It’s been a year of New Zealand failures best summed up as the “Festival Killer”. Festival One must’ve been nervous seeing other festivals collapsing as that’s a sure fire way to scare audiences off buying tickets to this festival, that’s only in its 2nd year, and is replacing a previously failed festival.
Let’s face it – Festival One shouldn’t work.
Run by volunteer do-gooders and located at Mystery Creek’s mega-venue, it’s too far for Auckland’s commuter cars and distanced from New Zealand’s south-of-the-Bombay population, competing for Auckland’s holiday weekend, with a lineup empty of previous Parachute headliners, fixated on folk and worship. Not all signs pointed towards trouble, but success is far from guaranteed as early festivals are about learning from mistakes taking years to get streamlined – if they can survive the commercial implications of learning the ropes.
However, the Festival One folks nailed just about everything in only their second year and it ran smoother than any second year festival should.
Sure, it wasn’t faultless. Stages sometimes ran late (I know how artists can be), sound problems were here and there, accompanied by a weather bomb, but I came away thoroughly impressed by Festival One.
Before I’d seen a single act security gave me a cheery welcome, I ambled along with fellow musicians and fans alike, and soaked up the Market.
Young Lyre performed in the thick of it on the Market Stage where pumping crowds enjoyed outdoor seating amongst eclectic stores and food in the centre of the 4 stages.
Young Lyre sounded great and the up-close-and-personal Market Stage is a special home to any band bringing their best, which Young Lyre certainly did for a pop funk loving crowd taking in the afternoon sun.
Following Young Lyre’s set a free Argentinian BBQ firing caused a circling crowd of sharks. I left the hungry teenage boy queues to take in Black Boy Peaches.
Triangulated in an open space between the Market, the caravans, and tent city, the Music Box outdoor stage can handle crowds ranging in size without problems. It was my favourite as the crew mixed the best sound I heard all weekend. It hosted Black Boy Peaches, one of my Festival picks, plus two subtle standouts – Derek Lind and Julia Grace – the Music Box held audiences and artists close together with space to breathe.
I’m a seasoned performer myself, so I know that for Black Boy Peaches to make alternative rock powered by just drums, an electric guitar and a solo vocal … that rocks … is a pretty difficult thing to pull off! Black Boy Peaches never fail to bring their “all game” sound that’s bigger and grungier than just two musicians ever should.
I stumbled into the cool darkness of the One Arena major stage for [shift], the third act that drew me to Festival One. Funnily enough none of “my” bands fitted the pervasive genre and were generally relegated to smaller stages except for [shift]. I do wonder if the lack of rock acts influenced the festival size. I’m an alternative rock artist so I almost abandoned attending, but supporting Festival One is more important than musical preferences, or whether I play.
[shift] hammering out rocking guitar tunes with energy and enthusiasm flanked by a One Arena multimedia extravaganza was great. Taking on a feel more akin to Parachute Festival’s major stage the video cameras buzzed about while lighting and sound crews mixed potions inside blinking high-tech havens. Disappointingly [shift] were let down by a mix that lacked clarity and punch that were clearly evident at stages like the Market or the Music Box. This didn’t hold the crowd back though, or [shift], who branched in different directions exploring new tuneful tapestries. Their core rock tracks always make their audience smile though so it was great seeing the crowd clapping along to the [shift] they know and love.
Mystery Creek is a fantastic venue and has room to grow. The complex is a bland functional facility but Festival One transformed it into an eclectic homey village, wisely locating the 3 stages around a Market stage hub with wide-open spaces around for some much appreciated breathing room.
They were even prepared for the thunder, lightning and rain! On Sunday, threatening clouds danced around and then came down while Festival One sprung into action. Gladly no major problems ensued as stages were covered and only the Market Stage seemed minimally interrupted. Plenty of other action on the other stages and cover from the weather is a benefit of having a festival at Mystery Creek.
