A 12-seat rental van pulling a luggage trailer is northbound to Wellington, but it’s not stuffed with tourists and they’re not towing suitcases. The trailer’s full of fiddles and banjos, mikes and guitars. Taking turns behind the wheel are the members of the Lyttelton Rough House Revival Tour – some of the most talented alt-country/folk/pop/rock musicians in the country, committed to making a living out of playing.
When I started writing this story I’d only heard of The Eastern, who opened for Li’l Band O’ Gold in July. The Lyttelton Rough House Revival Tour has introduced me to three other acts now firmly entrenched in my iPod – Lindon Puffin, Delaney Davidson, and Marlon Williams, who sings for The Unfaithful Ways. The reality, even for a small country like New Zealand, is if they weren’t coming to town, I and most other Wellingtonians still wouldn’t know them.
“It’s a hard industry in New Zealand,” says Lindon Puffin, speaking from Lyttelton, surrounded by spreadsheets and lists, crunching numbers instead of lyrics the day before they hit the road for an 18-city national tour. The big gap between independent college stations and commercial radio amounts to little airplay for these singers, even though all of them are past or current APRA Silver Scroll and Best Country Song Award nominees or winners.
“Everything I listen to is in that void and that’s where a large part of New Zealand is. The industry needs to get off its ass and see that’s where it’s happening,” Puffin says, adding that touring has become the best way to get their music heard, yet there’s little money available from arts foundation for travelling expenses.
“This country puts so much money and effort into music videos, but we don’t have that sort of support for tours,” he says. “We can go to Creative New Zealand, but they don’t really have funding for this. When you’re out playing you make a real connection and have a chance to appeal to more people’s hearts and souls and yet there is so little support for this.”
The Eastern’s singer and songwriter Adam McGrath agrees: “If you don’t play, you don’t eat,” he says. “That means a lot of shows and playing around and it can be wearing.”
It can also be very moving: playing live music was The Eastern’s response to the February earthquake, putting on shows anywhere, from backyards to public parks around Christchurch and Lyttelton, where all these bands are based. “Society is becoming more and more isolated. People are more readily able to sit at home by themselves and interact with the world from a distance. Seeing the power of people getting together and interacting – that translates into our music. We play folk music,” he asserts.
That means being amongst the folk, on stage, in towns small and large. In spite of all the wrangling it takes to put on a tour, Puffin says, “There’s this moment that you really love and that’s standing on stage playing to audiences in little towns. I love going out and hanging in the foyer. We all do. When the show’s over we run around to the front and thank everyone for coming.”
These ten musicians have a long history of playing together, including incestuous appearances on each other’s albums and a previous tour as The Harbour Union, raising funds for charity after the Christchurch earthquake. As fine as they chime when they’re together, this tour they’ll mostly perform separately, giving audiences a chance to sample their distinct sounds. The Eastern is heavy with bluegrass banjo and fiddle, but nods to rock as much as twang, while The Unfaithful Ways has a more country swing. After dabbling with glam rock and a harmonica, Lindon Puffin has turned to pop and he wears it so well it’s hard to stop listening to his latest album, Hope Holiday. Delaney Davidson sings like the travel-worn international troubadour he is and his bluesy roots music and lyrics are dark and dirty, as if he took a long walk with Tom Waits.
“We all do similar things but come at it from different ways,” says McGrath. “It’s really nice being on the same page, but telling slightly different stories. I’m a total fanboy of Lindon, Delaney, and Marlon and I feel blessed to know them as friends, comrades, and peers. Who knows what happens in the future so we’d better take this opportunity.”
So should Wellington: don’t miss this show.