The iconic New Year's festival may be changing, but the glory days are not over yet.
Rhythm and Vines is one of our longest running festivals and a coming of age rite of passage for lots of young people across the country. They drive to the beautiful Waiohika Estate from everywhere, and you very quickly get the feeling many are not here for the music, so much as they’re here for the experience. They arrive in the sweltering heat, drag their suitcases up a metal road, and set up the tents they’ll abandon come January 1.
So what is it about Rhythm and Vines? It’s the festival that has outlived Big Day Out, La De Da, and Parachute - and it’s still evolving.
Those who haven’t experienced the festival since its post-2014 rebrand would find parts of it unrecognisable. The BW Summer Festival is long gone, camping has moved on-site, and BYO alcohol is no longer permitted in the camping areas. Giggle and Vines has local comedians added to the lineup, as well as a shift away from rock and indie artists towards a more hip-hop and EDM focused line-up.
For the festival’s co-founder Hamish Pinkham, the carnage that unravelled in 2014 served as a wake-up call that it was time to refresh the festival.
“It’s like the brushfire analogy, ‘sometimes you’ve gotta burn things to the ground to allow them to regrow.’ It gave us a chance to rescope the concept and get back to our roots. We got a little bit big, and the change was difficult. There were some really tough times, but I feel like we’re back on track now,” he said.
But take away the alcohol and people will find a way around it. In this case, the dry camp sites fed into a massively increased demand for MDMA, some going as far as to openly beg for a hook-up. A Rhythm and Vines veteran tells me that selling on campgrounds has been “through the roof,” adding that dealers were sold out by day two, leaving festival-goers drained and on a come down.
But the festival didn’t start on any level of trip or intoxication. Rolling up on day one, my mind was filled with images of passed out 18-year olds and girls holding each other’s hair back, so naturally I was surprised when I found neither.
When Wellington rapper Name UL opened the Vines Stage at 3pm on the 29th, the front row was filled with shaka-throwing 18-year olds drinking coconut water. When asked why, they said they couldn’t drink alcohol if they were to last the six hours until Chance The Rapper was to hit the stage.
Could this be the new Rhythm and Vines? A bunch of straight-edge kids ready to make anyone over the age of 21 feel like a massive burnout. My naiveté caught the better of me, and when that clock struck 8pm, drunk was the status quo.
But perhaps the greatest hidden gem of the festival is the golden hour between 6:30pm and 7:30pm. It’s a time when the sun starts to set over the vines, the blistering heat begins to ease, and the main stage suddenly fills for the night ahead. It also saw SACHI and GoldLink deliver two of the festival’s finest sets.
The continued domination of local heroes was another theme of the festival, with Savage, P-Money, and the Jordan Luck Band all on the New Year’s Eve bill. We New Zealanders love what we know, but it also means that exciting and fresh international acts such as AC Slater and Cut Snake fly by almost unnoticed.
If music discovery is one of the greatest gifts you can take away from a music festival, why are we so reluctant to embrace it? How many years will people who love that part of the festival they coming back when it’s the same combination of Kiwi headliners and festival favourite Netsky filling the most sought after set times year in, year out?
Rhythm Group have put every mechanism in place to create a safe environment for festival-goers to enjoy themselves, and the horror stories that stem from the mistakes of a minority shouldn’t be blamed on the festival. Security is tight and there’s been an increase in safety precautions. Yes, there are still cans littered everywhere and the odd person passed out on a picnic table, but it seems less a reflection of the people running the show and more a reflection of our country’s wider cultural norms.
A lot of people told me over the weekend that the glory days of Rhythm and Vines are over, but the festival in its current form provides a controlled environment for people to see in the new year with their mates, free from any worry that your tent could be set alight at any moment.
Plus, where else in the world could you see Savage drop The White Stripes in a New Year’s Eve DJ set? Iconic. It really truly is.