What do you do on a Friday night? Along with sport, a poll recently released by Sport Hawke’s Bay reports that live music is near the top of local entertainment choices. And for good reason.

If you are keen on a night out to see and hear some live music, you might go to a bar with a covers band, Crab Farm Winery or Groove Kitchen for some laid back tunes, or Black Barn or Pettigrew Arena to see a bigger show. You might go to the Opera House to see a production, or even occasionally the Mission for a really big show like Rod Stewart.

Johnny Valler, Verdant Blue

The real local music scene, though, is found inside the newly soundproofed walls of the Cabana in Napier. One of the oldest venues in New Zealand, it was brought back to life after a chat between local musician Matt Baker, the Hotel Cabana book author Lee Pritchard and Auckland import Ian Morris of Th’ Dudes. It’s not a bar, but a venue with a bar.

You might not have heard of the bands playing on a given night, but then, how would you have? Not from TV or radio. Original music is effectively underground. The musicians at a winery or pub that play every week get paid a fee for playing for however many hours. Rod Stewart gets paid an agreed amount by a promoter who then takes the ticket money. Bands playing at the Cabana charge five to ten bucks at the door for the night, and that won’t pay the rent. So for them, the work of getting a set’s worth of original songs together is a lot of extra work for your listening pleasure.

Fifty years ago, in the early ‘60s, six to eight hundred people would cram into a club like the old Top Hat in Napier every Friday night to hear a band like Johnny and the Contacts kick out the latest hits. Boys met girls etc; they had a good night. There was six o’clock closing of pubs, and clubs like this sold no alcohol (except for private functions like a firemans’ ball or a young farmers’ ball). Teenagers could go along. It was ‘the dance’. Ties were compulsory for men. It would cost you about six shillings to get in. On a Sunday, the same band might play at a Sunday school function at Mclean Park to 1,000 people. Radio 2ZC occasionally played hits recorded by local bands before anyone heard the original. Live music was big.

John Lindsay of Johnny and The Contacts recalls, “It was the crest of a wave, you’re never going to see that now. New Zealand was starved of music. We cheated and copied the new styles from overseas, ha ha, we were mainstream, but there were underground bands like Troubled Mind that played to smaller crowds. I rated them very highly.”

Cara Ferguson, Ninja Monkey

The demographic in the Bay has changed since then, with many school leavers making the move to university out of town, since we lost Massey to Palmy. There’s television, which didn’t really become commonplace in New Zealand until the 70’s; video games; and the internet more recently, which brings everything to the home, including music. People work longer hours. If you’ve got kids, getting out can be difficult. If you are kids, getting out can be difficult. Live music is just one of many choices.

Urban culture and TV idols

When you look at Wellington or Auckland, the live music scene is an important part of those cities’ cultures, particularly bands that play their own music. You can go and see them live, they exist in the culture there. The big city urbanites count their ownership of this cultural activity as a part of their very urbanity. There’s lots of students, including those from HB. They’ll be going to see bands we haven’t even heard of here. The B-net student radio network plays lots of local music.

The pop ‘idol’ TV phenomenon has suggested a different view of what a music career is amongst TV viewers that probably don’t go to see live bands. It’s almost like, if you’re not on TV, you can’t really count. But then, the last that was heard of Ben Lummis, he was playing the RSA in Lower Hutt.

For its part too, commercial radio might lead you to think there’s a pretty narrow range of music to choose from. It becomes conservative by its very nature. The corporatisation of radio has led to around 80% of stations in the US playing the same content. HB is no different.

Record stores are closing everywhere, but, less depressingly, you can now discover new music online, and this is where local bands can access a greater audience. Recording your own music has become easier and cheaper, and with sites like bandcamp.com you can release an album online, as a free download, or at whatever price you set. A B-net station might then download it and playlist a song. The hard part is still getting people to listen in the first place. There’s so much music on the net.

In the ‘60s, most bands in New Zealand played covers. Ian Morris recalled slogging up and down the country with Dave Dobbyn and Th’ Dudes in the ‘70s and ‘80s, “Forcing our way into the mainstream.” Now you can see Dave Dobbyn on a winery tour and comfortably know all the songs.

