Hard News by Russell Brown



Regular readers will know that, much as I like a night out, I like a good music festival. I've had a few: Sweetwaters (twice), Glastonbury (three times), Reading (once, it was awful), the Big Day Out (all of them), Laneway (ditto). But I'd never been to Splore.

That changed on New Year's Eve, when I got talking to Splore's marketing manager, Suzanne McNamara, at a party and she informed me that I bloody well ought to go. As it happened, I wasn't going to be at Webstock (which has clashed with Splore in the past) and I said, okay, yeah -- I'll go.

Things fell into place. I was more than a little blessed with my camping experience. Quite a number of my old friends are Splorers from way back and they're friends in turn with Suzanne. So I arrived to an excellent campsite at Tapapakanga Regional Park and a great bunch of people.

My friend Lisa brought along her daughter and her friend, both 11. The girls had been given to understand that Russell Brand would be sharing their campsite, and were thus somewhat let down when it turned out to be just me. They perked right up again when they discovered that Bianca from NZ's Next Top Model was another of our campmates.

I was impressed for my part to discover that we were camping with the cyclist Katie Boyd, who made up the camp's entire quotient of iron-bodied fitness and furry pink bikini tops. She was relaxed and self-contained, as I imagine elite sportspeople need to be. And her Cannondale touring bike was awesomely light, even with the water bottles on.

Splore's provision for children is one of its most striking features, and a valuable moderating influence on adult behaviour. There were half a dozen kids in our campsite and I was glad of their presence. I still wouldn't want to be one of those parents pushing a baby buggy around all weekend, but even they seemed to be having a good time, mostly.

Enjoying Splore requires a degree of fitness and an element of planning. The campsites are a slog back up hill from the beachfront location where most of the food, drink and entertainment are, and you don't want to be doing that trip too many times in a day.

So I came down the hill for the first time on Friday to discover the scene as advertised: a lovely afternoon, a beautiful beach and a growing, colourful crowd. The first band I watched properly at the main stage was The Yoots, who play to a winning formula: Maori standards set to a ska rhythm. Waita and the music of Jamaica usually meet in a roots reggae style, but I now wonder if it was meant to be a jump-up ska beat all along.

I felt a real surge of happiness as I sat on the hill surrounded by people singing along to waita, gazing across the crowd and out to the Gulf in the setting sun. And then Splore turned on a rainbow. I mean, really:

Erykah Badu was due on next, and took her sweet time. The build-up was exciting and her band sounded great when they took the stage to warm up. And then … meh. Her whole diva thing didn't really work for me and after half an hour I wandered off to the DJ stage to dance to some dirty techno-funk. I took this pic on the way there:

Yeah, really. Just a tiny bit nicer than Mt Smart Stadium.

Eventually, I came back and met a couple of my friends, just in time for the deluge. I'd been regaling people all day -- friends, strangers, workers -- with the news of Auckland's extreme weather. So smug, I was. And then … The. Heavens. Opened.

My friend Roxanne and I started to move, then had to just bolt for shelter inside a vegetarian food stall, along with about a dozen other wet, wide-eyed Splorers. The people working there were understanding and good-humoured about it all and the young woman serving started offering around chocolate brownies. I did my bit helping to hold up the awning at the back, which was filling with rainwater every 30 seconds.

It was a mad scene, but fun for a while. After about 40 minutes, the rain eased and we could go.

"Does anybody ever tell you you look like Anna Paquin?" I said as I thanked the young woman with the brownies.

"No!" she said, looking pleased and surprised.

"Well you do," I said.

Soul II Soul Sound System took the main stage not long after the rain stopped, and they were pretty good -- most notably when the wonderful Caron Wheeler was on stage (her fellow vocalist MC Chickaboo, on the other hand, was mediocre -- you'd think Jazzie B could do better). I ran into some other friends and toured around with them for a while, before running out of energy and patience waiting for Disasteradio to come on in the Linz Living Lounge and heading back up the hill about 2.30am.

My side of the tent was dry. My new friends Leigh and Dave weren't so lucky on the other side. They'd left their tent window open and most of what was inside was drenched. The parade had been rained on in more ways than one.

I visited an awfully overfull portaloo, brushed my teeth back at camp and flopped down on the half-full air mattress. After a solid three hours' sleep and an hour's dozing, the morning sun hit the tent at 8.05am. There was no staying there. I'm not sure I have appreciated a morning coffee as much as the one my other new friend Aaron brewed up on the camp stove.

