As you might have read over on our facebook page, yesterday I was the “mole” on the ground at the inaugural edition of Auckland City Limits. This was actually my first experience of a major music festival, Big Day Out had never been my thing. But Kendrick Lamar? Headlining? There was no way I was missing this. I got in quick with an earlybird ticket, which wasn’t even that much cheaper than the regular GA ticket. Didn’t matter to me. Kendrick was the centrepiece, everything else was a bonus. And there were certainly a few bonus highlights from the very first Auckland City Limits. I arrived at about midday, amongst a small stream of attendees. I’d estimate there were less than 5000 people when I got there, it wasn’t until 5pm that the crowd really started to fill up Western Springs Park. But first things first.
After wandering and exploring somewhat aimlessly around the venue, the first act I saw was Canadian-born, New Zealand-based Tami Neilson, and it was a rousing, rollicking beginning to my experience at the festival. Her band was smooth, particularly the trumpet and saxophone sections which wandered in and out during her set as needed – “It’s so difficult being surrounded by so many gorgeous men”, she quipped a few times during the show. “Walk (Back to Your Arms)” and “Texas” sounded superb live, but I loved the closing rendition of “Hound Dog”, or as Neilson put it “this one’s by Big Mama Thornton, but it was also sung by this obscure guy called Elvis”. Plenty of soul and countrified pedal steel guitar goodness.
I heard snippets of Kinetic while looking for something to eat, and what stuck out to me was their participation and banter with quite a smallish crowd, “Okay now touch somebody’s bum”, “Smoke weed every day, hey I smell weed guys! Oh no it’s on stage, sorry everyone” and closing their set with 2Pac’s “California Love” was an unexpected but pleasant bass-heavy jam to hear rolling through Western Springs Park. Most likely it was as a tribute to the West Coast-based headliner.
I have to admit to partially forgetting much of Che Fu’s musical output since The Navigator came out, so getting to rediscover that album again live was a massive nostalgia trip. His skills as a rapper, smooth singer and DJ – yes, he was scratching and mixing like mad – have not waned in the slightest. It was essentially the matinee performance to the main hip hop spectacle later in the night, but Che Fu rocked the house, pity that he wasn’t scheduled at a later time when he could’ve done so with a bigger crowd.
Arguably the finest performance, and undoubtedly my personal favourite was by the jazz saxophonist maestro himself, Kamasi Washington. Joined by Miles Mosley on acoustic bass, who extracted some of the funkiest plucked notes I’ve ever heard from a stand-up instrument. Kamasi was also accompanied by his father Rickey Washington on soprano saxophone, and soulstress Patrice Quinn who sang spectacularly on “The Rhythm Changes”, which might’ve been my top moment of the festival. Unfortunately Quinn’s mic was set too low for the first half of the performance, meaning she was drowned out by the additional instrumentation, only noticed by Rickey Washington who managed to alert the sound crew. I was a little confused by that, surely it would’ve been noticed during the sound check. Otherwise it was a flawless spectacle by Kamasi and his band which just completely floored me. I’ve never heard live jazz quite as powerful or passionate in my life, it genuinely shook me. In a good way.
At the end of the night I asked someone what they made of Action Bronson – “he swears a lot, doesn’t he?” Yes he certainly does. After chants of “Bronson, Bronson!” from a crowd that had swelled following Broods’ synthpop and electronic anthems at the adjacent Spark stage, the man with the beard & the belly swaggered on as casually as ever, opening with the piano-rocker “Brand New Car” from Mr. Wonderful. Bronson was solid – he didn’t disappoint, but I wasn’t blown away either. His stage antics were arguably more memorable, lighting a joint and throwing it into the crowd, (security dealt to it, much to Bronson’s chagrin) tossing his hat into the mob of people and saturating himself with water multiple times – the guy must be burning some serious calories on stage.
Getting towards the business end of proceedings, I prepared myself to endure the indie rock trifecta of The Phoenix Foundation, Cold War Kids and The National. In hindsight I probably made it worse for myself by going to see those particular three in a row (I kind of regret not seeing Girl Talk, by all accounts it was a festive occasion involving confetti and people being invited on stage to dance) but it felt like an incredibly long wait to see the man that I came to see in the first place. I’ve got nothing bad to say about those bands, but they just weren’t my cup of tea. It was definitely better being amongst the crowds for all three, the attendees were incredibly energetic and psyched, which made it all somewhat more bearable.
Then it was finally time. The man, the king, Compton’s own, Kendrick Lamar. I deliberately evacuated the final 15 minutes of The National’s set to try and reach a decent vantage point at the adjacent Spark stage – think it made a difference? Hell no. It was sardines no matter how hard you tried, manoeuvring was just about impossible. I had to make do with a completely blocked view of the stage/screen. Suddenly it was 9.30. The National had bowed out. 9.35. Crowd still buzzing in expectation. 9.45. Where was Kendrick? His band was already on stage. All sorts of chants broke out, “We gon’ be alright!”, “Pimp pimp! Hooray!” to no avail. 9.50, people were starting to get restless. But not long after 9.55, his four-piece band spontaneously came to life, and Kendrick entered the stage. “For Free?” opened proceedings, followed by “Wesley’s Theory”, an inversion of the sequence on To Pimp a Butterfly. Everything about Kendrick’s act was brilliant – the funkified jams of “These Walls” and “Complexion” made us all swerve and groove, the crowd-pleasers “Backseat Freestyle”, “m.A.A.d city” and “King Kunta” had everyone yelling, waving their arms around and snapping fingers, unified in a journey through these explosive renditions of tracks from good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp a Butterfly. It was a shame that technical difficulties had cut short his act by 25 minutes – he had planned to invite a crowd member on stage to freestyle, and given how many times he made reference to the “day one fans” I expected to hear something from Section.80, likewise there were no “untitled” songs either. “i” was Kendrick’s closing statement – or was it? Something was missing, and we knew what it was. Within seconds, that iconic chant which has been adopted by protest movements spread across the ground – “we gon’ be alright” and sure enough that was the encore. And it BANGED like nothing I’ve heard, the ground was literally shaking as Kendrick treated us to the hook over and over, and then with one final burst it was done. But the vibrations and energy from the performance continued to linger on, even as I write this 24 hours later. It couldn’t have been a better finale, courtesy of one of the best live acts going around.
So in closing – the bar has certainly been set for next year’s edition. Hip hop and indie rock fans certainly got their fill this year, so where the next edition goes will be interesting to see. 25,000 is the reported attendance figure, which is respectable. I came for the music and the festive atmosphere, and that’s what I got – so there’s no major complaints from me. Kamasi Washington and Kendrick Lamar were the standouts from my perspective. If 2017’s version can fill the lineup with musicians of their calibre, it should be in good stead for a while.