Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

Dude, where's my stage?

That magnificent oasis in the heart of the city, Central Park -- which is 150 years old this year -- is big. Really big. So big, in fact, that apparently one of the acts in the New Zealand Sounds Summerstage gig in the park got lost. He set off for some fresh air at one point, and couldn't find his way back. Fortunately the park police were able to point him back towards the venue, whereupon he took the stage and got people on their feet for the first time all day. He also gave a quick tutorial on useful phrases. Like, "Are you sweet, New York?"

Sweet, indeed. The unmistakable King Kapisi was the icing on the ginger crunch of the afternoon, capping off three very nice sets from Pine, Wai and Greg Johnson. The free concert attracted a fair crowd, a good half of which seemed to speak with an antipodean accent. Now, if you were a glass-half-empty type, you might see that as a bad thing. You might, for example, grumble about the NZ government forking out good money to provide a lazy Sunday afternoon for homesick expats.

Or, like me, you might see a glass brimming with opportunities. Over the course of the afternoon, we chatted with, let's see, a film director, a make-up artist, the business manager for (among other bands) KISS, a leading academic, a major music company honcho, an international banker, a respected actor, a computer programmer, an editor, a jazz musician, a tai chi teacher, a trade commissioner, several journalists, a guy who ships fine art around the world, a mine-clearer just back from Iraq, and a dancer or two. Can you guess which ones were the New Zealanders and which the New Yorkers? No, you can't, and that's the point -- we've insinuated ourselves into every possible corner of the world, doing everything from the catering (thanks, Delectica!) to the performing, and we're mates with people who can get things done. That's how it works.

It's also about exposure. The Central Park gig was blurbed by Time Out and the Village Voice, people were buying CDs and T-shirts that spread the word, and the bands themselves will get a second bite at the Big Apple with an industry-focused showcase at Piano's on Monday night. Gigs like this are not just the pleasant soundtrack for trade negotiations and business deals and tourist campaigns, they are the business. Music is an industry, like wine, like dairying, like yacht design, like film, and is at least as worth the occasional leg-up as any of these. Plus, you can dance to it.

So how was the music? Fascinatingly diverse, to the point where you could legitimately wonder whether there's really any such thing as "New Zealand music." Pine led off with a set that took me right back to my Christchurch days (South Island reprazent!). Maybe it's the endearing happily-married Bats-like vibe of keyboardist and guitarist Hannah and Aaron, or the whole "what the heck, let's put the drum out front so the lead singer has something to do with his hands" sort of pioneer make-do that leads to brilliant innovation. There's just something really homegrown about this stripped-down three piece, and I like their tunes. And any band with a keyboard in it sounds good to this former keyboard gal. The charmingly congenial drummer/singer Stephen admitted that it does bug them when people call their sound "Britpop" (neither the Brit nor the pop really does them justice) but that they hadn't come up with a good alternative designation yet. Any suggestions?

And then for something completely different, Mina Ripia and Maaka McGregor's project Wai took the stage. If you haven't heard or seen them, imagine the St Joseph's Maori Girls School Choir fed through The Matrix (Reloaded). In this incarnation, they consisted of two fabulously gorgeous women backed by two stellar looking guys operating keyboards and turntables. Clad in cargo pants and kowhaiwhai patterned bandeau tops, they sing entirely in te reo while dancing and doing wicked things with poi, both short and long. (Their flax poi were confiscated by customs, apparently, but the synthetic white ones looked good to me -- I can only imagine how great the whole show would look under a blacklight in a more intimate venue). They're on their way through to the UK and Paris, so catch them if you can.

Greg Johnson did his thing, a good, tight, entertaining set. The guy is a professional, although he looked damn hot (I mean that literally; it was a sweltering day) in that long-sleeved black shirt. Interestingly, or not, most of his backing band were Scots (like the New Zealand String Quartet, which is three quarters American). I love his albums but can never quite concentrate on the lyrics when he's playing live. To be fair, I was chasing Busytot around the place by this point in the afternoon, and thus not in a position to pay proper attention; by the time King Kapisi rocked onto the stage, I was ready to simply lie on the grass and close my eyes, like the thousands of other New Yorkers using the park as their weekend backyard.

Busytot had a wonderful time, despite having had only the briefest of catnaps over the course of the afternoon. "Like the music, like the music," he said to anyone who would listen, including a couple of readers of this blog who were stoked to meet him in the flesh (I stood by proudly, feeling a little like Frances McDormand's character in Almost Famous). Incidentally, he's getting firmer in his opinions by the day, bulking up the old assertiveness muscles for his impending gig as a two-year-old. It's quite impressive, and not a little fearsome. "Toddler" is such a benign word, and half the day he's just that: he toddles around, he ambles here and there, planting wet kisses on things and people and making surprisingly lucid observations. Other times he's quite the authoritarian, barking orders in a stentorian bellow worthy of Mussolini in his heyday.

Today we had a bit of both. He played very nicely with a little boy who turned out to have been born at the same birthing centre, just three days before Busytot himself. Late in the day, however, he got a tad impatient. He wasn't just low on nap but high on sugar, the latter thanks to the massive batch of ginger crunch my sister and I had made the night before. Mmm, ginger crunch. We briefly thought about selling it for 25c a piece so Busytot could have some spending money for his upcoming trip home. But in the end we wandered round giving it away to anyone who recognised it and fell upon it like slavering beasts. And a few new converts, who are probably home right now trading in their copies of The Joy of Cooking for the unbeatable Edmonds Cookbook... Sweet!