This review is mainly about the music on offer, but organisers will take a look at the way the festival was run, the size of the crowd, and of course, the return on their investment, to see what changes will be made for any future event. This was my first City Limits festival, and overall I’d give it a thumbs up for organisation. Having two stages each at two different parts of Western Springs meant there was a steady supply of live music throughout the day with barely any delay (Grace Jones did keep fans waiting for 20 minutes, but that was well into the event by then.) Food and toilet facilities were located between the two live music areas and were easily accessed. The system of pre-paying for purchases seemed to keep queues very manageable at the various outlets. So on that score, they did well. Which leaves the music.
With well over 30 acts on offer, you are simply spoilt for choice. Hard to review every band, so I made a plan and did my best to stick to it. That plan was, start local, and embrace international later. Here we go.
My first appointment was with a heavy metal band from Waipu north of Auckland called Alien Weaponry. Three young men – very young, still in their teens – dressed in black, their long hair beating out the rhythm as much as their instruments. At first glance Alien Weaponry might appear like any other young heavy metal outfit. But no. It soon became clear that these guys are as political and passionate a New Zealand band as you could get. Lead singer and guitarist Lewis De Jong, his brother Henry on drums, and bass player Ethan Trembath write songs in Maori, sing of injustice to Maori, and sing of New Zealand history. On stage they make reference to a Maori great great grandfather. One song, an instrumental, is about the journey of their ancestors from Hawaiiki to Aotearoa New Zealand, while another talks of a piece of colonial legislation from 1863. Later still, they focus on the present day with a song called “Whisper”, about former Reserve Bank Governor, and former leader of both National and ACT, Don Brash.And this from fifteen and seventeen year olds. Wow.
A spirit of haka and challenge is there in the way they present their songs. They are one of the first bands on, and it’s only a small crowd to start. But it grows to a few hundred, and by the time they invite (instruct, actually) the crowd to divide in two, and then charge at each other to then dance in the middle, well just about everyone joins in. Their conviction is infectious. They have a new album out this year, they say. It won’t be easy listening, but it will be the voice of youth – angry young men. I’m not a heavy metal fan, but I couldn’t help but be caught up in their commitment.
Next, a walk back from the main stadium to the Aroha stage to see a young pop/hip hop band from Wellington called Drax Project. The headline on these guys is they started as buskers and have gone on to open for Lorde. They’re light relief after Alien Weaponry, but produce tight and catchy pop, with a mix of covers and originals. Frontman Shaan Singh cuts a different figure from most, playing saxophone and keyboards as well as singing. And he can take his voice to a near falsetto when he wants to. The audience is mainly young and female, suggesting Drax Project have a boy band appeal. If so, it’s working for them. Now I grab a chance to see a Katchafire, the roots reggae band who started in Hamilton around 20 years ago. They’re on stage back at the main arena and the crowd has swelled. They’re a big band with a trumpet and sax player and a second percussionist and they produce tight and groovy reggae. The audience sways with them and they’re an instant hit. It’s the first time I’ve seen them live and I can’t help but think of their famous predecessors of this genre, Herbs.
Here’s where the plan goes astray a little, but it’s all for the good. I make my way to another stage to see soul singer Aaradhna when I see a pretty big crowd clearly enjoying someone, who, from a distance, looks like a schoolgirl. I can see a big ponytail, purple t shirt and denim shorts and sneakers. She’s singing pop, and a big sign at the back of the stage declares her name: Sigrid. So a detour is in order. Sigrid is in fact 21 years old and from Norway. She’s gained acclaim with the song “Don’t Kill My Vibe” and in January won a BBC music award. The young audience clearly knows who she is and Sigrid is having the time of her life, dancing and singing like there’s no tomorrow and with a big grin on her face. Her music is a galaxy away from the heavy metal of Alien Weaponry, but like them, I find her music infectious.
Then I can catch my breath and take in Aaradhna’s performance. She’s a soul diva and then some. Of mixed Indian and Samoan heritage, and raised in Porirua, she has a beautiful voice. She could probably tackle any musical genre, but mostly we hear soul/reggae sounds. Having said that, she starts with a version of “Ain’t no sunshine”. But original material dominates, including a song for the #metoo generation, Lorena Bobbitt. (Released in 2012 by the way) I enjoy the ballads most, especially “Brown Girl”.