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Review: Auckland City Limits

Sunday 20th March 2016

The inaugural Auckland City Limits festival was impressive, but the line-up could've offered so much more.

Just over three years ago, Kendrick Lamar played Auckland’s Powerstation at a pivotal moment in his career. The small but sold out show came barely two months after the release of good kid, m.A.A.d city, his major label debut. Soon after, that same album would catch on in wider circles and  as things happen to go  he is now ultra-famous. Just look at this picture of him on Waiheke Island sipping wine. Life is good for Kendrick.

It has been almost one year to the day since To Pimp A Butterfly was released. Two weeks ago, out of nowhere, he threw his latest project untitled unmastered deep into the well of new music that exists out here on the internet. Everyone’s very stoked about it. Who wouldn’t be? For 35 minutes, it makes us feel like life is good for us, too.

The point is, it’s not too often we get these sorts of rap shows at just the right moment. People will argue that seeing Run-D.M.C. at the Powerstation in 1988, 50 Cent at the Supertop in 2003, or Kanye West at the St James in 2006 were very special and timely performances. That’s because these people are smart, and you should trust them. In the same vein, New Zealand was lucky enough to see Kendrick at the perfect moment three years ago, and yesterday we got to do it all over again.

The inaugural Auckland City Limits (ACL) festival is brought to us by Campbell Smith’s company CRS, which was behind the local leg of the Big Day Out festival until it ran its course. CRS partnered with Live Nation and C3 Presents, and ACL came during a festival season that saw several other festivals (Echo, Soulfest and Westfest) fall through within weeks of each other. It’s the last on the calendar of summer music events. And really, it’s not even summer anymore. Advanced GA tickets were $179.50. Full price tickets, which were sold only on the day of the event, were $199.50. It’s ambitious, to say the least.

But, duh, audience buy-in depends heavily on one thing: the line-up.

“You sell most of your tickets on the top four artists on the bill. The goal or ambition is to try to create an event where that doesn’t matter so much,” Campbell Smith told Duncan Greive in an interview published last week on The Spinoff. So while Laneway 2K16 succeeded by not banking on nostalgia, the organisers of ACL went broad, aiming to attract 45,000-plus people.

The turnout was impressive, but it didn’t quite reach those numbers, perhaps due to the line-up ultimately feeling a little unfocused. Curated by picking up a handful of artists who are heading to Bluesfest and then filling in the gaps, the bill was shaped by a selection of key acts who had a good run in the mid-00s (Cold War Kids, Modest Mouse) and others that we could’ve just done without: Gang of Youths (trashy), Shakey Graves (forgettable).

Smith revealed that Beck was lined up to join, but the deal fell through in the end. At some point in the past month, Sturgill Simpson also disappeared, mysteriously, from the line-up. What’s the deal? Is it harder to lock in bands at this time of the year? Does SxSW clash with the opportunity to book better acts?

Western Springs rules, though. Out near the lake, the Golden Dawn area felt like a getaway from the restlessness of the main stages. But even then the terraces, or the grass banks nearby, meant you could watch from afar without going out of your way to get there. Auckland Kiddie Limits was well-executed too, even if it was mostly populated by well-off Grey Lynn mums and dads.

Over on the smaller V Energy stages, the God Che Fu brought his essential 2002 album Navigator back to life with an inspiring performance, while Kamasi Washington took a mid-afternoon moment to smack everyone in the face with a perfect and festival-friendly set of his radicalist jazz. A little later, Girl Talk took the reigns and rarked it up by inviting dozens of people onto the stage with him. It was great.

Throughout the evening came sets from Action Bronson, The Naked and Famous and The National some good, some not worth talking about. Bronson suffered especially from bad sound, not that it deterred anyone. His inclusion on the line-up wasn’t overlooked by the crowd, who needed more rap than our headliner could offer.

Speaking of, when Kendrick finally did come on stage, it didn’t matter much that he was 25 minutes late. With a full band, songs like ‘Money Trees’, ‘Hood Politics’ and ‘Backseat Freestyle’ morphed into mini rock-operas. At times he got a little jazzy, but didn’t linger on that sound too long. The ground at Western Springs actually shook when ‘m.A.A.d City’ came on. (How does that even happen?) After closing out with ‘I’, he returned with ‘Alright’ as his encore. And, despite his prompts for audience participation wearing a little thin, he owned the evening. Yes, the set was shorter than promised too, but whatever.

Spending much of the day queuing up  to get in, to get a drink, to get to the toilet  will likely be the basis of any criticism around Auckland City Limits. Those issues can be fixed for next time – please tell us there will be a next time?  but more key than that will be improving the line-up. Because when Che Fu is the closest thing on the bill to a New Zealand hip-hop artist, that’s a problem. To be clear: there was a lot to love, but it was tough not to walk away feeling it could’ve offered so much more.


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“What you talking bout Willis? Shaky was unreal. Crowd was going off, and The National built v nicely. Not Hip Hop tho ( thank bejeesus).” — Courtenay Isherwood

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