Monday, February 16, 2009
Andy Hazel uncovers a music festival that’s not actually a festival and not even really about the music. Welcome to Camp A Low Hum.
Festival? No. Party? Yes. Camp A Low Hum is based on the idea of a school camp with a brilliant line-up of underground bands and a vibe that embraces spontaneity and fun. No security team, no advertising, no sponsorship, no VIPs or plus-ones, no crowd barriers, no separation of band and punter, no line-up announcement until arrival, impromptu ‘renegade’ shows, a freshwater lagoon, box wars, acres of pristine forest and only 800 tickets.
2009’s camp happened in Camp Wainui, just outside of Wellington, New Zealand in a place accurately described by Guy Blackman as ‘the most beautiful location for a festival ever’. Here loud acts seem louder, quieter acts seem to have sprung from the forest itself and cicada-song accompanies everything.
There are six performance areas – Noisy Stage, Nice Stage, Neat Stage, Renegade Room, Dance Zone and Main Stage - and four camping areas: Quiet, Not So Quiet, Loud and Party.
“Basically I just wanted to throw a party and have some bands play,” Camp organiser Ian ‘Blink’ Jorgensen explains. “I’ve been obsessed with the idea of school camps for ages and I’d been touring bands around New Zealand for seven years. I lost money the first year but ‘what the hell, we had a great party’. The second year it sold out and this is the last year it will be in this form. I don’t know what next year will hold. We could sell more tickets and get bigger bands, but I wouldn’t want to come to a party like that,” says Blink shaking his head.
“It’s way more informal,” agrees Ruby Sun Ryan McPhun. “There’s no bullshit, it’s much more about the vibe. Most bands play twice during Camp, indoors and outdoors. There’s also a much younger crowd than most festivals so there’s way more energy.”
“After cricket let’s go for a dip and catch Bachelorette bro,” says one barefoot punter in a comment that neatly encapsulates the spirit of Camp. Later, a well-built Pacific Islander soberly describes Camp as ‘a semi-magical experience’ while cheers from the nearby crowd mingles with the screams of swimmers entering the icy lagoon.
So, now you get what it’s like, who played?
A Day One highlight is the dazzling collage of Afrobeat, indie-pop and electronica from The Ruby Suns; ‘it’s like ecstasy without the drugs!’ someone yells mid-leap. Kiwi rockers The Sneaks and Bonaparte rile the crowd with some furiously acerbic rock before Pikelet and her band deliver a sparkling show tailor-made for the Camp’s convivial atmosphere, as does the ever-erudite Darren Hanlon.
Love of Diagrams debut much of their hotly anticipated second album to a gradually growing audience who uniformly love it, a similar experience had by rhythmic perfectionists My Disco (excitedly described by Blink as “fully fucking sick brother!”). The Crayon Fields also debut insistently catchy pop songs from their forthcoming album, winning many new fans. Kiwi buzz bands So So Modern and Over the Atlantic both play big stylish sets that seem at odds with the Camp’s ramshackle nature, perfectly embodied by Family Cactus whose thrilling 1AM renegade show outside the mess hall sees them emerge victorious over power cuts, feedback, dodgy gear, extremely unsafe pyrotechnics, and audience invasions. Another discovery is young Christchurch band Mount Pleasant whose thrillingly concise garage rock/Animal Collective-style pop is combined with an exuberance only matched by Melbourne’s Aleks And The Ramps (who sell a lot of merch), and ‘outrageous’ American ego-behemoth Show Is The Rainbow.
All weekend there is talk of who this year’s mystery band will be. The closing night’s ‘Talent Show’ turns out to be the first ever gig for Neil, Liam and Elroy Finn, meaning we get Split Enz and Crowded House classics, Liam’s national hits and a dazzling cover of The Chills’ Pink Frost. Excitingly unsupervised crowd surfing and impassioned sing-a-longs ensue, bringing a raucous beginning to the last night. An Australian take on Camp A Low Hum anyone?
CAMP A LOW HUM
CAMP WAINUI, WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND
“Wow, this is the best gig ever,” intones Bachelorette quietly, part way through a tight and lovely acoustic set. “I’m looking at a wall of trees!” With only 800 tickets sold and the vibe much more like a private party (which it is) than a festival (which it isn’t) Camp A Low Hum, now in its third year, is remarkable for never managing to feel cliquey or exclusive. This may have much to do with the Kiwi ‘choice bro!’ attitude that is the surface of their deep respect for the land and other people meaning that when they throw a party in the bush, there are only good times to be had and everyone’s on board. 6 stages – Noisy Stage, Nice Stage, Dance Zone, Renegade Room, Main Stage and the lagoon-side Neat Stage ensures that there is a breadth of stuff happening that, due to smart programming, rarely overlaps.
With the focus as much on fun as music the gigs are uniformly good with only the slick bands suffering. Tasmania’s Paint Your Golden Face do a great job of bringing the noise to excited punters, as does Kiwi pop bizarre Stefanimal who goes down exceedingly well. Bigger names like My Disco and Love Of Diagrams fit in to the loose and friendly nature of the festival surprisingly well given the usual rigidity of their songs and gigs. Albums by both bands are due mid year and both bands seem to be pushing more song- Pikelet and her astonishingly talented and sensitive band play their humble psyche-folk to a rapturous reception. Thugquota plays possibly the most exciting and unexpected show of the Camp at 1AM in the remote Renegade Room, channelling Shamanic rhythms and clarinet and vocal improvisation in a way that is never less than thrilling. The big names this side of the Tasman are So So Modern and Over The Atlantic who both play big riffs, have miles of style and barely a memorable song between them. Unlike The Ruby Suns, who put in one of their most thrilling gigs ever and incite packs of writhing punters to demand encores. Christchurch bands Mount Pleasant and Bonaparte are definitely worth keeping an eye on, with their exuberance and originality.
The big surprise of the weekend is the Mystery Act who turns out to be Neil and Liam Finn, backed with Barnsey’s daughter EJ and Neil’s ‘other one’ Elroy on drums. Giving us a steady stream of Kiwi classics from I Got You via Four Seasons In One Day to a cover of The Chills’ Pink Frost that no one begrudges him. Liam’s songs seem to go down well but are lost on the Aussies present, unlike Nintendo Kiwii who wrap up Day Two of Camp aka Australia Day. This supergroup with guests gives you Cameron from Baseball bellowing Physical, Pikelet leading punters through Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, Ned Collette ravaging Great Southern Land and everyone singing You’re The Voice in an unrepeatable celebration of Trans-Tasman connections. Amazing.