THE RHYTHM & ALPS BUDDHA. SHE’S A BEAUT. PHOTO SUPPLIED
Scott Kennedy reflects on how Rhythm & Alps went from the Little Festival That Could to the hottest, and rarest, ticket on earth.
IN CASE YOU HADN’T NOTICED, THE GLOBAL LIVE MUSIC SCENE IS A DUMPSTER FIRE. GLASTONBURY – GRAB YOUR HUNTER WELLIES, YOU’RE GONE. COACHELLA – PACK UP THAT CULTURALLY INAPPROPRIATE HEADDRESS AND GET OUT. TOMORROWLAND – FORGET IT – IT’S A RECIPE FOR THE GREAT EDM CLUSTER OF 2020, WORSE THAN THE IBIZA CLAP OUTBREAK IN 1999. THIS WAS THE YEAR SLEEPING IN A $20 TENT, BUYING A $25 SLICE OF PIZZA AND MAKING OUT WITH SOMEONE IN A MUCKY FIELD WENT TO DIE. BUT NOT SO FAST, NOT JUST YET. HERE IN AOTEAROA NEW ZEALAND, WITH OUR SIEGE GATES LOCKED TIGHT, IT’S GAME ON.
Thanks to our steadfast ability to weld ourselves to our couches and shelter from danger, we are still here, COVID is almost not, and we get to go to shows. That summer pilgrimage to a paddock for 100,000 watts of bush doof is back, and leading the charge is Rhythm & Alps.
Rhythm & Alps, or R&A for those not being paid by the word, is back from December 29 through to January 1st for its tenth New Year’s Eve, all set to flush out the toxins of 2020. Nestled in the hills of the Cardrona Valley in the Southern Alps, it’s unique among Kiwi festivals – unique in that it doesn’t take place on a beach, in a vineyard, or at a car park, but in the most iconic of South Island locations: a farmer’s field.
Why a farmer’s field? For one, the sheep don’t usually phone noise control, and for another, there’s nothing like a bit of a road trip to whet the appetite of festival folk. Long on the radar of Southland bogans, Dunedin hipsters, Queenstown hospo workers and Auckland trust funders, this festival is finding an audience that is growing year by year.
“Why a farmer’s field? For one, the sheep don’t usually phone noise control ”
Much like some of those born to parents who used the rhythm method, this festival is a surprise sibling. Rhythm & Vines (R&V) has been a rite of passage for both punters and performers since kicking off in 2003. New Zealand’s First Man of Fishing / top primary caregiver Clarke Gayford was a loyalist and early R&V emcee. The Gisborne mainstay has drawn legions of fans from around Aotearoa for its eclectic mix of indie music, Kiwiana, campground riots, and the opportunity to finally pash your brother’s friend Stacy (who you totally secretly have had a thing for, for like years, ever since that one time they lent you the light off their phone to help you find your keys when you dropped them on the way to the car).
While R&V is long-established enough to be iconic, R&A is that upstart youngster that gets forgotten about. It made its humble start a decade ago. The beginnings were small. It was a simpler time, when you could get an nascent Dunedin outfit like Six60 to play with light still in the sky, and the early lineups were D&B heavy, Kiwi infused and packed with your next-favourite bands.
As time passed and two, three, four and five festivals slipped under their belts, the girth of the R&A lineups grew. Carl Cox, Shapeshifter, Grandmaster Flash, Sticky Fingers, Devilskin, Ladi6, Action Bronson – every year got a bit bigger, and the tribe of returning festival goers got a bit more dedicated.
Then came 2020, the tenth anniversary. It was meant to be the big party. I have no idea who they had on their dream lineup list, but I can only assume it included the still-living members of The Beatles, Beyonce and the Tupac hologram. Instead, the borders closed, travel became so 2019 and we’re stuck with an all-Kiwi lineup. A decade ago, that would have been the kiss of death for a festival, so strong is our cultural cringe in Aotearoa New Zealand. But if this year has brought us anything other than a deep, deep affection for track pants, it’s the realisation that we are in fact, pretty awesome.