Mystery Creek is expansive and oversized for current attendance levels, but it never took long to get from one set to another as the stages were close enough to easily split sets but separated to minimize sound bleed. The food trucks created a Market hubbub and despite inevitable feeding time queues you could get your mind off hunger pains listening to the bands on the close by Market Stage. A spray tunnel was a welcome respite when temperatures soared and simple yet thoughtful ideas like this helps Festival One feel like a community and less like a corporate. Getting in and out of the festival was also decidedly less painful compared to Parachute Festival and goes with the feeling Festival One has of arriving at a friends farm for a bonfire get together. Everything was so well organised, and I couldn’t believe I was off site within 15 minutes.
Festival One’s crowd was a subset of previous Parachute audiences – equal parts high school teenagers, mid-20’s hipsters and parental chaperones for the young ones – but the artist lineup seemed fitting for most of this demographic.
There were a few surprise acts waiting for me, like Raylee Bradfield’s unassuming set secreted away in The Cathedral stage. What seemed to be an echo of Christchurch’s Cathedral welcomed audiences into a virtuous ivory steepled stage. Raylee drew her audience in and took them on a back-of-the-buggy ride with her sweet country songs with soaring vocals longing to break free and dance in the rafter of the Cathedral stage. Stories disguised as songs hog-tied me and kept people perched on the edge of their seats showing signs of real songwriting craft and candour.
Another surprise was Julia Grace perched on a stool and beaming a cheeky grin for a set of comedy and heartfelt honesty. She should have seemed out of place at the wide open Music Box stage but it felt like you were sitting in her lounge, laughing like old friends at our shared human frailty and talking tough about the need to hold on during the difficult days we face. Julia’s powerful one-of-a-kind vocals out-stripped her skills on guitar or keyboard, but more importantly Julia has mastered how to strengthen your weak knees and touch your heart – sometimes with music included.
These two country-ish girls play a genre I dislike but I was captured by them, and so too by Derek Lind. I hardly noticed Derek’s country descent as frankly, he bared his heart and told true tales of his life, with songs that made his 40min set whisper by. His band stood beside him with raw riffs laid down to a backdrop of bass and beats that matched Derek’s heartbeats – heartbeats you felt. Where have all the songwriters gone?
I flitted … I flew … from stage to stage and surprisingly, like a number of others didn’t stay long for top billing Bethel Music or many of the “worship bands”. I personally would love to see the lineup expand beyond the heavily programmed folk or worship genres but I understand the reasoning behind this. It’s great music played by skilled musicians but I’m looking beyond someone who plays their instrument well, or grooves with other musicians – I’m looking for an authentic 1:1 connection from that person on stage to me, and the person beside me, in an audience of 1 or 1,000. I found these true artists at Festival One but they had been relegated further down the billing due to the artists lacking the marketing muscle from record companies and mega-church music labels.
I have no knowledge of sales numbers but as a performer I’m a great estimator of large crowds, and I will say that while some sets had large sprawling crowds the event never seemed it was operating at capacity. That made for an enjoyable experience as it was never too crowded to get near the front of stage, and walking from place to place was a breeze.
But for the organisers it must sting. They had a genre-specific lineup appealing to their target demographic, but I figure the challenges of running a second year festival without a large disposable marketing budget didn’t pull the crowd they might have hoped for. Still, it was sizeable enough that it seemed a success and Festival One created a community feel that set the festival abuzz.
On a personal note it’s surreal seeing this festival replacing Parachute Music festival as I performed at an early Parachute before it ballooned and Festival One has the same connected organic feeling we had back then, along with their courage to not let this Kiwi Christian institution crash and burn.
Here’s hoping they hit whatever their target number was and return stronger next year, because if this 2nd year was any indication, they can carry on the tradition of great Christian Kiwi music festivals for years to come. I’ve already bankrolled them and pre-bought my 2017 Festival One tickets to show my support – have you? Leave a comment about your Festival One experience or tell me why you are or aren’t going in 2017 below.