Festival marks a coming of age for Americana-inspired Kiwi musicians.
About the Southern Fork Americana Festival in Auckland and a new album from Great North
One of the great lessons from this year’s Southern Fork Americana Festival in Auckland is that New Zealand’s American-influenced musicians have created a strong, collegial community.
Kiwi acts such as Eb & Sparrow, the Miltones, the Eastern, Reb Fountain, the Bads and Tom Cunliffe more than held their own among the outstanding overseas acts, which included the Hank Williams-esque traditionalism of Robbie Fulks, the wrongside-of-the-tracks rock of the Sadies and Justin Townes Earle and the alt-country cool of Son Volt.
On at least two occasions – the Eastern’s madcap Tom Petty-infused finale and the Saturday night all-in, tag-team hootenanny – Auckland’s narrow Tuning Fork stage groaned under the weight of press-stud shirts, slide guitars, stand-up basses, fiddles and brass of more than a dozen outstanding Kiwis, who looked and sounded like the Band’s second coming.
What was really telling was how many familiar faces kept appearing in each other’s bands – and how many of those same faces were just as likely to be in the audience, revelling in the mix of US covers and our own take on Americana.
And when you consider that many of our most popular and recognised exponents of US-flavoured music – think Marlon Williams, Tami Neilson and Nadia Reid – weren’t included in this fourth annual festival (although Reid was spotted in the audience), it shows the strength of Nashville’s influence down under, despite our distance from the Music City.
Great North are another Kiwi act strongly influenced by the US. After their two acclaimed alt-folk albums – Up in Smoke and Halves both won New Zealand folk album of the year – they moved to a UK base and released the far rockier, Springsteen-tinged The Golden Age.
From Hayden Donnell’s opening harmonica wail and his wife Rachel’s harmony on Things We Never Did to the overdriven guitar rumble that backs Gasoline and the acoustic stomp of closer Waiting for the Pentecost, it’s clear this is a serious step up.
Although the band are now based overseas, they’ve made the most of the tight-knit Kiwi Americana community to help create a far rangier, more mature sound, thanks to the pedal steel of Matthew Hutching, the brass of the Beths’ Elizabeth Stokes and the recording nous, keys and guitar of Jonathan Pearce.
The album is dedicated to former bandmate and Bond Street Bridge musician Sam Prebble, who died in 2014, aged
32, and a choir of his friends, including Brendan and Alison Turner, Reb Fountain and Dylan Storey, feature throughout.
The memory of Prebble influences The Golden Age’s tone – the insistent nostalgia of the title track and Wasted So Much Time and the toast-to-absent-friends impression left by such upbeat songs as Better Days and Hallelujah for the Losers.
But, in many ways, it’s the wry Kiwi-ness of a song such as The Late Bus Home, with its million-miles-from-Memphis setting of a windy Wellington night, that shows how this country has adopted the emotion and deep cultural roots of Americana, then adapted them to our needs.
Prebble appears as a character in it, tipping his hat to his fellow passengers “after they cleared the bars” and damning Kiwi radio for not playing his singles, but the masterful final couplet of “Didn’t know we had to hold on/Till you let us go” turns him into a hero who wouldn’t be out of place on Born to Run or The River.
GREAT NORTH, The Golden Age (Border)
Great North have made the most of the tightknit Kiwi Americana community to help create a far rangier, more mature sound.
Rachel and Hayden Donnell of Great North: their new album is a serious step up.