Festival Review: Auckland City Limits – Western Springs (19.03.16)

After a worrying spat of cancelled festivals – Soulfest, Echo Fest and Westfest – it would have been understandable for the majority to approach the inaugural Auckland City Limits with caution. The reputation of Austin City Limits, one of the biggest and most loved music festivals in the history of music festivals, may have been lost on a younger crowd, ticket prices were a bit steep, and the line up seemed to be trying to hard to be broad when the trend has been on more focused, niche music programs in the past few years. Still, nothing could really overshadow the fact that we now had the ACL brand in Oceania, bringing a big moment to Auckland’s live music scene and providing a platform for locals to really prove themselves alongside big name internationals like Kendrick Lamar and The National.

Gates opened around 10 minutes late so the band to kick it all off, locals Night Gaunt, began pushing out their energetic sound to an empty field. “Fuck yeah, empty field!” they joked to only one fan, continuing through two songs before gates finally opened and punters ran to the nearby stage to start their day with some punk-ska.

Staying at the alternating V Energy stages seemed like the best way to spend the first hour or two; there was a bar nearby that most shifted to after topping up their AWOP Wristbands – the festival’s cashless system – and right in front of the two stages was “Auckland on the Menu”, a covered mini hall of artisan producers designed as a food market to showcase all local handmade food from ice cream and waffles to chocolate and various breads.

Another local band, Openside, filled the field with their excellent cover of Major Lazer’s “Lean On”, but it was the following act that had everyone absolutely enamored.

Highlight #1: MAALA (AUCKLAND)

Maala 3 Photographer Raymond Sagapolutele
Maala captured by Raymond Sagapolutele.

“Where are you from!?”, a stunned fan from the front row yelled out towards the end of Maala’s mind-blowing one-man-band set. “Auckland, just around the corner bro,” replied the young artist, standing behind his set-up mainly consisting of synths which would often swirl so loudly that they would carry his voice across the field to the Western Springs stadium; that’s how I was drawn back to the V Energy stages.

I was waiting for Gang of Youths to hit the main stage, sitting casually Instagramming from the top of the hill when I heard Maala’s voice float all the way up to me. After a few minutes of indecision, I walked back towards the sound and was surprised to see that many had to same idea; about four or five songs into his set, Maala had attracted a sizable crowd and I felt ashamed that I didn’t know of this artist sooner.

The synth-heavy soul would be approached with quiet and tenderness at some points, right before building into dramatic hooks, often lifted by a strong, composed falsetto and a multitude of clicks and handclaps that stayed perfectly in-line with Aussie artist Jarryd James who would take the stage just over two hours after Maala left everyone stunned.

Field - photo Raymond Sagapolutele
“Field” captured by Raymond Sagapolutele

Highlight #2: GANG OF YOUTHS (SYDNEY)

Gang Of Youths 7 - photo credit Bradley Garner
Gang of Youths captured by Bradley Garner

It’s always nice to witness a band slowly rising through the ranks and knowing that one day they’ll be headlining festivals around the world. Gang of Youths are such a band, who released the incredible The Positions last year and almost immediately drew people into their world of emotional, brutally honest, powerful, and raw rock and roll. As with all great rock bands, it’s the passionate songwriting that’s just as strong as the instrumentals here, and there are times when I look around and see eyes widen at some of the lines thrown at us by frontman David Le’aupepe, who struck more than a few chords with more than a few of the fans who showed up to watch these Sydney locals open up the “Spark One” stage.

The Positions is an album that was birthed from something very personal for Le’aupepe and even without that knowledgem it was evident that these songs meant a great deal not just to the charismatic frontman – who danced around the stage as if he was Mick Jagger guest starring in an episode of Glee – but every member of the band, who would often look lost in concentration, working well together to bring us some of the finest moments of the day with breathtaking, twangy breakdowns and high-flying solos.

After that incredible set it was off to check out some of the other corners of ACL. The hidden away “Golden Dawn” stage was a colourful outdoor setting for some of the most obscure acts of the day, like the minimal Shab Orkestra who lulled the few present punters into an hypnotic jazz excursion while others danced around the art installations which were set up in front of the stage.

Photo credit Bradley Garner
Golden Dawn captured by Bradley Garner.

Auckland Eats - credit Bradley Garner
Auckland Eats captured by Bradley Garner

A small but excellent hotdog from Federal Delicatessen in the “Auckland Eats” section – which had five or so of the city’s best casual restaurants set up stalls – was enough fuel for me to bounce around to the complex sounds of Kenetic back on the V Energy stages, moving the crowd with soul and electronica balanced in equal parts with a little drum and bass thrown in.