He made it into the mainstream, but back in the day, as a press clipping on the mural in the men’s at the Cabana quotes, the more likely reaction was, “Play some ‘Stones you wankers!”

What’s Hawke’s Bay music?

The music being played in HB is varied and diverse, but if you had to pick a sound that can be identified as ‘Hawke’s Bay’, it could possibly be that of Jakob and HDU, with their organic, sweeping landscapes of sound. Tristan Dingemans of Mountaineater (ex HDU) explains: “It’s definitely inspired by the landscape. There’s elements of the sound in both Mountaineater and Kahu that are attempting a painterly rendition of landscape with delay and distortion.”

Hawke’s Bay musicians often leave for the bigger cities. Connan Hosford of Te Awanga, now Connan Moccasin, moved to Europe, and has just written and recorded a song with Charlotte Gainsbourg in France (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Out Of Touch, live session 2012, YouTube). And his Forever Dolphin Love album (locally titled Please Turn Me Into the Snat) received great reviews in the northern hemisphere. He will be supporting Radiohead when they come to NZ and Australia later this year.

Tristan Dingemans formed HDU, then Mountaineater in Dunedin. Lee Prebble runs Wellington’s busy Surgery Studio. There are many great HB musicians who have gone on to success in other cities. Jakob have stayed though, managing to sell more records overseas than at home, receiving rave reviews internationally, and recently being asked by American band Tool to join their tour in Australia.

Musicians have moved here as well. Bruno Lawrence, Fane Flaws and Blerta ended up communing in Waimarama; Ian Morris (Tex Pistol) and Andrew Gladstone of Garageland decided on a change from the traffic jams of Auckland. Sound tech Ron Kessles has been mixing live sound for Muse, Radiohead and shortly John Fogerty, and now shares that knowledge as an instructor for a MAINZ audio engineering course at EIT.

The Napier City Showcase, now an annual event (just held) offers one band the chance to win a live slot at Rhythm&Vines. Based on the London event of the same name, the idea is to have a weekend showcasing bands with an industry interest, plus a competition of sorts for up and comers. It’s a great opportunity for everyone to see lots of bands throughout the two days of performances. Hopefully, established local bands will get involved, lifting the bar for younger bands.

In the five years the Cabana has been open, the internet has become the main source for music, record companies have much smaller budgets for promotion, and their role is reduced to a gatekeeper of sorts; but bands still play live. Bands on tour are able to consider Napier in their schedules again. Even though it’s now harder than ever to make money selling music, it’s nevertheless better than ever for playing original music. Gone are the days of ‘Play something we know!’

Right now, musicians of all ages can turn up mid-week on an open mic night; a musicians night; a femmes night, and play for the very first time. Maybe a cover, maybe their own music, and get some real experience as musicians. Or at the weekend see New Zealand and overseas bands play to a full house and learn from them. We can’t take this for granted.

As Cabana manager Roy Brown says, ‘Use it or lose it folks.’ Touring bands won’t come back if there’s a poor turnout. David Kilgour of the Clean recently said they won’t be booking Napier because last time they only got forty people, and they can’t afford that. We should be going to that gig.

Ahuriri is the developing area in Napier, and the CBD can be like the set of a ghost town on a Friday or Saturday night. The one place with original music is just up the road. Some people find it by mistake.

It would help if someone started a local mini mag with what’s on every weekend, but that’s a tough business. Councils would do well to help fund the margin on something like that, with the accompanying online version. Facebook is free right? Remember, even those that don’t go out much would become more aware that there is stuff going on, that there is a mildly vibrant music culture out there, and maybe consider checking it out themselves, once in a while. Tourists are always looking for what’s on, and they’re not all into beer barns. In fact, they might even ask, “What’s Hawke’s Bay music like, and where can I find it?”

Consider going along one night for local live music if you haven’t already. Don’t just save up for Rod Stewart. If you want to live in a vibrant culture, enjoy that culture and support local activity like this occasionally.

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