Auckland Folk Festival 2014

I sorta swore off going to any music festivals this year. The reasons for that went: too expensive (everything), the beer lines are too long (Laneway), no beer lines/very little interesting bands (Parachute), asking myself 'do I even really like live music/do I really like being in the midst of 20,000 people?' (Big Day Out), intense social anxiety (Camp A Low Hum). I know that most of these reasons can be overcome by the right combination of bands and good company, but I'm generally OK with my summer of (not) music watching. Whenever someone would ask me about what music things I was going to this summer, I'd just say I was too broke and vaguely speculate about trying to find a spare comp ticket floating around without any real plan to do that.

Funnily, while a lot of festivals these days increasingly feature folk revival artists, I'd completely forgotten about the Auckland Folk Festival itself. I'd never been before and wasn't familiar with more than a few names on the lineup, but I had an opportunity to go for free. I was curious, but had no idea what to really expect.

Arriving in the West Auckland suburb of Kumeu, I wandered through the city of tents thinking it was actually a lot bigger than I had imagined, though small enough to feel like you were strangely familiar with other attendees. The first night I was pretty distracted and didn't pay as much attention to proceedings as I should have, but I watched some of the invitational concert, which ran the gamut from a couple of teenagers doing a cover of The Band's song The Weight, to seasoned bluegrass players, former Tui Award winners and an overseas act. One of the first things you notice is the attentiveness of the crowd during sets. I guess with folk's emphasis on lyrics and storytelling, it's encouraged to take in the lyrics (or at least be quiet enough to allow others to do so). After the invitational concert, everyone congregated near a barn, and those of age shared some home brew beer and participated in a massive communal folk song/sea shanty singalong.

I'd only planned to be there on the Saturday. But after spending a whirlwind evening and a deceptively high quality fried breakfast there I couldn't help but feel like I was missing out by not coming back on Sunday. As the final night of the festival, they top off the weekend with sets from all the Tui Award nominees for Best Folk Album, followed by a big final concert featuring encore sets from all the official guest artists.

At the Tui Award nominees concert, Invercargill's Into The East and Auckland's Tattletale Saints were polished, harmony laden country duos (being unfamiliar with much of the lineup, it was nice to recognise a few names), and folk stalwart/co-founder of Real Groovy Records Chris Priestly performed songs from his fascinating combination book/CD Uncovered: a Selection of New Zealand Folk Songs. I love the concept behind Priestly's release. The story goes that while overseas, Priestly was asked "what are some of New Zealand's well-known folk songs?" Struggling to come up with any, he decided to write folk songs centered around stories from our country's distant past. His strong New Zealand voice and his strong New Zealand voice went down a treat on this night, though he lost out to Tattletale Saints for the award.

The final concert featured a mixture of old and young artists. Welsh duo Ned Clamp and Pat Smith played a decidedly more traditional take on folk using concertinas, guitar, spoons and harmonicas, while my festival highlight, the young duo 10 String Symphony, had new takes on old ideas - both playing 5 string fiddles as lead instruments and trading vocals.

There was also some (mostly) instrumental work from young UK banjo maestro Dan Walsh. Although I'm not a fan of instrumentals, this was pretty entertaining, he'd lose himself in playing some crazy licks and almost seemed to have to hold himself back from headbanging. He keeps a great blog over at his website, and his piece on the debate over "what is folk?" is a great read. To close the evening, Mark Mazengarb (an accomplished guitarist from New Zealand who now tours the USA a lot) played some instrumentals before inviting the other artists on stage to run through their take on bluegrass. It wasn't long til much of the marquee was enjoying a good old hoedown.

Walking around the festival, you notice that people seem to be jamming together at all hours of the day (and at 3am), home brewed beer was shared, and the food was affordable and well catered (really delicious Thai!). The thing that stood out the most was the friendly feel of the event, and for that you have to give credit to the New Zealand folk community. Every time I've been to an event put on by one of the folk clubs, I've been pretty dumbstruck by the welcoming attitude of the people and their passion for the music they love.

It was promising to see a mix of young and old artists performing at the festival, and with the current revival of folk music styles amongst the independent music scene hopefully that's a collaboration that grows in strength. Young artists have a lot to offer the traditional folk scene in terms of musical progression, the genre/community's future and possibility for wider recognition (while the genre enjoys this increased popularity), but old folkies have a ton to teach younger artists in terms of incredible musicianship, the community they've built and awareness of their musical heritage. It goes both ways really, it'd be great to get to a point where younger bands develop ties with older bands as well, so maybe we could see the odd set of older folk maestros drawing a crowd alongside young'uns at the Wine Cellar.

The Auckland Folk Festival might be done for another year, but obviously it's the culmination of things that happen year round. If you feel like seeing what some of the new school of folk artists are doing, check out to see the February tour dates for 10 String Symphony and Tattletale Saints throughout New Zealand. And if you feel like checking out the magical community of a folk club then has a list of folk clubs and the nights they play.

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