Hightlight #3: KAMASI WASHINGTON (L.A)

KAMASI WASHINGTON 6 - photo credit Raymond Sagapolutele
Kamasi Washington captured by Raymond Sagapolutele

The brassy blue-eyed soul of St Paul & The Broken Bones drew me back to the main stage but the clash with Jarryd James gave me a lot of running around to do. Sticking around for James’ brilliant set-closing “Do You Remember” proved a good idea, after which almost everyone rushed from one stage to the next for new-age Jazz head Kamasi Washington who, along with fellow musicians from collective West Coast Get Down, delivered a brilliant, mind-bending set that was both accessible (conventional jazz at a music festival like this doesn’t exactly work) and complex, often shifting in tone almost every minute with some of the best solos of the day. Particularly [from] special guest Rickey Washington, Kamasi’s father, and drummers Ronald Bruner Jr and Tony Austin, who would often play discordant patterns that slowly folded into each other and then violently broke apart for dramatic effect.

This composite display of masterful musicianship was much too intense for a mid-afternoon set, but it was a beautiful thing seeing so many people turn out for a little Jazz revival at a contemporary music festival.

Highlight #4: BROODS (NEW ZEALAND)

Broods 2 - credit Raymond Sagapolutele
Broods captured by Raymond Sagapolutele

Broods were, unsurprisingly, given a heroes welcome when they took the Spark Two stage, almost immediately washing over the crowd with their soulful indie-pop. It’s hard to believe the sibling duo of Georgia and Caleb Nott are still fairly young on the scene, already amassing enough material to give a beautifully diverse set that’s as commanding and epic as it is intimate, Georgia’s high-flying vocals clean and crisp on the the outdoor stage. They were proof that as long as you have good, heady instrumentals and a voice that can tie it all together and carry it well then you don’t really need to go all ambitious to put on a stadium show.

It was clear just how loved Broods are in NZ as well with almost everyone in attendance singing along to every word to songs like “Never Gonna Change” and “Bridges” while actively listening – as opposed to talk over the music – when they band debuted some new material.

On the other side of the stadium was the massive crowd waiting impatiently for their dose of New York hip hop from Mr ‘Fuck-that’s-delicious’, Action Bronson himself. The last time I saw Bronson live was in Sydney supporting Eminem at a festival called Rapture. He half-rapped through two or three songs and then bizarrely walked around the entire stadium while the camera followed him, climbed a structure, beat his chest, and then left. However, the first time I saw him he was supporting Peanut Butter Wolf in a University bar and absolutely brought the house down with an excellent display of dope beats and dope rhymes, with tonnes of humour thrown in to keep things fresh.

Needless to say, I didn’t know what to expect here – the former or the latter. Thankfully, it was more the former, as Bronson stayed on stage for his full set, making a grand entrance to Billy Joel’s “Zanzibar”, before screaming ‘Yo, cut that shit off’, and rapping to a re-shaped version sampled in “Brand New Car”.

It’s almost impossible not to be entertained by Bronson, but his true genius wasn’t evident until the very end of the set with those hard, deep, and aggressive “Easy Rider” psych-riffs twirling off into the sunset-lit sky while the Queens rapper delivered the rhymes with fury, an intense end to penultimate sing-a-long [in] “Baby Blue”.

The Naked and Famous had a big moment on stage with some brand new material, the best of which was sure-shot hit “Higher”, a song that is almost just as catchy as set-closing mega-smash “Young Blood”, which understandably livened up the whole grounds as people came running towards the stage when those shiny synths kicked in and vocalist Alisa Xayalith let those vocals fly, drowned out only by the united chant of ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ screamed so passionately back at her.

Highlight #5: FAT FREDDY’S DROP (NEW ZEALAND)

Fat Freddy's Drop - 3 credit Bradley Garner
Fat Freddy’s Drop captured by Bradley Garner

Fat Freddy’s Drop is that kind of band that even if you know nothing about them, just seeing them live even once endears you for life. They play at festivals around New Zealand and Australia all the time and every time their name pops up, you know that this is a show worth watching, even if you’ve seen it plenty of times before.

The acclaimed seven-piece delivered a greatest hits set that felt like a reward for all the local support they have been given over the years, gifted with the same graceful sense of playfulness that characterises their live shows, getting more intense as the band went deeper into their catalogue, with Ho Pepa hilariously stripping down to his undies and dancing all over the stage as per usual, making it seem like he was completely lost on stage until he would return to his trombone and never miss a beat.

Highlight #6: THE NATIONAL (CINCINNATI)

The National - 6 credit Bradley Garner
The National captured by Bradley Garner

Frontman Matt Berninger is a earnest, intense, and composed figure on stage, always leading The National through incredible – and incredibly emotional – performances live. We’ve seen it in Australia quite a few times, and having them close the Spark Two stage was a safe bet for Auckland City Limits, with the only threat really just the average-at-times sound that was getting lost somewhere in the Auckland city air.