We’ve crushed the ‘rona and woken up to the fact that the New Zealand music scene is totally on fire right now. Sure we’ve always had people like the Finns doing their thing and acts like Stan Walker making marks across the Tasman, but it really wasn’t until Lorde took over the planet that we realised our music isn’t just cute, it’s damn good. Six60, those kids from Dunedin who played in the afternoon at the first R&A, sold out Western Springs. The biggest crowd before theirs was Bowie’s. So yeah, Kiwi musicians are owning it.
With international travel out, R&A needed a fallback plan. They looked inwards, and not only did they keep it local, they came up with arguably their best lineup yet. The aforementioned Six60’s return is nothing short of triumphant. They’ve become the house band for Kiwi summer and a national institution. There’s BENEE, who played The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon during lockdown (NBD) and got more American eyeballs than any other Kiwi, except, maybe, for Jacinda Ardern. And Freddy’s Drop – sure, ‘Wandering Eye’ was a wee while ago, but in fairness the song is, like, 19 minutes long, so the end isn’t that old. They’re like your cool uncle made a band and all of your mates want to come to your BBQ, every time.
As for Shihad, it may be dad rock, if your dad drives a muscle car that is, but their last album was the heaviest thing they’ve ever done, and Jon Toogood is the best frontman in Aotearoa. You’ll know every song they play, you’ll jump up and down, your sweat will mix with the sweat of others and you’ll rejoice in this. The Phoenix Foundation (the MacGyver reference in their name dates me for knowing it, but I don’t care) are the Parthenon of Kiwi indie rock, jangle jangle, heart and soul, they will be a cuddle for their old fans and gain new ones by the end.
It’s not just the old guard turning up. Fresher faces like Racing bring crunchy, groovy, sweaty indie rock swagger and Reb Fountain weaves sultry soul that speaks right through you. Then there’s Quix. Maybe you don’t know the name, but you’ve probably shuffled across a dance floor to his tunes, brought to you by 40 million or so Spotify streams.
But it’s more than just the bands that make a festival. It’s the culture that sells those early-bird tickets, entices promoters and gets everyone fired up. R&A have leaned into the mountain landscape; the surrounding peaks embrace the event like an altar to the gods of song. And if that just sounds like I drank the bong water, you should see the lighting rig. Built almost as a dare a few years back, the giant Buddha head DJ booth is on every trippers’ punch card. Carved from foam and large enough so the plate spinner sits in the mouth of the deity, the lighting crew projects everything across his big face from your traditional laughing buddha, to the dude from Breaking Bad, to wheels of kaleidoscope cacophony, and that, man, you just need to feel, man.
In other words, this is a festival that won’t be phoning it in because it’s a tough year. Rhythm & Alps is smashing it, with their strongest lineup ever in what could be, literally, the largest NYE festival on earth.
The temptation to keep the leisure pants on and drift into 2021 is strong. But here’s the thing: our little island home has become a bright spark for the whole damn world. Auntie Jacinda is killing it and Uncle Ashley will probably be knighted by the time you read this. We’re leading.
Never more than now, it’s our time. It’s our time to dance, to move, and to celebrate that we can. Who knows what 2021 will bring. Christ, it might even be worse. This year, of all the years, it might just be our duty to load up the Subie with that tent you think has all the poles, the sleeping bag you should have aired out, the chilly bin that may or may not have a secret compartment. Slip on that original festival shirt you’ll probably see twenty times a day, slide on the chemist jandals you’ll instantly lose, and slap on the op-shop sunnies that may or may not be ironic. It depends what Stacy thinks.
Scott Kennedy is a card-carrying multipotentialite – splitting his time between various creative projects, working as a writer, photographer, installation artist, musician, filmmaker, educator and event planner. scottkennedy.nz