From there, we trailed down the hill to buy restorative burritos and smoothies from the stall we'd sheltered at the night before (to my relief, that girl did actually still look a bit like Anna Paquin) and took an even more restorative swim before decking out in the media centre, a tent directly overlooking the beach. Yes, that was me you saw maxin' and relaxin' as you went past. Sorry. Freedom of the press and all that.

I was invited to meet Splore's director, Amanda Wright, at some drinks during the afternoon. She told me she was a Public Address reader and she'd been keen to get me along to a Splore, which was nice of her. If there's a commonality between what we do here and what she and her crew do, it's that we're both at heart about developing a community. Her parties are just way, way bigger.

I took out my phone and showed her this great picture by Robyn Gallagher of Home Brew playing at Wellington's Homegrown festival at about 2pm:

Homebrew at Homegrown

It was 3.30pm and Tom Scott of Home Brew was due to be Tom Scott of @Peace at 6.30pm on the mainstage at Splore. He'd been onsite overnight, then missed his ride to the airport in the morning. Was he going to make it back? I got the impression she wasn't going to fret about something not within her control.

I saw some of Funkcommunity, Isaac Aesili's new band, and confirmed the hype about his bass player: her guitar seems bigger than she is, but she plays it like a solid funky giant.

Time works differently at Splore than at an urban festival. There's a lot more of it, for a start, and there are downtimes and dull times. Nobody seems to feel the need to see every single musical act, and some people barely seem to bother with the music at all. They come to wear costumes and play. Some of them felt so strongly about their attachment to the festival they came to have their weddings and civil unions.

And, as I soon discovered when I accompanied Leigh and Dave to the Firemen's Social Club bar in the theme camp, grown adults will gladly compete to skip rope when given permission by men in freaky masks:

Then I heard Tom's voice echoing up the hill. He'd made it, then.

Like the Yoots the night before, @Peace owned the sundown slot. The extended band -- two on laptops, one on keys and Isaac on trumpet -- worked well and Esther Stephens just killed it on vocals later on in the set. (Next step: get her rapping too.)

I didn't get the very popular "Fuck Paul Holmes!" chant on my phone, but I did get most of 'Home':

So, yeah, that whole thing was outstanding.

I had to skip Scratch 22's DJ set so I could get back to the camp, where everyone was dressing up for the evening. I knew I was going to be a bit challenged by dress-up night: I normally can't bear costume parties, especially when they have a theme. But my ladies had a plan:

I, too, had brought a tracksuit, but that had no secure pockets, and my personal dress code for music festivals has "secure pockets" as the number one rule. Happily, I had my bike shorts (less the padding), an exercise shirt, a cap and a dayglo windbreaker. So I was coach. It did not escape me that my fancy dress was actually my cycling gear. Next time I'll be sure to bring a whistle.

If Friday night had been thrown off its stride by the deluge, Saturday was Splore proper: all systems go. Our crew came down for a bit of a dance to Hermitude at the crowded DJ stage, then walked the art trail, resting on a hilltop that served as a vantage point for much of the site. It was quite a feeling being able to see and hear three stages at once and we stayed there a while, just taking in the magic, shining night:

And yes, I might have been a little high at this point.

By the time we came down, the Cuban Brothers were finishing on the main stage with their version of Lionel Ritchie's 'All Night Long', which was great fun.

Amanda appeared from the crowd and was greeted by everyone. I gave her a hug and said "Thanks for this."

"There's so much to see," she said.

Roxanne and I walked down past the Hoo-Ha Hut, where, just as we were passing, Spikey Tee dropped the A Skillz remix of Marlena Shaw's 'California Soul'. There's no walking by when that tune's playing, so we stopped and had a big ol' dance outside the fence. From there, it was on to the Portavilion, an art space run by Emma Underhill and Cut Collective, which looked like this:

We rested up in the media centre for a while before coming back out to watch DJ Qbert and his MC, who was probably the best human beatboxer I have ever heard.

From there, it was back to the Hoo-Ha Hut for my favourite DJ set of the whole weekend. JStar delivered an exemplary set of contemporary dancehall reggae, and when he spent 20 minutes bouncing around on the 'Sleng Teng' rhythm, my joy was unconfined. It looked like this in the night:

That meant we missed nearly all of Hudson Mohawke. But the main stage signed off with Luther Vandross' 'Never Too Much' over the PA, and that was some sweet soul heaven to be taking away.