The National always put together great set lists for their fans, and this no where near an exception, paying most attention to their most recent releases but popping in a few throwbacks to keep people guessing. “Sea of Love” opened with energy, remaining high with gems like “I Should Live in Salt” and “Squalor Victoria”, the latter closing out with a series of hard-hitting howl-like screams from Berninger that take the live version far beyond it’s recorded material.

Poignant anthem “This is the Last Time” was given an edgier makeover for the festival environment, shedding some of it’s slow-swaying sadness with crunchy guitar riffs. In fact, many of the songs were meatier live, subtle changes shaping them for the stadium but keeping the fundamentals in-tact, letting most of the emotion come from Berninger’s stunning performance.

The National Set List

Sea of Love
Don’t Swallow the Cap
I Should Live in Salt
Bloodbuzz Ohio
Afraid of Everyone
Squalor Victoria
I Need my Girl
This is the Last Time
Abel
Slow Show
Pink Rabbits
England
Graceless
Fake Empire
Mr November
Terrible Love

Highlight #7: KENDRICK LAMAR (L.A)

Kendrick Lamar - 6 credit Bradley Garner
Kendrick Lamar captured by Bradley Garner

“This. Dick. Ain’t. Free”: the first line to come from Kendrick Lamar when he finally took to the stage around 20 minutes after he was scheduled to start. “For Free? (Interlude)” was our introduction to this emcee’s new live show and the slam-poetry style of his delivery couldn’t quite do much to quell the excited screams of a stadium-filling audience.

It was clear that Kendrick wasn’t content on putting on your standard festival set, often delving deep into these rapid-fire poetic displays while his band – sometimes successfully, sometimes not – recreated the various layers that define the sound on To Pimp a Butterfly. Of course, this type of work demands a larger, more ambitious band and live show – Kamasi Washington and the West Coast Get Down come to mind – but King Kendrick worked well with what he had, giving us some of the non-single highlights of TPAB with a fiery force and passion that would have been felt greatly by those who were closer to the stage.

Being a bit further away from all the action, there were parts of the show which were lost on me. This wasn’t a bombastic set of pyro and flashing lights a la Drake and Kanye West, this was more on the humble side of the spectrum as far as aesthetics go, Kendrick working with relatively little to bring us a set made up of just TPAB and Good Kid, m.A.A.d City cuts, material from the latter hitting harder for the festival environment while only the more (relatively) conventional tracks from TPAB made a major dent on the atmosphere, like “i” and a high-energy “Alright”.

Kendrick’s sensibility isn’t appropriate for a stadium show at an outdoor festival, and one couldn’t but wonder if what he was trying to do would be more effective and free-flowing in a theatre or more intimate setting. But such is his profile now, with Kendrick hailed as the most anticipated and praised rapper in the world today, by both the mainstream and underground camps, a balancing act that should be commended.

Like TPAB, Kendrick is a fan of splitting structure when it adds interesting details to the flow of set, as such gangster rap opus “m.A.A.d City” is delivered to us in two parts, with the second part appearing early in the set and the first appearing later. It works in some ways, but in other ways it diminishes the intensity of the track – which is, in my opinion, one of the absolute greatest rap songs recorded in the 21st century.

On record it flows perfectly, with those frantic strings creeping in at the end and building up to the ultimate west coast hat-tip, a banging sample of “Funky Worm”. Here it’s much different, breaking the song apart and missing those subtle elements that make it so intense, instead drawing most of it’s energy from how wild the crowd gets when they hear Kendrick spit these verses with aggressive force.

Cuts like “Hood Politics” benefited from Kendrick not being able to modulate his voice, presenting it as a different beast than on record, arguably more suitable for the show. The band was most valuable during a groovy “King Kunta” which was given extra body from a bouncy bassline that soared across the stadium, carrying tonnes of funk to the enthusiastic crowd; a similar praise to the band must be given for ‘i’ was well, giving an edgy facelift to that Isley Brothers groove.

Nothing could beat the pure energy of “Alright” though, a stadium-wide chant-a-long that really reiterated the necessity of the atmosphere and what the audience added to Kendrick’s live show, often overwhelming his own vocals with a loud, proud, and passionate volley of love between the Compton emcee and the Auckland crowd, a ravenous collective that wouldn’t cease the TPAB highlight’s central chant even after Kendrick had expressed his love as a final farewell.

Kendrick Lamar Set List

For Free (Interlude)
Wesley’s Theory
Institutionalized
Backstreet Freestyle
m.A.A.d City (second half)
The Art of Peer Pressure (second half)
Swimming Pools (Drank)
These Walls
For Sale? (Interlude)
Hood Politics/Complexion (A Zulu Loves)
Bitch, Don’t Kill my Vibe (Remix)
Money Trees
m.A.A.d City (first half)
u
King Kunta
Momma/i (live version)
Alright

Head image captured by Raymond Sagapolutele.

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