IT’S SATURDAY NIGHT IN NAPIER. Twenty of us are seated in pews, wineglasses in hand, in the historic Ormond Chapel at the top of Chaucer Road. There’s rain drumming lightly on the roof, and Jamie Macphail is up the front of the small church with Nigel Wearne, Australian country/folk singer- songwriter who tunes his guitar while Jamie gives us a warm welcome and an introduction to Nigel and his work.
Jamie apologises to Nigel for the small numbers, “You’ve got a small, but very high-calibre audience this evening,” he says, with the flash of a grin.
There’s no hipster vibe here, just dedicated listeners who’ve come out on a winter’s night at Jamie’s recommendation to hear live music at another of his Sitting Room Sessions.
“I get approached by a lot of musicians,” Jamie says. “The only way I ever know if I want to say yes, is to have a listen – and it usually takes about 30 seconds.”
Thirty seconds of Jamie listening, months ago, and now we’re here, listening to – partaking in – this intimate performance by a true talent, a poet and a troubadour on guitar, banjo and harmonica sharing stories of his life in Warrnambool, Victoria and the historical Australian stories he’s researched to transform into song.
What started off as a special treat for Jamie’s birthday celebration has developed into a community of like-minded live music lovers.
Some years ago, ahead of his fiftieth birthday, Jamie’s sisters asked him what he’d like as a gift, and he came up with the request that they pay for a live music act to play at his party. It took a while, but he managed to track down musician Warren Love, who he’d heard on Radio New Zealand. Warren was keen for the roadtrip from Wellington, so came up and played a set at the house party.
“It was extraordinary,” Jamie says, as he describes his nearest and dearest squeezing into his sitting room, not knowing quite what was happening, and Warren and his low and languid voice captivating them all.
Four or five years would pass while the idea bubbled away in Jamie’s head, but the thought of a small, intimate and welcoming space for live music just didn’t go away.
“We’ve only been recording music for 80 years or so,” he exclaims. “Before that, it was all live, and it brought people together.”
This keenness to bring people together and to experience the uniqueness of the live act of music from some of the musicians who might not usually make it off the beaten track to Hawke’s Bay saw Jamie host the first of his Sitting Room Sessions at his home on Bluff Hill in 2013.
He had teed up singer-songwriter Sam RB to play the show (she was in town from Auckland to perform at the HB Sports Awards the night before, having written the sporting anthem ‘Stand Tall’), and sold tickets to friends and prepared everything for a warm and welcoming evening.
Sam called ahead of the show to say that she’d become a little apprehensive about the whole thing, so if Jamie didn’t mind, she’d be bringing a friend along to accompany her. The friend was Mike Chunn, and what resulted was a truly special night of music, and heartfelt stories. It was a special way to begin, and it cemented Jamie’s idea of the Sitt ing Room Sessions.
The next act Jamie hosted was Tiny Ruins – Hollie Fulbrook’s ensemble has since returned to the Sitting Room Sessions several times, most recently playing the Haumoana Community Hall in June.
When Hollie and Cass Basil visited that first time, Jamie reminisces, it just happened to be the 100th meeting of his small music group. “It’s the only one I’ve heard of,” he says, “like a book group but for music. We each – five to eight of us – bring along a CD or a piece of music or whatever and share it, and anyway, Hollie and Cass were staying, so they joined in!”
You realise, chatting with Jamie, that these lucky musical instances pepper his life – Mike Chunn showing up to support Sam RB, Tiny Ruins playing the tiniest gig ever for him and his friends around a kitchen table. A weekend spent with the Hanson Family (America folk country act) in his family’s bach at Mangakuri Beach.
“I’d organised for them to have a night there on their way south, so got them settled in, and then went to head off , but they’d been looking forward to this funny guy down in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand staying for the weekend!”
Most people who have experienced the Sitting Room Sessions will have done so in the cottage Jamie lived in out at Crab Farm Winery in Bayview. This is where it really developed its flavour, with wine and food and a Ron Te Kawa quilt emblazoned with the word “Manaakitanga” hanging as a backdrop to the stage area.
Over time, Jamie has discovered more about what the word means. Not just simple hospitality in terms of feeding someone and making them welcome. It’s more than that – it’s about a generosity of care, and about respect.
He offers it in spades – not just to the audiences, but also to the musicians. Nigel Wearne finishes his set in the Ormond Chapel and pulls Jamie into a bear hug and we can see how the performer ‘gets’ how much Jamie ‘gets it’.
When he welcomes you – in top hat and blazing red tails – to the Spiegeltent and stands on the stage introducing a show at the Harcourts Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival as Master of Ceremonies, you feel that respect and care again.
Jamie left the Crab Farm cottage last year, and hasn’t found another venue quite like it, so this year the Sessions have been held in various spots around the Bay, including Red Barrel Winery, the Haumoana Hall, Birdwoods Gallery, and of course this sweet chapel on the Hill. In moving the gigs around, Jamie’s musical followers get to see different places and the concerts are each even more unique, but you get the sense he’s is still on the lookout for a permanent home for the music and the manaakitanga.
There are potentials in the pipeline, he says. And what of the overall concept of house concerts? “A network of 20 likeminded people, that’d be ideal,” he says, “All over the country, that’d be a dream!”
So let’s watch this space, as Jamie finds the ‘forever’ home for the Sessions, and more projects like his develop around regional New Zealand, attracting special performers via an infrastructure of small gigs and roadtrips, bringing people together as music has done for millennia.
“That’s really been the amazing thing for me in all of this,” says Jamie. “The people – both the musicians and the audiences – they have changed my life completely.”