Friday, July 20, 2012

The Diamond Age

I sometimes have this wild feeling that perhaps we are living in some sort of Golden Age of New Zealand folk music.  This is probably an example of what social researchers call 'observation bias:' most of my friends are folk musicians and they're writing a load of very good songs right now; my memory is not good so I tend to focus on the present, much like a fox terrier; and my awareness of the history of New Zealand folk music is really pretty patchy to be honest although of course I do my best.  So given all of these perceptual filters, it's not surprising that I would say that right now is a great time for New Zealand folk music, in the same way that a fox terrier might say that today is a good day for running around and barking at ducks.

But I do think that I might be on to something.  Thanks to the economy - thanks, economy! - Christchurch and Auckland are brimming with underemployed wasters who can holler along pretty well on a range of stringed instruments, so some of the bands are getting really pretty hot.  Also thanks to the economy, and our  reasonably terrifying government - thanks, the government! - there's quite a lot to sing about at the moment, Wellington is full of laid-off public servants with banjos, and we've got a bunch of very good writers writing very good songs about actual things, not just their hair or how hard it is to be in your twenties.

I mentioned Adam's song State Houses by The River the other day and that's a good example of what I'm talking about.  Twenty-Nine Diamonds is another one - it's by Bernie Griffen, who knows a thing or two about a thing or two and he wrote this song around a year or so ago I think.  It's exactly the kind of folk song people should be writing.  It's simple, it's direct, it's got a whole lot of heart and only three chords so any idiot can play it, and by god it's on the money.  Me and Will played it on the ferry on the way back from a tour down south last year, in that strange Irish bar they have there. It's one of the oddest gigs you can do in this country, rocking back and forth with the swell as travelers and truck-drivers try to watch the league on a  muted TV, but everyone does it because your get your van across the strait for free so you might as well. Hardly anybody ever listens, but I remember that when me and Will played Bernie's song there quite a lot of people did listen and I wouldn't be at all surprised if a few people are still humming it because that's the kind of song it is.

Anyhow we're playing a couple of shows with Bernie Griffen and the Grifters this weekend so come along, by all means.  The Broadsides are playing as well and they're just the kind of band I'm talking about that's getting really pretty hot, as of course are the mighty Grifters. The first show is tonight at the Thirsty Dog on K rd at around 9, and then we're all going up to Leigh on Saturday night to play at the Sawmill and howl at the moon.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Unchained with a Puffin

Now I am not of course a racist, but I'm sure that at the end of the day you will agree, fundamentally, that there is an essential difference, scientifically speaking, between people who come from the North Island and people who are from Down South. This difference can be best understood by a simple experiment: Observe what happens when you tell people that you went on tour around the South Island in the dead of winter, with an itinerary that included three high-altitude passes and the West Coast glacier country, with heavy weather warnings in place, and that you took along a set of snow chains that almost, but didn't quite, fit your vehicle.  Back home in Auckland, this news tends to be greeted with reactions along the lines of 'oh great, so you took chains along then.  Good thinking.  Shame they didn't quite fit, but what's the worst that could happen?'  Fair enough.  In the South, however, they are, as I say, different.  They look you up and down.  They shake their heads. They tend to not say anything much more to you, but if they do, it's variations on a central theme, which is this: 'You are the utmost of nincompoops.  You are worse than useless and you ought, for your own good, to be taken out behind the chook-house and shot.'

Bond Street Bridge onstage at The Morrings, looking deceptively competent.  
Once we're actually onstage we're pretty OK. Photo by Brooke Singer, stolen off of her 
facebook and used without permission.  Thanks Brooke!

Again, fair enough.  All I can submit in my flimsy defence is that we did not, in the end, die on the icy roads south of Fox Glacier.  The only possible explanation I can think of for this outcome is that we must have not yet accumulated sufficient Experience Points to be properly rewarded in Valhalla by whatever gods are still on duty there, and they're waiting until we've completed a few more laps of the country trapped in a van talking nonsense all day and howling out folk songs at night, while they decide what to do with us.

The other explanation, and this is the more likely one, is that we had a secret weapon along on this tour - a secret weapon, a late addition, proof if it were needed that good things do come in small packages: somewhere there a couple of weeks or so before we kicked things off, Ivy got an email from Lindon Puffin.  Now I first met Lindon - in Lyttelton of course - several years ago, in the middle of a meandering sprawl around the country with the Reb Fountain Travelling Circus (during  which we had some trouble with high altitude passes as well, I now recall - of which more later).  We'd just played a show at the Harbourlight (may it rest in peace) with everybody in reasonably high spirits, and out of nowhere there was this guy who seemed to know absolutely everybody in a twelve-kilometre radius and who could clearly talk the paint off a wall, who immediately made me think 'alright, good people!' and in pretty short order we were  all in the back room of the Wunderbar, propping up the piano there and hollering out Front Lawn songs long after business hours.

