New Zealand International Arts Festival, Wellington | Feb 24-Mar 18
This year’s New Zealand International Arts Festival hit up the indie circuit for many of its big names; artists who have all had considerable success in recent times (quite a contrast from the pension-cashing in performers of previous festivals). Bon Iver won this year’s Grammy for best new artist, despite being around and acclaimed for some time (not to mention at the top of a good number of best-of-year lists for self-titled album). Also at the Grammys, Tinariwen took home Best World Album (and who played a couple of members short, what with them being caught up in the Tuareg conflict in Northern Mali). Long-time indie darlings Death Cab for Cutie were also a hot ticket, as were First Aid Kit, a band mentored by the Knife and discovered playing Fleet Foxes on YouTube. The line-up was bold move by an Arts Festival that has typically relied on well-established and renowned artists. But it worked rather well, all things considered.
Bon Iver was an undoubted highlight, delivering one of the most impressive performances seen in this city for a long time. Playing to a packed Wellington Town Hall over two nights, Justin Vernon seemed genuinely tickled pink by the audience reception he received. An artist who helped solidify the cliché of the artist who hides in a cabin and records an album (well, if you ignore the decades-long list of artists who have done similar), interest was always going to centre on how his intimately conceived music would translate live. In the end, there was nothing to worry about; in fact, it was better than anyone could have imagined. The nine-piece was full of virtuosi, their control and tightness as a band fairly remarkable. And there were moments aplenty from an eclectic and compelling set that took one’s breath away: from the fluttering trills of the saxophone and trumpet building up to a devastating crescendo in ‘Holocene’, to the crowd-singalong of ‘Skinny Love’, to the swirl of ‘Calgary’, it was a thoroughly outstanding performance.
Death Cab for Cutie were always going to struggle following on from that. They gave a spirited performance in what was their first concert in the country. I must admit that Death Cab has always been a bit of a cultural blind-spot, and the concert did meander a little for a newbie. Fans, however, were thoroughly impressed as the band ran through a career-spanning set. They were even more impressive when they were simply jamming along, as the lyrics tended to cloy. The tautness of the rhythm section was a pleasure to watch—Krautrock and post-rock influences suit the band well. ‘I Will Possess Your Heart’, in particular, was an early highlight. The band had the crowd in complete silence for the dark love song ‘I Will Follow You Into the Dark’, while other memorable moments, such as ‘You Are a Tourist’ and ‘Home is a Fire’, punctuated the lengthy and audience-pleasing set.
First Aid Kit played in the more intimate setting of the Festival Club, though they weren’t as relaxed as expected given their luggage (including musical instruments) had been lost and then found just before the show—wet. This wasn’t helped by the fact that their set was subject to both earthquakes and gale force winds. Understandably, their show was a little sloppy, and it only really came alive when they ditched the mics (which had been mixed a little too upfront for such an intimate venue) and subsequently, their music took a few more risks in terms of texture and rhythm. That said, they had a winning presence, and their homespun melodies came across well on what was a short and punchy set. Overall (having missed what many raved about, Tinariwen, due to surgery), it was a pleasing and enjoyable pop music section of the Arts Festival, and one which produced a truly brilliant set in Bon Iver’s performance to justify the headlining presence of contemporary indie music in such a highbrow event.