Let’s start by saying that I’m not the best person to be writing an objective review of the Auckland Folk Festival. This is because I have attended the relatively small three-night affair at Kumeu Showgrounds since I was 8, and have always had a great time regardless of the lineup.

That doesn’t mean however that each year isn’t different, and 2017 saw a definite increase in musical diversity, with some rewarding surprises.

The way the festival performances are structured has always been clever and effective. Each main act is allocated several different sets throughout the three days, including their own daytime gig on the main stage, smaller workshop-like tent performances, and finally a slot in the final Sunday night concert, featuring all the main performers one after another. This allows everybody to see every act they want at least once, and multiple times in different settings if they wish. It also gives the performers the freedom to try out different things and adjust their set to different situations.

By definition, this has never been a festival to see groundbreaking music as such, but music of a very high quality nonetheless. It is an indulgence in unashamed musical tradition, and for me a chance to enjoy and be surrounded by music I wouldn’t choose to normally, gaining a greater appreciation every year of the intricacies of folk music tradition and its evolution.

This year showed that evolution better than any previously. One of the first acts I watched was Wai Tai, a band brimming with vocal harmonies often sung in Te Reo Māori and mixed with British folk music, complete with stunning violin work. A similar fusion took place in Jon Sanders’ set, as the virtuoso acoustic guitarist was joined by two stunning tabla players and several other musicians to treat the marquee to a fusion of two vastly different folk traditions.

Photo of Luke Thompson by Erica McQueen.

There is an incredible closeness between the performers (in this case Luke Thompson) and the audience. Photo by Erica McQueen.

But it is always Celtic-flavoured folk music that dominates the festival each year, and this time around they had authentic Irish four-piece FourWinds to uphold this tradition. Brimming with energy and fully-displayed talent, they provided both a much needed-energy boost in the middle of a scalding hot Saturday, and a rousing finishing set to top the festival late Sunday night. While such traditional music doesn’t appeal to everyone,  there is something so inherently satisfying about hearing this sound live.  

The festival’s headliner this year was iconic kiwi songwriter Don McGlashan, the voice behind The Mutton Birds, Bam Bam Bam, The Front Lawn, and of course a successful solo career. This further goes to show the festival organiser’s all-encompassing view as to what constitutes ‘folk’ music, a label not usually attributed to McGlashan.

However, there was no doubt that the small New Zealand audience’s familiarity with some of his older tracks added greatly to the already-communal atmosphere around the main stage, and his simple backing of clean electric guitar and accordion/mandolin/violin courtesy of Dave Khan was tasteful and beautiful.

Khan, a New Zealand multi-instrumentalist, also had his own name on the lineup, and stood out as one of the most naturally striking figures I have seen there. The tall, stooped figure with an almost murderous expression looked like someone straight out of a dustbowl country song, a Townes-van-Zandt-like character, to the extent that I was slightly disappointed his music wasn’t as grim or as wild, though his multi-instrumental talent was admirable nonetheless.

There were of course countless more performers worthy of mention, some who I saw and some who I didn’t over the course of two swelteringly hot, cloudless days camping in a shadeless open field. This is my fault entirely, as the festival does offer shaded camping areas beneath some trees- in fact the grounds are fantastic, providing wide open flat space, plenty of uncramped camping area and a comfortable cluster of stalls and food vendors.

Another reason this festival is so special is the lack of any distinct barrier between the performers and the audience, due to the small stages, open-mic events, the opportunity to chat to favourite performers as they wander around, and most importantly the massive amount of music drifting from campsites all over the grounds all day and night.

However this year was tinged with sadness for many, as it was the final year for presenter and vice-president Roger Giles, the stooped white-bearded and brilliantly comical figure so beloved by many of the event’s returning attendees. In his retirement, Roger can rest assured that the festival will continue to flourish and earn new fans of the music he loves, though I have absolutely no doubts he’ll be back next year anyway. I’ll certainly be there to see.

Photo of Roger Giles by Erica McQueen.

Roger Giles – the man himself. Photo by Erica McQueen.