The inaugural Auckland City Limits festival managed to fit swaying, jamming, rocking, head-banging and raving all into one day at Western Springs in West Auckland. In typical fashion, the big smoke managed to turn on four seasons in one day, giving festival goers light showers at key intervals in the smouldering hot New Zealand sun.
A steady throng of indie rockers, hip hop lovers, and jazz enthusiasts alike stormed the gates at 11am giving the V Energy stage openers, a young local band by the name of Openside, a decent crowd to belt their trademark pop-punk anthems. They played original material, including their recently released single, “Worth It”, to a favourable reaction from the audience, and even put their own spin on MØ’s hit single “Lean On”.
Next up, I caught mysterious NZ artist MAALA, the new project of Evan Sinton who was a household name when he performed on NZ’s Got Talent. MAALA takes a drastic new direction from his previous work, ditching the acoustic guitar in favour of a keyboard and an electronic drum kit. MAALA played a powerful set, getting the crowd stomping with his emotionally charged electronica ballad “In The Air”.
Soul singer-songwriter Tami Neilson and her band followed MAALA on the V Energy stage backed by the horns of Supergroove musicians Tim Stewart and Nick Atkinson of Hopetoun Brown. This combination took the crowd to church playing a cocktail of rock n roll, country and gospel and they made it look easy.
Perhaps one of my most pleasant surprises of the day was Gang of Youths, a group who’s name I had heard through the grapevine but I never had a chance to listen to. Lead singer Dave Le’aupepe cut a messiah-like figure on stage in all black and seemed to be in all places at once; body surfing, playing amongst the crowd and knee sliding all over the stage, never once breaking the intensity of his soaring vocals. The Sydneyside band is full of born entertainers, and their on-stage intensity was intoxicating, quickly energising even the most passive bystanders in the audience. GoY were very well deserved of the first encore chant of the day.
The ethereal indie-folk outfit from L.A Lord Huron played next. These guys can only be described as professionals, every song in their setlist seemed to effortlessly merge into one another as the crowd rode the waves of lead singer Ben Schneiders crooning twang. “Time to Run”, easily the bands most recognisable song, got the crowd singing along.
Another surprise gem of the day was hard-hitting Brooklyn rockers Highly Suspect who’s super-charged set had heads banging and steam rising off the freshly saturated masses. The groups sound was surprisingly full for a three piece and was somehow gritty and polished all at the same time. Inked-up lead singer/vocalist Johnny Stevens drew audible swoons from the ladies with his way-too-cool-for-school rock ‘n roll musings, especially during “Lydia” where he nostalgically reminisces about his ex-girlfriend.
Next up was St Paul and the Broken Bones, the sharply dressed Alabama six piece fronted by Paul ‘St Paul’ Janeway. Janeway got his performance start being groomed for a pastoral position in the uber-religious deep South and singing in the church choir. This heritage, combined with the rich musical history of the area, has a very clear influence in the groups performance. The gospel-esque, soulful sound they produced would have been new to many of the NZ festival goers but that didn’t stop them getting down. It was quite the sight to behold.
I was very excited to witness the grandiose jazz-fusion of Kamasi Washington and his band The Next Step who brought us the funk in the blistering mid afternoon sun. The eccentric septet clad in tribal robes drew in a decent crowd, possibly due to Washington’s involvement in headliner Kendrick Lamar’s studio album “To Pimp a Butterfly” and recording with the likes of Snoop Dogg. The set was eclectic and high energy, littered with soaring solos on the tenor sax and was danceable even for those who wouldn’t usually be partial to such intricate jazz.
Crowds started to swarm to one side of the festival grounds in eager anticipation of Action Bronson mania. The portly ex chef cum underground hip-hop superstar bowled out on stage to chants of ‘F*ck thats delcious!’, Bronson’s foodie web series on VICE. Without delay bursting into high energy songs from his second studio album “Mr Wonderful”, Action lived up to his name, being deceptively athletic for a man of his stature. He paused at one point pulling a joint from his pocket and lighting it on stage to massive cheers from the crowd. He then quizzed the crowd on where he should eat, asking ‘Should I eat a hangi, traditional Maori food?’ in his trademark New York accent. His pronunciation was terrible but the sentiment was appreciated. Bronson went back to his roots performing some of his earlier material off “SAAAB Stories” and “Dr. Lecter”, including “Strictly for My Jeeps” which had the army of fans chanting “You better slow down baby!”
By this point in the day most of Western Springs had filled out, the golden hour had set in and the drinks had been flowing. Spirits were high for quintessential kiwi summer funk machine, Fat Freddy’s Drop. You’d be hard pressed to find one New Zealander that didn’t feature at least one Fat Freddy’s track on their summer playlist so it would come as no surprise that the 7-piece Aotearoa dub and roots outfit had the whole crowd singing along to their super successful albums “Cay’s Crays” and “Blackbird”. Looking around the stadium from the camera pit, people clad in singlets and jandles, cold beers raised in the air as the golden light of 7pm set in, it was like something out of an L&P commercial. About as ‘Summer in New Zealand’ as you could possibly get. Fat Freddy’s were outstanding as always but thats come to be expected from this group that’s been jamming together since the early 90’s.
The scramble to get to front of the Spark stage for the final act of the night had been going on since early in the afternoon. Some people had claimed their spot, jammed up against the rails for hours in the hot sun, nursing whatever drinks they had on them to try and stay hydrated. Even VIP ticket holders had been lining up for the VIP pit since late afternoon. Kendrick Lamar fever had swept Auckland. Night fell over Western Springs, chants of ‘Kendrick!’ and ‘We gon’ be alright!’ filled the air as Lamar’s band tweaked and tuned their sound for what seemed like an eternity. Suspense peaked every time a new band member walked out on to the stage, was it going to be Kendrick? After about half an hour of anticipation, the Compton rap superstar strolled on stage kicking off with grammy winning album “To Pimp a Butterfly”s “For Free?”, an intelligent jazz-freestlye fusion that had people tongue tied by proxy. Lamar was self assured in his style, he didn’t need heavy bass or tinny trap hi-hats, he didn’t need a huge set piece, just his politically charged lyricism and trademark flow. Hype was at a festival high when Kendrick threw back to the 2012 album that put him on the map “Good kid, M.A.A.D city” performing “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” and “Swimming Pools”, requesting that the crowd be the loudest he’s ever performed for.
It was a hell of an ending to a successful first Auckland City Limits festival. It’s not often our little country of New Zealand gets to boast such an impressive array of international and local artists alike, so it was no surprise to see the number of beaming faces leaving the venue. Already looking forward to next year, although next time I’ll be booking my Uber driver well in advance.
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