café and Roastery.

But it’s a passion for folk music that flows through his well-caffeinated veins. He's a three-time Tui Folk Award finalist, performed at many music festivals and, interestingly, a three-time NZ Petanque champion.

His present café venue, one2one café in Ponsonby hosts music Wednesday, Thursday and Fridays. It's become the family-friendly place to go to catch all types of different acoustic live music. It has fabulous coffee, good food and great atmosphere. For a folky place, it has a lot of soul.

Chris’s latest project of interest has blossomed into two CDs. It was his love of characters in New Zealand history - some good, some not so good, that made him want to put those tales to music.

Characters like Von Tempsky, Don Buck, and Minnie Dean, the wicked baby farmer. Dean was the first and only woman who was hanged in New Zealand, back in 1895.

A friend from Southland nudges us at the concert and says it was a common thing to hear back in Invercargill in the sixties: “If you’re not a good boy and go to bed now Minnie Dean will come and get ya!” Scary words indeed.

Chris now tours the body of work when he can. He finds that there is always a hero or villain from the town he is visiting or close by that makes the songs more topical.

When in Auckland his expanded band collects on Sunday afternoons at the one2one café. There is not only the three that are at Whangateau, but there is often Jess Hindin on Violin, Claire Robertson on harp, a bunch of other in-town musos and Peter Elliot as the narrator.

Elliot reads from the newspaper articles of the day pertaining to the songs. “It adds another dimension to the tunes," Priestley smiles. ”Sometimes he steals the show with his readings.”

The café has become a hub for singer-songwriters from all over the country to drop in and catch up with the latest goings-on and enjoy a good coffee.

Recently Lorina Harding and her daughter Hannah (AKA Aldous Harding) swung by.

Aldous is a glittering example of where folk music can take you. She was initially labelled as neo-folk, even Goth-folk by some.

Her early performances must have been draining. She wore her heart on her sleeve, and that heart was obviously bleeding and hurt. Her song delivery was all hands and angsty body movement, like a latter-day folky Joe Cocker.

Nowadays, as she has grown into her own singing personality she presents differently.

Her latest video for her song Blend features the singer in a 70s style full-cut bikini, cowboy boots, and a brace of pistols on her hips.

She moves in the style of the strippers from Apocalypse Now creating her own brand of stutter-step dance moves. It’s a dance full of irony.

It’s a long way from woolly jumpers, a 6-string and a stool.

But that’s the great thing about the New Folk. It’s a simple mechanism for a singer/songwriter to pick up their instrument - be it a ukulele or a handmade seven string - the likes of which Nigel Gavin plays, and sing what they want to say.

Whether they're songs about villains, heroes, late teen angst, lost love - it’s all okay.

It’s a pleasing renaissance that many young people are picking up on.

Chris Priestley notes that at the last folk festival he attended over half the audience were under the age of thirty, as well as the performers.

It’s a platform to broadcast their word to the faithful. Get a following. Spread the word about what's important in their world. It's pleasingly organic, rather than the duff-duff boombox beat of hip-hop and electronica.

At the Whangateau Hall, it takes a couple of songs for the threesome, joined by Nigel’s partner and right-hand woman, Sonya Wilson, to get warmed up - cold nights and steel strings not being the ideal mix.

But the third song is a gem. It’s called Richard - a song about Richard Pearse, the Kiwi inventor who dreamed to fly. Chris’s voice touches beautifully through the inventor’s history, as Nigel soloes quietly behind him, in a sonic structure that is redolent of flight.

As the song comes to its end a woman in the front row sighs audibly with pleasure and awe.

It’s definitely worth rugging up for.

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