Hard News by Russell Brown


ACL: The best of times, the worst of times

I had an excellent time with my friends at Auckland City Limits yesterday. I witnessed a spellbinding performance from a great artist and discovered how much I loved another band. So why was I wondering in the midst of it whether this festival really works?

The promoters got a lot right with their second iteration of ACL (and their third show at Western Springs). Entry systems were (mostly) good, the bars were something of a marvel and toilet capacity was decent, if unevenly distributed. The fact that outside a couple of R18 areas, the drinks were low in alcohol was probably key to the feeling that it was a safe space for kids. Food was top-notch and highly available.

But all that was helped greatly by the fact that only about 20,000 people came through the gates. I'm guessing break-even was in the range of 25-30,000, and nearer the latter.

Ironically, a good part of the joy in the early part of the day was that we spent it with a much smaller crowd – maybe 1000? – at the festival-within-a-festival that was the Golden Dawn zone. We arrived just as Fabulous/Arabia were starting and it was the stickiest of guilty pleasures. I've always liked their album, but I hadn't realised that their live show takes the yacht-rock dream to a stream of loving period covers. Boz Scaggs! Steely Dan! The Doobies! I was so happy I'd almost have donned one of the yacht-captain's hats that seem to be all over this summer's festivals. Almost.

From there, it was over to the stadium stages and the Libertines' first ever New Zealand show. They were messy as fuck, as the good lord intended, and it was infectious. The video screens showed Pete and Karl sharing their mike like two dossers convening over a fag-end and I thought about the intimacy of their creative partnership, how they fell out, and how they came together again. Rock 'n' roll.

From there it was back to Golden Dawn, which was so thoroughly congenial (same lightning bar service, better beer, not enough toilets, no duelling mainstage PAs) that we passed up on going out to see the D4 and instead enjoyed the sprawling majesty of The Magic Factory, who sound like the Rolling Stones through a filter. Only bum note: the belief, in the face of all evidence, that what people want to hear at a music festival is a comedian. Nope.

From there, I met up with my family and went over to catch some of Future in the stadium – which meant we caught some of Tash Sultana. She's a post-Ed Sheeran busker-with-loops – her point of difference is fevered shredding and gurning on guitar – and I thought she was awful. It was also a glimpse of maybe the key problem the festival faces. She's a famous-via-YouTube star and I get that she has a young following, but it just didn't fit well into a lineup of more substantial artists.

Future was cool but not exactly our vibe, so we went back over to the outside field for the end of The Avalanches (who we'd actually intended to see in the first place) and ... Grace Jones.

My god, she was good. You could have forgiven her for just rolling out the hits, but it was never that. Her icier songs are as challenging as ever – an edgy 'Warm Leatherette', a punk rock 'Love is the Drug' – and her band is  amazing. And the lady herself? A goddess, a queen, an artist.

She was also patient when the crowd – the biggest for any act all day – couldn't quite muster the vocal enthusiasm she deserved. And it seemed like she might yet be persuaded to come back out for an encore of 'Slave to the Rhythm' ...

What happened instead was horrifying. Thousands of people's Grace Jones afterglow was shattered by – I'm still strugging to believe this happened – a video message from former All Black Dan Carter inviting everyone to give a big Auckland welcome to Peking Duk on the adjacent stage. I have no idea what the flaming fuck that was about, but I presume money changed hands somewhere.

And then Peking Duk started. It was the most hideous, risible, hackneyed, desperate EDM bullshit you could imagine. I get that there was probably some sort of contractual obligation involved – like when the Auckland Big Day Out would be obliged to present some tedious Aussie rock act too far up the schedule. And I get that a not-insubstantial number of punters, all of them under 25, actually liked it. I get that a mass-audience festival needs to cater to people who listen to The Edge, and that the reality is that this is a show owned by Live Nation. I still want the police to press cultural-crime charges.

The scheduling didn't help matters. Peking Duk made no sense as the follow-up to Grace. Justice made no sense as the lead-in to Beck. It was as if the whole thing had been designed as a series of profoundly awkward handovers. Why did Tash Sultana get to play on the big stage with the video screens when four times as many people were at Grace Jones, an intensely visual performer?

The relatively small crowd in the stadium proved a bit of problem for Beck, the ostensible headliner, and my honey and I, not really feeling it, decided we'd walk over and check out Phoenix. WHO WERE AMAZING. Joyous, nimble, delightful dancing music played by a real band whose delights I've somehow missed until now. It was such a cool way to end the day.

So if I had such a great time, what's wrong with Auckland City Limits? Well, firstly, that it couldn't sell 30,000 tickets, which meant it was easy to get around, get a drink or a meal or a pee – but also meant an odd lack of audience vibe for many performances. The sound-spill between the two pairs of stages seemed worse this year, and in parts of the site the experience was incoherent. The inevitable conflict between the concept of a curated festival and the requirements of the Live Nation juggernaut was made more jarring by the scheduling. Maybe Phoenix could have followed Grace, maybe Peking Duk could have been matched with Future, or Justice. Maybe there should be a dance tent? But something just felt a little off all day.

I'm grateful to the local promoters for the day I did have, and especially for their generosity to a good friend of mine who was venturing back into the throng after a really tough three years ("I was proud of myself," she told me). But I do worry a bit about their festival.

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