These qualities alone ought to be reccomendation enough, but I suppose I should acknowledge that we all know people who are useful when faced with a task like wrapping themselves around a bottle of whiskey and hollering out Front Lawn songs late at night, but who are in other repects utterly without merit.  I don't think I need to tell you though that Puffin is not such a one as this.  The email he sent to Ivy proved to be one of those pieces of luck that in hindsight make you realise that no matter what you plan to do, it's always just better to rely on the occasional bolt of pure good fortune because sometimes, reader, they do come along. It was a fairly simple email, at around five hundred words quite brief by Puffin's standards, and the gist of it was 'I see that you guys are touring in the South Island.  How about I come along too?'  Gold.

The view out the window of the car on the way through the Haast Pass. Photo by Ivy Rossiter, stolen from the Luckless facebook page and used without permission at risk of intellectual property-related violence. Thanks Ivy!
We said yes please, of course, because who wouldn't?  And by Thor I am glad we did because touring with Lindon was like some sort of grass-roots-folk-band-with-not-much-money-but-by-golly-they-bring-a-ton-of-attitude master class. When we met up with him at the Nelson show in the goat-smelling yurt at the Free House (it's way better than it sounds, I swear) he very quickly established that he is a frighteningly effective person to have around in a touring situation. He took one look at our mic stands, frowned, and made us promise to leave them at the Dharma Bum's club the following night and pick them up on the way back through because really, they just weren't good enough; and from them on he basically did everything. Sound was taken care of - it was his PA, and the only problem was that the vehicle I brought along was too small for his subwoofer.  I suspect he will never let me forget that. Driving in snow? Lindon was all over it, and he took care to teach us a patent technique to prevent windscreen disintegration at high speed. Fitting the chains? Northern dilletante that I am, I didn't even get my hands (let alone the sleeves of my good jacket) dirty - Lindon was the one who grovelled around in the muck and discovered that the chains I had acquired just didn't fit, no two ways about it, and he was good enough to not even rub my nose in it very much or leave me behind on the side of the road for the wolves as I no doubt deserved. He packs a van tighter than I've ever seen, and when we did get to his place in Lyttelton following some tense days on snowy roads, late arrivals, cold starts and a brush with our old friend Johnny Law on the highway south of Oamaru listening to the new Homebrew album at a good volume, he turned out to have not only two small kittens to play with but also a flatmate who restores Antarctic huts for a living - but I got a bit shy and I didn't talk to her about it all that much.

What we didn't realise at the time was that the obvious subtext to that email was 'how about I come along too, because you will need somebody there to see that you don't kill yourselves or miss any shows due to rank incompetence?' We just thought - well, we didn't quite know what to think.  We were tickled pink, but we couldn't figure out what on earth might motivate Lindon, an artist with what has been described by industry insiders as a 'legacy' to come on tour with us, who have never been described by industry insiders at all as far as I am aware and long may it last.  Being based in Auckland, the thought that he might have been motivated by concern for fellow-creatures didn't cross our minds, of course - we were looking for the angle.  Baffled, I called him up as we drove north out of Christchurch, heading home.

'We were just talking in the car, man, and we couldn't figure it out - why did you actually come on tour with us?'  We'd been talking a lot of shit to each other all week but he was actually silent for a moment and I felt like he was about to say something significant.
'I just needed to test that PA, basically.  It's new and I wanted to make sure it worked.'
'Oh, ok.  That kind of figures.  Bummer about the sub not fitting then eh? Sorry about that.'
'Right.  Well yeah that's all I guess. We were just wondering.'
'Ok, well just don't get lost or crash on the way home or anything and make sure Ivy doesn't get any more tickets for God's sake.'
'I really don't have any control over what Ivy does or doesn't do, but I'll definitely keep it in mind.'

Anyhow, we heard when we got home that Lindon's song Outta Reach is in the longlist for a Silver Scroll this year, so what I suggest you do if you're an APRA member is take a coin and toss it in the air  and if it comes up heads, vote for that song, and if it comes up tails vote for State Houses By The River by The Eastern, because they're both excellent songs done by people who make music right.