Back at the DJ stage, we danced to Sticky Buds' electro funk on the hillside before Suzanne and I decided at 3am that that was our evening. We left the tracksuit ladies to their mischief. They wound up driving (with official oversight) a golf buggy around the site at 6am, disembarking to make a pot of tea at some friendly strangers' campsite. With Lisa at the wheel, looking like Joanna Lumley impersonating a member of a 1970s East German Olympic shooting team, in comedy sunglasses. Respect.

After being woken by the sun, I had a coffee, then wandered down for a swim in the river at the west end of the site, which was brilliantly cold. I sat on the bank for a half an hour watching other people dive in and come up gasping and wide-a-bloody-wake, before breakfasting on a burrito and a smoothie again. I marvelled that I could possibly feel this good after two big nights in a row.

Then I saw Silke Hartung, who was the backstage meeter-and-greeter, sitting at the edge of the beach with her ukulele.

"Give us a song!" called a guy who was strolling past with his mate. She did, and it went like this:

I fetched the rest of the crew (well, most of them) down from camp and we had another swim, this time at the beach. By then, it was time for A Hori Buzz, who I was keen to see, having heard the odd tune online. They were -- like The Yoots on Friday and @Peace on Saturday -- the feelgood phenomenon of the day; a rousing, funky, rockin' party from beginning to end. Mad props. This was the scene on the hill:

I was somewhat surprised to find that not everyone leaves at the same time on Sunday. Some people have breakfast and pack out; others just chill for the day. We wandered down to relax at the Hoo-Ha, where I was delighted to hear something I hadn't heard all weekend: some house music. Splore was born into juggernaut trance and has broadened into reggae, funk, hip hop and their derivatives (including, inevitably, dubstep, lots of dubstep). But some of us old folks would have loved a little soulful deep house at 1am. Just sayin'.

By the time we'd packed up, it was suddenly 4.30pm, and really time for us to go home.

Splore is, as you may have gathered from the above, a marvel. The production relies on so many people -- some of them volunteers -- to do their thing. There was a new management team this year, and a few hitches, including waits of up to four hours for pre-entry booze searches (I suspect many people sneak in a little alcohol, but the searches weed out the big stashes, and that's not just a good thing but an essential thing).  The portaloo company didn't empty the loos until too late on Saturday, and things got a bit nasty there.

The festival itself was sold-out-and-then-some, which put pressure on the campsites. Some people lost their pre-booked sites, and a carpark field had to be converted into a campground on the fly. Most of the time, there were too few shuttles. The organisers will need to work out how all that happened.

But the main site was a breeze to get around. Thanks to the stored-value chips in the wristbands, queues at bars and food stalls moved fairly quickly (ie: no Laneway-style debacle) and, really, nothing was much of a hassle. To pull this off at this kind of scale, and to then leave the site clean, is an extraordinary achievement.

But in a way, the real achievement is the crowd itself. A lot of people were pretty high, but it really felt safe. It didn't occur to me until Sunday that I hadn't seen a policeman all weekend. Nearly everyone, including the people working there, seemed friendly and accommodating. (Case in point: I needed a quenching beer on Sunday but only had $6 left on my chip -- so the bar guy at Hoo Ha worked out that he could take $1.50 off his own allowance and buy me the rest of my beer. Imagine that happening anywhere else.)

But what I really, really like is the way Splore defies the dull blade of demographics and market segments. That's something I've always tried to do with the communities around my publishing ventures, and I can only doff my cap to the way Splore does it. 

Sure, there were a lot of twentysomethings, but there were also thirty, forty, fifty and sixtysomethings, kids, babies and teenagers. Certain professional communities have a particular stake in its culture -- screen production, for example -- but in a world where we're told what we ought to like and then delivered it, Splore seems to have identified and nurtured an actual community rather than a demographic.

The one big thing I'd change? The awful, disfunctional Flash-based Splore website, which launches a pointless CPU-gobbling kaleidoscope effect at every visit. None of the text on the site can be printed or selected with the cursor (even driving directions!), people can't link to anything but the home page, the design is hopeless and the schedule PDF can't be printed legibly to A4. I could go on.

But I won't. I don't want to sound soppy, but that was an inspirational weekend. I met new people, did new things, and reconnected with old friends. It actually changed the way I feel about some things. So, yes. I might be late to this thing, but it won't be my last.

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